WASHINGTON – With three coaches in the past two seasons, the Washington Capitals’ only measure of consistency has been change.
First came what right-winger Troy Brouwer called the “lackadaisical” tenure of Bruce Boudreau, followed by the strict reign of Dale Hunter.
But amid the adjustments that came with yet another coach and system this season, the Capitals were quick to embrace Adam Oates’ philosophy.
“It’s the premise of allowing players to do what they’re here to do,” Brouwer said. “It gives the offensive players the chance to be offensive. It gives the defensive players a chance to display their defensive abilities. Everyone’s got a defined role on the team now, and that’s why we’re playing good hockey.”
Oates borrowed the structure of this system from New Jersey, where he spent the past two seasons as an assistant. It’s still a work in progress, but based on the Devils’ trip to the Stanley Cup final and their own success in some stretches, the Capitals believe in this style of hockey and that they’re on track to playing it correctly.
“It’s a system that obviously worked for teams that went to the Stanley Cup with not as much skill,” centre Mike Ribeiro said. “It’s a thing of buying into it and doing it often and doing it for a full 60 minutes.”
The 8-11-1 Capitals have struggled at times to execute Oates’ system for a full 60 minutes. It’s predicated on aggressive forechecking and the principle that offence comes from playing responsible defence and capitalizing on neutral zone turnovers.
Without a training camp or exhibition games, the Capitals experienced growing pains as the losses piled up. A 2-8-1 start prompted leaders to call a players-only meeting and general manager George McPhee to cite a barrage of penalties.
“You’re going to question certain things no matter who you are,” Devils left-winger Patrik Elias said. “Not everybody goes into it right away. But more and more guys will eventually, and once you do you’re going to have success.”
Even when success was rare this season, Capitals players bought in. But it wasn’t easy to feel like Oates’ system was second nature.
“If it was easy we would’ve had a much different start,” defenceman Karl Alzner said. “It’s been difficult, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes. Especially toward the beginning of the season, it was one or two mistakes that we did make [that] were reasons why we didn’t win games.”
All along Oates maintained faith in the process, telling his players after an early overtime defeat: “I’ll take 10 losses in a row if you play like that because it will turn one time and then we won’t lose.”
As captain Alex Ovechkin struggled to pick up his responsibilities at right wing and defensive zone blunders led to goals against, it would have been easy to fall into old patterns.
While some players weren’t happy playing Hunter’s ultra-defensive style, the Capitals learned what it took to win together and came one victory away from the Eastern Conference final last season.
“Everybody took responsibility,” centre and alternate captain Nicklas Backstrom said. “That’s something you’ve got to do over and over again.”
Accountability was the buzz word of Boudreau’s final two months in Washington, and it has returned, though without the eye rolls of a player-friendly coach trying to crack the whip. Oates built almost-immediate trust with Ovechkin, and the rest of team seemed to find instant respect for the Hall of Famer.
“He wants things done right,” assistant Tim Hunter said. “He doesn’t like lack of effort or stupidity. You do it right, you put the right time in, you try to do it right and you’ll go a long way with Adam.”
That’s what the Capitals are hoping for as they try to climb into playoff contention and why they’re optimistic after a recent 6-3 stretch. While citing progress, Oates estimated his team is about 70 per cent toward full execution of the system.
“It’s just not clockwork yet,” said the Toronto native. “Guys are still making decisions from habits from before, from whatever team they were on or whatever system it was. It’s still not automatic all the time.”
The final 30 per cent, Oates said, is about minimizing the mistakes. With 28 games left, that’s exactly what the Capitals are setting out to do, while making the system less about thought and more about instinct.
“I don’t think the guys are thinking about the system anymore,” Ribeiro said. “Now it’s a matter of being consistent and doing it.”
—Stephen Whyno covers the Capitals for the Washington Times.