As the losses build and the frustration grows it can be difficult to see the bigger picture. So Capitals coach Adam Oates and general manager George McPhee met and talked for a few minutes on Friday with that theme in mind.
It was an appropriate time and topic with the New Jersey Devils still in town this week for a rare two-game series at Verizon Center. Few teams in the NHL have been more consistent over the last 20 years. And it was an ingrained culture that allowed them to accept and implement a different approach to hockey last season. Oates, an assistant coach there the past two seasons, helped first-year head coach Pete DeBoer usher in a far more aggressive system in New Jersey – once a bastion of conservative play.
The stars may have changed over the years. From Brian Gionta to Paul Martin to Scott Gomez to Zach Parise just last summer, the Devils have lost their share. Only goalie Martin Brodeur and veteran winger Patrik Elias remain from those heady early days. But the way the organization does business? That’s been passed down. Some team rules put in place when Hall-of-Fame defenseman Scott Stevens patrolled the blueline remain in effect, according to Elias.
“The culture has never changed [in New Jersey],” Oates said. “And that’s one of the things I talked to George about, what the system will allow us to do every single night the car’s gonna run itself. And we just have to make sure that we don’t derail it.”
Oates insists he didn’t have to convince McPhee. Washington’s general manager was there at the gestation when Devils team president Lou Lamoriello began building the teams that won Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003 and made it to the finals in 2001 and again last season. New Jersey has missed the playoffs just twice since 1990 – the year after McPhee retired from the team after an injury-plagued finish to his own NHL career.
Lamoriello has always been a hands on presence. He is unafraid to express his unhappiness if a player is “cheating” as Elias put it. That relentless attention to detail filters down through the coaching staff to the players. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. Last year – much like Washington right now – Newark wasn’t such a happy place. The Devils started the season 14-13-1 and were in 12th place in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 10. A second consecutive year out of the postseason appeared like a possibility.
And yet, DeBoer and Oates stuck to their guns. New Jersey finished 34-15-5 over its final 54 games, earned a No. 6 seed and eventually went to the finals. Some things never change even when everything else does. But do the Caps have the gumption to do the same? They had no training camp, a compressed schedule and now just 32 games left to fight out of the conference basement with a 5-10-1 record. There is an opportunity here to let the season slip away without a fight.
“First of all, you’re gonna question certain things no matter who you are. Not everybody goes into it right away,” Elias said. “But more and more guys will eventually and once you do you’re gonna have success. Everyone. Not just as individuals, but as a team and it’s just the most important. You can sense there’s certain place over there that they’re still hesitant.”
New Jersey has already played the Caps twice this season. It won 3-2 in overtime on Jan. 25 and again on Thursday by that same score thanks to a third-period rally. The Devils see Washington groping through the same process they endured a year ago. That doesn’t mean the Caps are headed to the Stanley Cup finals. They’ll be fortunate to make the playoffs at all.
“They have a new coach and it’s a shortened season and [Oates is] a smart, smart hockey guy,” New Jersey forward David Clarkson said. “It takes a little bit of time. We went through some bumps in the road last year with the new coach, but I think once you get through those hurdles and bumps in the road you come out a better team and we showed that by how we did.”
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