Back in December, when the only thing certain about the 2012-13 NHL season was that it would be a short one, Adam Oates had a sinking feeling his first season as an NHL head coach would start like this, with two wins in his first nine games.
He knew it might take weeks before players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green would fully grasp and embrace the forechecking schemes that he believes will accentuate their talents.
He also knew three important steps would need to take place before the Capitals began playing sound hockey.
It’s fair to say that more than two weeks into the season the Capitals are deep into step three.
“First of all, you gotta respect them,” Oates explained on Monday. “You have to respect who it is and I do.
“[Then] you gotta get his trust, which is second. And when he trusts you, you can try to provide information.
“It’s not about changing anybody. It’s adding to their game. You want to give them information that can make them better. But until they trust you, there’s going to be a wall there, and I understand that.”
With each passing game that wall is slowly coming down.
Through nine games the Capitals are 2-6-1 and dead last in the Eastern Conference with five points. They have allowed 33 goals, tied with the Buffalo Sabres for most in the East.
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green have combined for five goals.
But if you believe Oates and his players, they are making steady progress, even if it is not reflected in their record.
“I do agree with that,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “…Our record doesn’t reflect how well we’re playing.”
The Capitals hired Oates on the same day he was selected to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Some wondered whether Oates’ success as a player might make it difficult for him to relate to his players, most of whom do not possess the same offensive skills he had as a player.
Wayne Gretzky faced similar questions when he was hired to coach the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005. In four seasons behind the bench his teams went a combined 143-161-24 and failed to make the playoffs every year.
Oates says that despite piling up 1,420 points in 20 years in the NHL he faced more obstacles than most Hall of Fame hockey players and that should help him as a head coach.
“As a player I wore every hat,” Oates said. “I got sat out. I got benched. I got traded. I had success, I had failure.
“A lot of superstars don’t. They’re good from the day they come into the league. They don’t know what it’s like to play on the fourth line. They don’t know what it’s like to sit for half a game and not play, and be a healthy scratch, and in and out. To not be drafted, twice.”
Oates has done all of that, which he believes makes him able to understand Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb just as well as Ovechkin and Backstrom.
“We trust him,” Beagle said. “He knows the game inside and out and we believe that if we listen to him, we’ll win hockey games.”
As a player Oates said he always wanted his coaches to share with him as much knowledge as they could.
“I wanted more information, I wanted more ammo,” he said.
And so he shares everything he can with his players -- from the importance of the curves on their sticks to how Ovechkin can be more dangerous from the right side of the ice than the left.
“The game didn’t really come natural to me,” Oates said. “I was a more analytical person. Some guys, the game came so easy and they were fantastic and maybe they weren’t able to explain why they did what they did. The game did not come easy for me.”
Oates said he viewed Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Penguins as a step forward, not a step back, and that if his players continue playing the way they did against Pittsburgh their record will improve. He says that if you eliminate special teams, where the Penguins outscored the Caps 2-1, his team generated twice as many scoring chances at even strength. And the Caps forced the Pens to ice the puck 14 times.
Perhaps that’s why Oates didn’t make many adjustments to his forward lines and defense pairings on Monday, moving Jason Chimera up with Backstrom and Brouwer and dropping Marcus Johansson onto a third line with Joey Crabb and Joel Ward.
“I wouldn’t sacrifice the way the team is playing for a couple wins, I wouldn’t,” Oates said. “Because I’m thinking big picture. We’re going in the right direction as a team.”
The Caps’ next chance to prove that will be Tuesday night at home against the Maple Leafs, a team that beat them 3-2 in Toronto on Thursday night. They follow that game with a visit to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Thursday and a home game against the Florida Panthers on Saturday.