When Capitals general manager George McPhee conducted interviews last spring for his team's open coaching position, there was one question, in particular, each candidate needed to answer: How do you get the most out of star winger Alex Ovechkin?
A player who once won two Hart Trophies as the NHL's most valuable player had stagnated. His game was predictable and his production steadily declining. Whoever the new coach of the Caps was going to be needed a common-sense solution to coax more from Ovechkin.
Enter Adam Oates, himself a former star player who on the very day he was hired by McPhee as Washington's coach was also elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The crux of his plan for Ovechkin was a move from left wing to right wing.
|Not the first time for Oates|
|Capitals coach Adam Oates had one key weapon in his push to convince star winger Alex Ovechkin to accept a move to right wing. He had already done this before to great success with one of Ovechkin's best friends.|
|As an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils for two seasons, Oates worked with Ilya Kovalchuk, a prolific scorer during his days with the Atlanta Thrashers who was struggling to find that touch in New Jersey's more structured system. With Oates' help, Kovalchuk learned to meld his individual skills into a team concept while moving from left wing to right wing. It took time. But the Devils went to the Stanley Cup finals last season and Kovalchuk had 37 goals and 83 points.|
"It's all everything different little bit," Kovalchuk said. "[On the right] when you're in your zone, you can't see really what's behind you. It was little tough to adjust. Then if you go on the right side with the puck, it's not much room on the offensive side to create because I'm used to coming into zone on the left side. I'm used to it now. It doesn't really bother me."
For some NHL players that's not a big deal. But to take a star away from the position he's played his entire life? That has far bigger ramifications -- for both the player and for the team that he's supposed to lead. Oates couldn't just make the move unilaterally. He also needed Ovechkin to accept it. And that's where his skills as a communicator were every bit as important as his on-ice hockey knowledge.
"It's new, and I'm totally comfortable with that," Oates said. "When guys play new positions, there's different reads. When do you wind it up? When do you not? [Ovechkin has] always had the burst of speed. Trying to teach him to wait for it a little longer at times."
Washington hasn't yet found a rhythm under Oates. The Caps entered Friday's game against the Winnipeg Jets five points out of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. And Ovechkin's adjustment hasn't always been a smooth, consistent process, either.
Early in the season Oates temporarily moved Ovechkin back to left wing -- but played him there for four games with grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. That message was not subtle. Ovechkin was quickly back at right wing.
"[Oates] put me back on the left, but we watch the video and he said, 'Look, the space out there, you have to be in the right spot,'?" Ovechkin said last month. "I said, 'OK, let's do it.' And right now I feel much [more] comfortable there."
Indeed, Ovechkin entered play Friday with 13 goals and 14 assists in 30 games. That projects to 36 goals in a full 82-game season. And while that's well off the pace of Ovechkin's glory days, he is playing a game closer to the one Oates expects.
Still, the days of 50 goals may be in the past for good. In part, Oates says, that's the nature of the modern NHL. It isn't the freewheeling game the league pushed coming out of the last lockout in 2005-06 -- Ovechkin's rookie season. There are fewer power-play chances. Defensemen have had years to study Ovechkin's every move on video. Coaching staffs have become more sophisticated.
Moving to right wing was a way to counter those changes. And while there have been stretches of frustration this season, times when Ovechkin would actually text Oates after games and apologize for his lack of scoring, both feel he is again on the right path.
"For a player, if you feel that kind of trust from a coach, coaching staff it's very important," Ovechkin said.