During his 19-year Hockey Hall of Fame career, Adam Oates accumulated 513 of his 1,420 career points in the NHL on the power play. The Caps head coach had a reputation as a cerebral player with tremendous on-ice vision and lethal power play prowess. So you can understand Blaine Forsythe’s surprise when he learned last January that he – and not Oates – would be in charge of the Washington Capitals’ power play for the 2012-13 season.
Just days before the Caps opened the 2012-13 campaign against the Lightning in Tampa Bay, Oates handed over the keys to the power play to assistant coach Forsythe.
“Honestly, the first time Adam said, ‘The power play is yours,’ I was kind of shocked,” admits Forsythe. “He and I talked about it a lot, and it’s something I had always taken a great interest in it. But when he told me that – given the type of player that he was and the pedigree he has with the offensive side of the game – it was a real boost to my confidence but it was a real shock at the same time.
“With that said, the success we had was a team effort. We all do a real good job of working together and communicating together and picking each other’s brains. I ran it, but it was a team effort all the way.”
Washington scored in its first power play opportunity of the season and its last, the latter goal giving the Caps a 3-2 overtime win over the Boston Bruins in the April 27 regular season finale. In between, the Caps never went more than 12 power play chances without scoring a goal, the shortest drought of any team in the league.
At season’s end, Washington’s 26.8% power play success rate was not only the best in the NHL, it was the best any club in the circuit had managed in nearly a quarter of a century.
Forsythe has been with the Capitals since 2006, serving in three different positions and under four different head coaches. His good work with Washington’s power play has led to a fourth position in 2013-14 as Forsythe replaces departing assistant coach Tim Hunter behind the Capitals’ bench.
With more than 1,000 games as an NHL assistant coach, Hunter had been the team’s most experienced member in terms of bench duty.
“We basically hired [Hunter] to have some experience on our bench because Adam and [assistant coach] Calle [Johansson] were green, and it worked well,” notes Caps general manager George McPhee. “But at this point [Hunter] and Adam think that we should go in different ways. One of the things that we’d like to do is promote Blaine Forsythe. He is going to spend more time on the bench.”
Forsythe joined the Caps’ organization in 2006-07 as the team’s video coach. He has also served as a scout and an “eye in the sky” assistant coach over the years, and he has worked under previous head coaches Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter as well as Oates.
After working as a Toronto-based scout for the Capitals in 2008-09, Forsythe returned to the District in 2009-10 as an assistant coach whose chief responsibilities were in the areas of video and as an important set of eyes upstairs in the press box. He’ll replace Hunter behind the Washington bench, and the Caps will not make any new additions to their coaching staff.
Dave Prior is Washington’s goalie coach, and Olie Kolzig serves as the team’s associate goaltending coach. Brett Leonhardt serves as Washington’s video coach, heading into his second season in that capacity.
Oates, Johansson and Kolzig are well-known for their lengthy careers in the NHL, the lion’s share of which were spent in Washington in the cases of all three men. Prior is one of the league’s most highly regarded goalie coaches, and he’s been at it for two decades now. Even Leonhardt had a brief splash in the spotlight as Washington’s emergency backup goalie a few seasons back, making Forsythe the most anonymous member of the Caps’ staff.
Washington hired Leonhardt last summer, and he took over exclusively as the team’s video coach, freeing up Forsythe for other duties. Chief among those duties was running the league’s best power play. It may seem odd for a coach – and a first-year head coach at that – to hand off the reins of his team’s power play to an assistant, but Oates and Forsythe swiftly forged a solid relationship after Oates’ hiring last summer. The two men and the rest of the Caps’ staff had plenty of time on their hands with last fall’s lockout, and a lot of that time was spent discussing the architecture of an ideal NHL power play.
“We talked about it and worked on it over the summer,” says Forsythe, who is known as “Foz” to the Capitals players and staff. “During the lockout we talked about the positioning and the structure and how he wanted to run it. Once he felt I probably had a good enough grasp of it, he gave it to me and let me roll with it. It was great for me. It’s always nice to have a guy like that that you can talk to about with different situations. He sees it as well if not better than anyone I’ve ever been around. He didn’t get involved with it, but if I had a question, he was the best guy to go to.”
Forsythe’s varied duties over the years have given him the opportunity to work with four different NHL head coaches and to assimilate their systems and ideas. Throw in a stint as a scout and hundreds of games of experience from on high, and Forsythe is ready for the rarest of promotions, one in which he actually moves down. To ice level.
“Blaine’s got a real good feel for the game; terrific hockey sense,” says McPhee. “[He] sees things and understands things and can break them down and explain them to players real well. Like most coaches these days, they just work incredible hours. And I thought Adam would like him.
“In video and just in terms of working with him, we’ve really enjoyed working with him. And Adam likes him a lot. He has enjoyed him and Brett a lot. He got him to [run] a few practices this year and gave him a lot of responsibility throughout the year with the power play and different things. He’s going to give him some more responsibility this year.”
