WASHINGTON – Newly hired Capitals head coach Adam Oates liked what he saw scouting Washington last year while working as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils.
While scouting Washington in case the teams met in playoffs, Oates said he saw a team—coached by defensive-minded Dale Hunter, who replaced fired and up-tempo-inclined Bruce Boudreau earlier in the season—committed to the finer details of hockey.
“I don’t see any reason to change that,” Oates said Wednesday when he was introduced as the Capitals coach. “.I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it.”
Capitals general manager George McPhee said he saw those traits—defending well, winning faceoffs and killing penalties—in Oates the player.
“That part of the game is learned, and he learned it well,” McPhee said.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis fondly recalled Oates, who played for the Capitals from 1996-2002, teaching the new owner about hockey.
Years later, when Oates returned to Washington as a Tampa Bay Lightning assistant, Leonsis, McPhee and Oates spoke for a while before Oates departed.
“I remember saying to George, ‘He’s a really smart guy, isn’t he?'” Leonsis said. “And he said, ‘He’s the smartest player I’ve been around.'”
McPhee said Oates could become one of the smartest coaches around, too.
“You want intelligent guys running the bench,” McPhee said. “A guy like Bill Belicheck in New England, he’s a bright guy, and you try to get the smartest guy in the room. And I just think, with Adam’s understanding of this game, his ability to articulate it, he can be that guy.”
McPhee compared hiring Oates to drafting a player.
“Our philosophy has been to go in there and to try to find the difference makers, try to the find the players with the most upside and really swing for the fences,” McPhee said. “And that’s what we tried to do here. And we believe Adam Oates has the most upside and can be a real difference maker.”
Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, a product of McPhee’s drafting, called Oates on Tuesday.
“It meant a lot,” Oates said. “He was very excited on the phone, and I was very excited.
“My favourite quality about the man is he obviously is very enthusiastic when he scores, but when you watch other guys score, he is just as enthusiastic.”
Ovechkin’s popularity and Washington’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season has increased the attention the Capitals’ receive. Oates recalled the team naming him captain at a news conference near the White House.
“There was no one there,” Oates said. “People walking by, throwing me a nickel.”
Oates’ luck has changed quite a bit. Not only did the Capitals hire him Tuesday, the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted him the same day.
Oates joked: “I wanted to go play golf and get a hole-in-one, too.”