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And So It Begins

There were many attributes that made Adam Oates an attractive hire as the Capitals’ next head coach last summer. During a 19-year Hall of Fame career as a player, Oates was known as a cerebral player who made his linemates better. He was a top-notch offensive player throughout his career, but he also became a noted defensive specialist, penalty-killer and face-off man during his latter years. Oates’ broad based knowledge of the game and experience in it as well as his thinking man’s approach enabled him to stand out among other candidates.

Oates was one of the league’s top playmaking centers for nearly two decades, and he steps behind the Washington bench at a time in which the Capitals have what is arguably their best and deepest crop of centers in recent years.

“Obviously he was a great player and he brings a lot of experience to this team,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “His system and everything looks good and he knows small details that anyone else wouldn’t see. That’s what I can tell you so far, that’s what I recognize.”

One of Oates’ trademarks as a player was his relatively straight stick curve and his shortened blade. He went to that pattern in the middle of his career to compensate for a hand injury, but found that enjoyed the added control it gave him and he kept it for the remainder of his career. As a player he would passionately endorse straighter blades to his teammates, and he has continued to do so as a coach.

“For a young kid, I would tell a dad to give him a straight stick so he learns how to use his backhand,” says Oates, nodding to another of his passion projects, improving players’ backhand abilities. “My biggest frustration watching the kids today and the players today at all levels is they have no backhand and no backhand awareness. And that affects their skills set. It affects shooting and passing and how you skate and where you go to in order to get the puck. If you don’t have a backhand and you don’t use it, you’re going to favor your forehand. You’re going to favor one side. That means you’re going to be bad on one side, if you don’t know how to use it. It’s the same in every sport.”

Mike Ribeiro, the veteran center acquired from Dallas on draft day last summer, concurs.

“He’s totally right,” says Ribeiro of Oates’ opinion on backhand ability. “If you come up the ice in the neutral zone and you cannot go on your backhand wide, or if you cannot do it and you have to open up and show the defense that you’re going there it gives them the leverage to step up and take that pass away just by showing them that you’re going there. But if you come up and you just dish it backhand, then the [defense] doesn’t know which way it’s [going to go] so it has to stay in the middle and it gives more time to your wingers with the puck once they get it.”

Ribeiro is a guy who generally favors a lesser curve on his stick. He believes the pattern he has been using since he was in junior hockey would pass muster with Oates.

Like Oates, Ribeiro prefers to skate the middle of a line with one right-handed and one left-handed shot on his flanks.

“As a center you have to be able to pass on both sides of your stick in movement and non-movement,” says Ribeiro. “My thing is I like to have a lefty and a righty [on my line]. It gives you different open ice, different options. If you have two lefties a lot of times offensively you don’t have the space you want for him to shoot and you don’t have one-timers on both sides. I like to have a righty and a lefty; it gives me more options on the ice and more open space to make plays.”

If there is a Caps center likely to adjust his stick pattern based on Oates’ input, it might be Jay Beagle.

“When he first got the job,” says Beagle of Oates, “I got a phone call within two weeks talking about specifics on different situations during games. One thing was talking about with a curve change, how it might help you in different situations. Obviously to have a coach be that invested in you and just care that much is great. I take in everything he says, listen to him closely and make sure I’m working on things.

“It’s little specifics, things you almost don’t even think about, that he breaks down and he finds in your game that you can improve on. Those are the things that are going to make you a better player. I welcome anything that he has to try and make me a better player. It’s been great so far. I like it.”

Players are creatures of habit. They get accustomed to certain types of equipment and are loath to change, and that’s why you’ll sometimes see players using the same shoulder pads or stick patterns for a decade or so.

“That’s one thing that we talk about,” admits Beagle. “It’s obviously hard to change something when you’ve used the same pattern for 10 years. But summer is the perfect time to do that. [Oates] called me almost right away and then I got some sticks in the mail within about two weeks of that time to start trying them.”

Beagle started using the new sticks – he says they’re not so different from his old pattern – over the summer, and he has found the change to be beneficial.

“It’s not that much of a change,” he says. “It might be a little tweak on your curve or your lie. It helps a lot. Just watching the video, you can see in certain situations where a different lie or a different curve would help you handle the puck or make things easier for you along the boards. I’ll take it all in and give it a try.”

While the pattern change might not be significant for Beagle, mileage varies. It can be more pronounced for a player like Backstrom.

Has Oates had the stick pattern conversation with Backstrom?

“Yeah, well,” says Backstrom. “He talked to me about it and I think he’s been talking to everyone about it, but you’ve got to ask him what he said.”

I acknowledge to Backstrom that it’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, or something like that.

“Yeah, it is,” smiles Backstrom. “We’ll see if I have to change mine or not. We’ll see the first couple of games.”

For his part, Beagle admits that the change might be more difficult for a Backstrom than for himself.

“I’m beating the puck up anyway,” laughs Beagle. “I could use a wooden stick.”