Oates is a firm believer in the power of video, and, as McPhee predicted, he and Forsythe proved to be of like mind in many areas.
“I think we realized pretty quickly with each other just how well we work together and how similar we saw everything,” says Forsythe. “I think that was the biggest thing I noticed right away. We talked about it throughout the year that we both have a similar feel for the game in the sense of direction of how the teams are playing and how different teams play and all that kind of stuff.
“Obviously, I learned a lot from him. It was gratifying to me to think the game – obviously not at his level – but along those same lines and to see the game the way he does and I think that’s why we hit it off right away. Our relationship as colleagues and also our friendship grew from that.”
Forsythe found that different coaches took different approaches to how his vision from the press box was used during games.
“There are different personalities and different ways of looking at the game,” says Forsythe of working from on high. “With Bruce and [former Caps assistant coach] Dean [Evason] and [ex-Caps assistant coach] Jay [Leach] or Dean and [ex-Caps assistant coach Bob Woods], we looked at different things like how the game develops, not so much systematically, but more of the ins and outs like face-offs and little things that we can control during the game. Sometimes it’s tough to make changes as the period is going along. But there were little things we could talk about quickly and make adjustments as we went.
“With Adam, it was more drawn out. We let the game dictate itself and made subtle changes like every team does, but we put a lot more focus on what we did between periods versus Bruce where we did it maybe more during the periods.”
Now that he’ll be with his colleagues at ice level, the actual view of the action itself is expected to be the biggest adjustment for Forsythe.
“Even if you’re watching practice, the speed at ice levels – no one realizes how quick it is down there,” relates Forsythe. “Being on the ice for practice and when the guys are skating around during drills, you get a real good feel for the speed of the game. That’s going to be the biggest transition for me. Watching the game from upstairs, and you can see everything develop. It’s not as quick as it is down [on the ice]. So that’s going to be the hardest thing, adjusting to that speed difference. But with that said, I’m personally going to get a stronger feel for the game, for the ins and outs of the game at ice level because you can see things develop a little differently than you would upstairs and you’re going to make changes a little quicker. And just the communication factor is going to be a big thing for me in making that transition.
“Talking to the players and making those little subtle changes that Adam, Calle and I will talk about throughout the game and can make at bench level during the game rather than from upstairs. Running the power play last year, it was tough for me to sit upstairs and not make changes. I communicated from the bench as much as I could, but little things that I saw during power plays that we could have exposed a little quicker and not being able to go directly to the player right away from bench level was a little tough at times and a little frustrating, too. Watching after the period, you see it again. You might have been able to make a change a little bit quicker to create a little bit more offense earlier in that period.”
Chemistry is always mentioned as an important element in the success – or lack thereof – of pro sports teams. But coaching staffs spend far more time together than players do, making chemistry within a staff a significant aspect of its makeup.
“I think it’s huge,” agrees Forsythe. “We probably spend more time together than anybody. The players are usually there for long days, but we’re there at 6 in the morning whether we’re getting a workout in or watching video or we’re just talking or meeting or going over lineups. We spend eight to 10 hours a day minimum together.
“I think when you have five or six guys that really get along well, it makes it productive and it’s easy to talk to each other. We spend a lot of time away from the rink together as well, too. It’s pretty important to have that chemistry because with chemistry comes good communication and good understanding of each other and we’re lucky to have that.”
“You need good chemistry there,” echoes McPhee. “There is a lot going on in the game and there is a lot of preparation before and after games. It’s not unlike your team; you have to tweak things from time to time to adjust to whatever is going on. We really like our staff. Obviously they did a real good job last year. It took them a little while to get up and get going, but once everything was working the way that we thought it could, the team looked pretty good. I think we made some real good decisions there last year and we’re happy that it worked out. It wasn’t easy.”
Because he has been around the Capitals in one capacity or another for the last several seasons, Forsythe also has well-forged relationships with the players in the room.
“I think it was a big part of allowing me to stay around for this long,” suggests Forsythe, “the relationships I’ve created – not only with all the coaches and management – but with the players. I came in as a video coach, and I obviously had played the game but I never played in the NHL so I had to find ways to earn their respect. I had to do that through having good relationships and communication with the players. Eventually they trusted me as far as knowing the game and believed in me in that sense. I think that made my transition last year that much easier. Running drills and running practices by myself wasn’t all that hard because I knew I had their respect and I obviously I give them that respect back. We all have our own relationships and going forward I think that helped me get to where I am now, just in the sense that I was able to garner their respect and produce because of it.”
While Forsythe will have more responsibility this season, he will also still be in charge of Washington’s extra-man unit.
“The players bought in and that was the most important thing,” says Forsythe. “For me personally, just watching it develop you could just see the confidence rising with the players individually and with the five-man unit. Once we got that confidence back it was almost like we expected to score at least a goal or maybe more every night. And fortunately, we did.”