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Oates Opts to Experiment Up the Middle

September 12, 2013

Training camp can sometimes double as a bit of a chemistry lab. With a few weeks and several meaningless – in a relative sense, anyway – exhibition games, NHL coaches have the freedom to conduct some personnel experiments. Conditions may not be exactly like those of a mid-December game, but they’re close enough that a bench boss can get a reasonable read on whether a player can be worked in on the penalty kill, deployed on his off-wing or if he can handle a move up the depth chart playing with different linemates.


It’s only preseason; if the test tube cracks or if the whole experiment fizzles or explodes, it’s often easy enough to put the elements back where they were and to move on to life beyond the experiment.


With all summer to pore over depth charts and lineup sheets, Caps coach Adam Oates has eyed a pair of wingers he thinks might be able to make the move to the middle of the ice. Washington’s training camp got underway at Kettler Capitals Iceplex today, and with it, some potentially intriguing roster and personnel experimenting on Oates’ part.


Right wing Eric Fehr and left wing Martin Erat are the subject of Oates’ fall projects in Caps’ camp. A Hall of Fame center during a playing career that stretched just shy of two decades, Oates knows a thing or two about what it takes to play center in the NHL. And he thinks Fehr and/or Erat might have The Middle Stuff, though he also uses the word “experiment” more than once during the discussion.


“Part of a coach’s job is to look at your personnel and try to get the most out of every guy while factoring in chemistry and trying to win and do it all,” says Oates. “Right now we’ve got a logjam at certain positions and we’ve got guys who are good hockey players. So I’m just trying to test the waters and see if I can get more out of them. It might not work; it’s an experiment, right? You try to communicate it and do it in a way that they understand because we have some tough decisions, some really tough decisions.”


If the experiment makes it to the exhibition game stage, Oates will give it its best chance to succeed.


“If I do that and play them in a game,” says Oates, “they’re going to play with good guys that can protect them on the wings and allow them to see. We’ll talk and make adjustments. We’ll see how it goes.”


Fehr hasn’t played center before. He sees the face-off circle as his biggest hurdle.


“I’m really excited about the challenge,” says Fehr. “Definitely it’s something I’ve never done before, but I feel comfortable in our own end. The last couple of years, I’ve really gotten stronger in the [defensive] zone and I feel a lot more comfortable with the puck there so I’m hoping I can make a smooth transition.


“I think the toughest thing for me will just be face-offs, going against players that have been doing it all their life. I can probably count the amount of face-offs I’ve had in my life on one hand, so that’s probably going to be the biggest challenge for me.”


For a significant portion of his NHL career, Fehr was physically unable to even take a face-off because of ongoing shoulder issues. Over his eight seasons in the NHL, Fehr has taken a grand total of 22 face-offs, winning only four of them.


“That’s going to be tough,” Fehr concedes. “If you asked me two years ago to take face-offs, I would have said ‘no chance.’ I just wasn’t feeling comfortable, wasn’t feeling strong enough. But I’ve had a couple of good years and I feel a lot better. Now it’s not so much of a mental block, it’s just trying to figure out the strategies to winning the draws.


“We have a lot of good centermen here and obviously Oatesy was one of the best in the league. Hopefully he can teach me a few tricks and I can pick it up.”


Oates can help, but Caps center Jay Beagle is fairly effective and fairly scholarly when it comes to the circle, too.


“Yeah, I’ve talked to [Beagle] a little bit,” says Fehr. “But you can know all the theoretical stuff you want. You’ve got to be out there, you’ve got to see it and you’ve got to do it. I think once practice is over we’ll maybe take the centermen aside and start working on things. It just comes down to getting the right positioning and timing and everything. Theoretically, I know how to take a draw but it’s going to come down to executing it.”


Erat has played some center, but it’s been a while.


“We will see how everything is going to go,” says Erat. “It’s going to be a challenge. The last time I played center was probably my last junior year [2000-01]. Just the movement there is going to be challenging, but if it’s going to work, it’s going to work.”


Both Fehr and Erat were in the Team B practice group on Thursday’s first day of training camp. Fehr skated in the middle of a line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. Erat manned the left side of a line with Mathieu Perreault in the middle and rookie Garrett Mitchell on the right side.


Time will tell how far the experiment goes, but the fact that a Hall of Fame centerman believes one or both players is capable of making the shift and is on hand to help coach them along would seem to lend some credibility to the experiment.


