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Oates key to Capitals' future growth

6/11/2013
The Capitals' success next season will depend heavily on coach Adam Oates. G Fiume/Getty Images

For as much discussion and dissection as there was this season on Adam Oates' new system in Washington, that's not his biggest focus as a coach moving forward.

Rather, it's trying to figure out a way to keep the players listening to him. To figure out a way to keep that balance between them liking him as a person they deal with on a daily basis while offering something that reminds them he's there to make them better players. Because once players start shutting out a coach, opportunity for growth is over.

"I want to figure out ways I can keep guys fresh so they don't get sick of me," he said during a Monday morning phone conversation. "The life expectancy for a coach is not a long time."

So, the open lines of communication are crucial for Oates and his players. And it doesn't end when the season does.

On Monday, he was exchanging texts with captain Alex Ovechkin when Ovechkin asked him who he thought was going to win the Stanley Cup.

"He thought Chicago. I thought Boston," Oates said. "I wrote him -- 'Did you forget about Chara?'"

The response got a laugh from Ovechkin, and that open communication between Washington coach and captain remains quite strong, for good reason. There was a strong bond formed this season. In his first season under Oates and moving to right wing, Ovechkin led the league with 32 goals and had 56 points in 48 games. He's a Hart Trophy finalist, but the success of that experiment was anything but guaranteed.

"That took a lot of talks between me and him for him to trust me," Oates said.

It was the most important example of Oates' ability to communicate and convince his most important player that not only does he know what he's talking about but he genuinely knows the game and how to succeed in it.

There was never that one moment when coach and player acknowledged that the plan worked -- just a series of successes that built more faith and a stronger connection between Oates and Ovechkin.

"He got a couple goals, and all of a sudden the game felt easier to him than it had been," Oates said. "I felt it. He felt it."

In looking back, the strides Oates made last season in Washington were quite remarkable. He didn't have a training camp to work with. He didn't have the kind of early success that can help boost buy-in from new players. Actually, it was quite the opposite.

And yet, by the end of the season, the Capitals were playing as well as any team in the league.

"I was really proud of them," said Capitals general manager George McPhee. "The coaching staff did a good job, the players really came together. ... I liked the way they played down the stretch; those are all playoff games, and they delivered. They played well."

The only problem?

"I was disappointed with the result in the playoffs," McPhee said.

Yeah, that. The Capitals were knocked out in the first round against the Rangers when they couldn't finish off New York after taking a 3-2 lead in the series. Another disappointing spring.

To Capitals fans anxiously waiting for a playoff breakthrough, it didn't happen. And if they want sweeping roster changes in response to another early postseason exit, it doesn't look as if that's coming, either.

When asked about what changes were needed to his roster this summer, McPhee said it was minimal.

"Not a whole lot. Not much," he said. "I think we have what we need in the organization."

McPhee isn't one to tip his hand. Nobody saw the trade coming in which McPhee dealt one of his best prospects in Filip Forsberg to the Predators in return for Martin Erat. And we're pretty sure McPhee wouldn't tell us if he had plans for a major trade heading into the draft, such as last year's smart addition of Mike Ribeiro.

McPhee's team made the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season this year, a run very few general managers around the league have matched. Just five teams have done it, an impressive streak considering the parity and the salary cap.

So, there might not be motivation for major changes, given that this group keeps finding ways to get into the postseason. At some point, you think a breakthrough postseason run will follow.

"You hope so," McPhee said. "You don't want to just make the playoffs. When you make the playoffs, everybody feels like you have a chance to win the Cup. We'd like to experience that one of these years."

So, if we take McPhee at his word and the Capitals will look very similar in training camp to the team that ended the season, the improvement rests on the shoulders of Oates and the coaching staff. And coaxing growth out of the players on the team.

Oates keeps a personal log of different decisions he makes over the course of a season, little subtle things he does on a day-to-day basis. He's looking back to see what worked and what didn't -- how can he take this group and figure out a way to get each individual to raise his game enough so that Game 7 loss becomes a win next time around?

He is now armed with knowledge of how to work with each player on the roster. He also hopes that a year of his system means there won't be daily meetings reviewing the same things over and over. Now there's time to build on what the team learned last season.

"There's a couple things we're going to add, for sure," Oates said. "To me, it's reading the play. Reads. It always turns into reads -- everything."

After cycling through coaches because of different circumstances, the Capitals have an opportunity to settle into a stretch of consistency behind the bench they haven't enjoyed in a few years. Oates points to the current teams in the Stanley Cup finals as proof of the importance of that consistency. Claude Julien and Joel Quenneville have been through a lot with their teams. They each have successes and Stanley Cup wins, but there have also been failures. Some of those have been big failures -- such as losing a playoff series in which the Bruins led 3-0 against the Flyers, or consecutive first-round playoff exits for Quenneville despite a team built for a Cup run.

Those coaches have found a way to stay relevant to their players and keep the message fresh so they can recover from disappointments and find ways to return to previous levels of real success. The trick is getting to that level of success in the first place.