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A Failure to Change for Oates

It is seen as pretty much a foregone conclusion that in two weeks' time the Washington Capitals and Adam Oates will part ways.  The hall of famer looks to be leading the team to their first playoff miss since 2007, and looking rather listless in the process.  While I was a one-time supporter of Oates, I simply can't argue against his firing.  The question that is left, then, is where did things go wrong.  What was it that Oates failed to do?

On a very basic level, what hurt Oates so much was his inability to change when needed.  The style that you saw the Caps play in game 1 this season did not differ all that much from what we all saw tonight in the loss to New Jersey.  Sure, it worked better some nights than others, but it wasn't as if they played differently; just that the style happened to work that night.  This style had very clear, and very impactful shortcomings and were felt in every zone of the ice.  Here's a brief recap of these issues.

The inability to take control of the slot.  Whether in the offensive or defensive zone, we saw the Capitals become complacent with controlling the boards, while letting the opposition have the slot.  The results?  Failure to produce consistent scoring chances while overly relying on their goaltender to bail them out.  The latter became that much harder when you consider the second point

The inability to deal with screens.  This is a extension of the first point, but given the implications, it needs to be mentioned on its own.  Adam Oates' strategy for screeners was to basically pretend they weren't there.  The logic behind this is that by engaging the screener, you double the effect.  But that logic is flawed.  The actual result,as we saw time and time again, was that the perimeter shots (that GMGM claimed made up the majority of opponent shots) became high quality since the goaltender never was able to see them.

The inability to understand the neutral zone.  I can't recall a single time this season when the Capitals were able to effectively navigate the neutral zone for successive periods (let alone games)

The lines.  This has been the rally cry of Caps fans everywhere, especially over the past few weeks.  We finally see Oates make big changes in the line-up, but it's only to put Alexander Ovechkin with Jay Beagle.  Even after seeing Ovechkin's even-strength scoring drought continue, Oates left him with Beagle.  All of this happening as the Capitals are fighting for their playoff hopes.  

This is nothing new in the world of failed hockey coaches.  They believe so much that their system is the correct one - that it's the only system they can coach - that they go down with it.  With a resume like Oates', I can't mark this up to general incompetence.  There's no way he saw this team fail over and over and see success.  You don't have the kind of career Oates had as player without knowing this game.  And maybe therein lies part of the problem.  When a player has the consistent success that Oates exhibited throughout his career, you have to wonder how they handle failure.  As a coach they believe in their system just like they believed in their skill as a player.  

When that system falters, it has to be on the players.  And yet, trades were made; lines shuffled; minor leaguers recalled.  And through all of it, no consistent success was to be found.  Every time they seemed to turn the corner, they fell back flat.  At some point players stop buying in, and the snowballing continues.  And we saw earlier this week what happens when that snowball hits critical mass: a star player gets thrown under the bus.  

Really, all of this is discussing the furniture on the Titanic.  Whatever the reason, Adam Oates is in his final days as a head coach in this league.  The real question is who else becomes collateral damage in the fallout.  Stay tuned over the next few weeks as we discuss some of the finer points of this shipwreck.

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  Tags: adam+oates, washington+capitals


Down River Dan's avatar

It’s too bad Oates will lose his gig. Even though it will ultimately cost him his job, I applauded him for calling out ovechkin.

Another season .. Another coach….eventually one wonders when Leonsis will figure out where the problem really lies????



Posted by Down River Dan on 04/05/14 at 12:28 AM ET

Thag's avatar

The problem really lies in the lack of a good coach.

Posted by Thag from DC on 04/05/14 at 05:23 AM ET


On the first two points, regardless of what the coach tells the players to do, the Capitals simply don’t have the personnel to do what you’re asking them to. Alzner might be able to battle in front of the net, but that’s it. Orlov and Carlsson aren’t that type of player, Green has no feel for the position from the blue line in and Erskine’s just a plug.

I also hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Oates is probably the single person most-responsible for Alex Ovechkin going from a 30 goal, 60 point player back to a 50 goal, 85 point player. He’s got the players on OV’s line forcing the puck to him at every opportunity, even if they’ve got a clean look at the net, themselves. This causes OV to get a lot of shots. A lot of shots by OV lead to a lot of goals by OV b/c his shot is ridiculous.

Of course, this same strategy is also the main reason his plus/minus is so awful, because it causes a lot of odd man rushes the opposite way (man, I’d kill for a whiteboard in this comment section). OV’s lazy on the backcheck, but that alone isn’t enough to make you the worst plus/minus player in the sport, particularly when you’re with Backstrom for most of the year, who is a perfectly competent two-way player for a star.

Not a huge believer in Oates, but beware that If the Caps run this guy out of town, the knives are going to really, really come out for OV when he goes into a prolonged slump next season, which, without Oates, I can almost guarantee he will.

Posted by larry on 04/05/14 at 05:39 PM ET

Matthew Tate's avatar

I’m currently working on a look back at Ovi since Oates took over, as it is the thing for which Oates is most applauded.  Moving Ovi to the right wing seems like a move that actually lessens the frequency with which players force the puck his way.  When he is on the LW (as a RH shot), the puck has to move towards him for the one-timer.  On the RW, it should open it up the field a little more.  Though I do wonder if the fact that Adam Oates was a playmaker has influenced the pass-first mentality that this team has had all year.

If anything, it was Oates’ decision to move Ovechkin to the half boards on the PP that plays a large part of Ovechkin’s numbers That shouldn’t be a shocker as it was the same spot Ovechkin frequently held in the early Boudreau years. 

As for +/-, I put as much blame (actually a bit more) on the inability of his linemates to score.  Going in to tonight’s game, Ovechkin is shooting at 13.1%.  But the team overall is shooting at 6.73%.  That makes even more sense when you realize that none of this main linemates for the season (Erat, Backstrom, Beagle, Johansson) have scored 20 goals.

Posted by Matthew Tate on 04/05/14 at 06:21 PM ET


OV’s linemates can’t score at even strength because they’re not looking for the best way to get the puck into position for a good shot—they’re looking for the best way to get the puck to Ovechkin for a shot, whether he’s in scoring position or not.

Backstrom’s shot production at even strength is down about 10% under Oates and the ones he does take are from worse locations. MJ’s shots per minute are down a whopping 35% since Oates came to town.

By contrast, OV’s taking 20% more per minute than he was under Hunter.

Putting OV on the half-wall and designing a powerplay around his shot certainly helps his totals, but at even strength, the Capitals are forcing him the puck then having him shoot, which is a strategic choice Washington didn’t used to make. This strategy is driving his goal totals up and plus minus and assist totals down. Every time a player takes a hard shot from a bad location and it’s either blocked or misses the net, that’s an odd-man rush for the other team.

The reason there are so many videos of OV dogging it back on odd-man rushes is because the strategy of his line—maximize OV’s shots on net at the expense of sound hockey—produces so, so many odd-mans the other direction. But it also produces a ton of goals for him, personally.

Like I said, I’d kill for a whiteboard so I could diagram what they’re doing and all the pros and cons.

Posted by larry on 04/06/14 at 06:21 PM ET

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Welcome to the home of the F Street Faithful, run by Matthew Tate.  This is a go-to blog for all things related to the Washington Capitals.  The F Street Faithful is 5% news and 95% breaking down the news.

In the past I have written for several other sports blogs as well as the college newspaper while at  York College of Pennsylvania.  I am a graduate of York College of Pennsylvania but am based out of Southern Maryland. 

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