“Other than the fact that they haven’t played there,” begins Oates, “there will be a little bit of transition in terms of where they go on the ice. But for example in our end of the ice, every winger has at some point had to play center. If the center falls down, you’ve got to come in and play center. So you’ve done it, it’s not like you haven’t done it. The conditioning will be different because as a winger, there are times when you get the rest and a centerman doesn’t. There are subplots, but my feeling on that is we’re in the NHL and guys are really, really good to be in the NHL. So I think they can adapt.”


As Fehr noted, face-offs can be a hurdle. But pro athletes are no strangers to overcoming hurdles.


“They’re a big deal,” says Oates of face-offs. “But Marty has played on the penalty kill his whole life, so he has obviously had to take a lot of draws. Fehrsie actually mentioned that to me; he said, ‘Well, if you can count on me to take a face-off, then you don’t have to take me off the ice.’  I said, ‘Yeah. And as a player, don’t you want to be on the ice?’”


Fehr certainly does. He went from last guy signed in training camp to 13th forward in the preseason to fourth line to third line and even got a few games in the top six on his off-wing last season. He picked up a new skill along the way, killing penalties for the first time.


Having the benefit of a 48-game season under Oates, Fehr has a firm grasp on what’s expected of him on the ice, regardless of position.


“It definitely helps,” says Fehr of having played under Oates all of last season. “There are times when you’re the first guy back and you’ve got to play down low and the centerman takes your spot so I’ve definitely been there at times.


“The game is all the same. You’ve been out there, you’ve played it and you’ve seen it. You have to watch where your centerman is, so you know where he is supposed to be. I know where I want my centerman to be when I’m playing right wing, so that’s the spot I’ll try to be in as well.”


Erat was obtained from Nashville in an April 3 trade and played in only nine regular season games with Washington. He had to make some adjustments after having played for the Predators over his entire NHL career, but he believes that late-season primer has him feeling more comfortable this fall. Also, the system he played under coach Barry Trotz in Nashville isn’t so different from the one Oates employs.


“There are some little adjustments to get used to,” notes Erat, “but for the most part I would say it’s kind of similar. Adam makes it easier on you. He goes through the stuff with you and you just get used to it. The problem for me, I played so long in Nashville and I had everything so automatic for me and now you have to change the little things. I’m the kind of guy who plays better when I go onto the ice and I don’t think instead of thinking where I should be. I was here last year, I got used to it and now I don’t have to think about it.”


It’s unlikely that both players will man the middle over the long term, but if even one of them proves capable of doing so, Oates and the Caps will have that much more flexibility with the team’s roster and with personnel options and line possibilities.


“It creates flexibility,” asserts Oates. “But we are in a salary cap era and in a roster era. We can only have so many guys. It makes for some tough decisions, but it also gives [Caps general manager] George [McPhee] some more thoughts about it in terms of what to do.


“I think it enhances their career. At the end of the day, as a player, you want to do your job, you want to succeed, you want to win and you want to make money.”


If Fehr is able to successfully make the switch, he stands to make more money the next time he goes to negotiate a contract, as Oates noted. There are also benefits to the Capitals, of course. If Fehr proves capable of moving to the middle, he would give Washington more size at that position, better defensive acumen and would also give Oates another right-handed pivot option on a team that currently has only one (Beagle).


“It would,” says Oates. “And I’ve talked to [Fehr] about it. There’s only one puck and there’s only so many minutes in a game. We have a lot of good right wingers. That’s why initially it made sense to me.


“Last year, Fehrsie was our most versatile guy. I actually added to his game and he played in more situations as the season went on. I thought he was in that mode where he was willing to try something, so I thought I’d suggest it to him and see what he could do. And like I said, it is an experiment. I told him that. I told him, ‘If you don’t like it and it doesn’t work, you’re a right winger. You know how to play right wing. You’re in the NHL. You can go back to that.’”


The fact that Oates thinks enough of him to even try this position shift helped sell Fehr on the idea.


“It definitely was part of the reason why I was willing to do it without hesitation,” says Fehr. “Just knowing he knows the game as well as he does and he’s played the position. Obviously he sees something that makes him think I’m a centerman. I’m going to listen to him and trust him a hundred percent. He’s helped our team so much in the last several months and he’s changed little things in a bunch of players that have made them better players. I’m hoping to become a better player by doing this.”


The obvious question about the whole experiment is this: How much rope does Oates give to the two players and how will he determine if it’s a failure or a success?


“That’s a tough question,” Oates admits. “I would say that we’ll watch, we’ll see how it goes. And obviously George and I will be talking. We’ll get feedback from them and we’ll probably give it a few exhibition games.


“At the end of the day, it’s an experiment. But we also have some tough decisions as a group. If I can get a guy to upgrade his game and the fact that he changed positions to do it, he gets better and we get better. Everybody’s happy.”