When Adam Oates was hired to coach the Washington Capitals last June, he talked about the type of system he wanted to install here in the District.
“I think in today’s game, territory is the game now,” he said then. “It’s all about territory. We call it ‘going north,’ towards the other end. It allows guys the best opportunity to do that the most times in the game. That’s why I like it.”
As an assistant to head coach Pete DeBoer, Oates helped coach the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup final last spring playing that style of hockey. The Devils were 4-4-1 in October of last season, the first month in which they operated with that system.
New Jersey was 12-12-1 after 25 games. But the system eventually clicked so well that the Devils went 36-16-5 over their final 52 games, and were 14-10 under the bright spotlight and grueling two months of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Washington has started the season at 0-2, normally nothing to fret about. But this season is a mere 48 games because of a four-month NHL lockout, and it started after abbreviated training camps bereft of exhibition games. Players aren’t in top shape after months of non-NHL activity.
Those are far from ideal circumstances for a first-time coach to install a new system, but those are the only circumstance Oates and the Caps have.
“I think they’re trying very hard,” says Oates of his players. “Obviously there are a few mistakes, a few breakdowns. But I think most of the breakdowns to me are from fatigue, not necessarily mental. I’m sure there are a couple of situations where the guys are a little cautious on when to go, but other than that I think they’ve done a great job with it.”
Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg starts a stretch in which Washington will play seven times in 11 nights. That’s not a slate that’s conducive to alleviating fatigue.
“The most troubling thing is the conditioning level,” says Oates. “Because I think part of the frustration from the players in my mind comes from the fact that they think I’m watching them making a mistake. I’m watching them being tired.
“No matter what system you’re in, if you’re tired you can’t react. Fatigue wins. That’s frustrating to me because if a guy can’t skate five feet because he is exhausted, then he is going to make a bad read or a bad decision. The machine is not on autopilot right now.”
Would rolling four lines help combat the fatigue factor?
“I would love to not be down 4-1 to do that,” declares Oates. “It’s hard to do that when we’re losing 4-1, because I want to get some guys some goals. But that might have to happen.”
When the machine gets to autopilot, it should be effective. Oates has a clearly defined identity that he wants his team to embrace.
“I want us to be a team that goes north,” he begins, “takes territory, establishes territory and keeps it. From our goalie out.”
For any team to go north and establish territory, a consistent forecheck is crucial.
“I think we’re thinking too much with all the systems stuff,” says left wing Jason Chimera. “We’ve just got to go out and play. It’s still the game of hockey. It seems like we get one guy in there [on the forecheck] but then the next guys are too far behind. We’re not really creating momentum; it’s just dump it in and dump it out, dump it in and dump it out.
“You’ve got to have a sustainable forecheck, you’ve got to get all three guys going at once, not just one guys. It takes all three guys to get a good forecheck going, that’s the key.”
In addition to practice sessions, Oates has spent a great deal of time teaching in the video room.
“The video today showed that we shot ourselves in the foot territorially by our decisions,” says Oates, speaking specifically of the Winnipeg game. “We had the puck on our tape and we either made a bad pass or a bad read and we lost territory because we turned it over.
“It used to be, ‘Don’t turn it over at the offensive blueline.’ Well, that’s still one of the rules. And every time you do, they dump it in your end and you’ve got to go spend 30 seconds trying to get it out. And at this time of year when everybody’s fatigue level is so minimal, you can’t fight uphill all night long.
“We showed some clips in terms of our timing and how to come out of the [defensive] zone, which ends up being the same thing. If you’re a little bit ahead of the play, you can’t get the puck and chip it and go get it so we can get into the [offensive] zone. At the end of the day, you need the territory.”
The modified cliché for this season is: it’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint. Experts are saying that long losing streaks are death knells, nevermind that the 48-game season of 1994-95 produced playoff teams that endured harsh regular season skids. Losing streaks happen, but their significance is magnified when they occur at the start of a season.
Once the players have the Oates system down pat, the coach believes success will follow.
“I don’t think it will take that long,” says Oates. “Some of it they’ve already grasped. Hopefully we can win enough games to let that happen. The guys have to fight through it. I’ve got to fight through it watching them and not coming down on them too hard. I think it will happen and we’ll be fine.
“Part of it is believing in the system. Once the guys see some of the results and see it evolve, they’ll start liking it and growing with it. That’s kind of what happened to us last year in New Jersey. I think the guys will appreciate that.
“When you watch the video, you see yourself wide open and you don’t get the puck, but you see yourself wide open. So you can’t deny that. I’m not making that up. So once they see that and get some results from that, they’ll want to do it.”
“Once the guys get in the habit of what the reads are and where to put the puck and how it evolves, it will be the same as every system. The system is automatic; you’re not thinking, you’re reacting.”