A Hall of Fame great himself, Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates has been getting the most out of the Caps’ stars. That’s as important as it is obvious. Every Caps fan knows that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have to be great if we’re going to compete for the division. Coach Oates himself summed it up pretty well in his postgame presser after we outplayed the St. Louis Blues on Sunday night. Asked about the sublime tap pass from Nicky that sprung Ovi into the offensive zone for that gorgeous first goal, Oates said, “I kind of expect that from him.” We all do.
If you ask me, the stout play Oates has been getting out of good players and okay players is at least as noteworthy as the eliteness of the elite players.
Look at guys like Jason Chimera, Joel Ward, and Mikhail Grabovski. Chimmer is looking better than ever after a shortened season of tough bounces and maybe a bit of the yips had fans wondering if he was done. Whatever you might say about his contract, Wardo has always fought and won the battles on the boards, and he’s finally earned some numbers for his trouble. Grabbo saw his ice time and production diminish last year before the Maple Leafs bought out his contract. Oates himself convinced him to come play for the Caps, and now he’s tied for third in scoring with 18 points. These players are asked to eat up tough minutes and tilt the ice in the Caps’ favor, and they have more than succeeded in that; their contributions to the scoresheet have been the difference in this young season.
Arguably, the third line’s success could be an illusion. Chimera had a seemingly random career year in the 2011 – 2012 twilight season under Boudreau and Hunter, and he’s on pace to do just a little bit better this year. Ward and Grabovski are both enjoying shooting percentages that are unsustainably high (even if maybe they were each due a little puck luck), and Grabbo was already a 20-goal scorer before his down season.
But they’re not the only ones stepping outside of their expectations. For example, Marcus Johansson has a tidy 16 assists already and is on pace for his first 70-point season. In fact, it would be the first time he eclipsed 50. On top of that, his shooting percentage is unsustainably low–expect some goals from him, and soon. We’ve all been waiting for MoJo to realize his incredible potential, and if the message boards are a reliable indicator, lots of us were losing hope until this season. On the other side of the “projected potential” spectrum, Steve Oleksy was an AHL goon until he got called up last season–a month after his 27th birthday–to see his first NHL action. Now he’s a mainstay in the big club, and his play has been no less than solid and professional. The rookies and minor leaguers on the blueline and the fourth line had us biting our nails in October, but they are doing their jobs in a big way.
How? I don’t know. It might be the system, lefties on the left and righties on the right, the special teams architecture, one-on-one instruction at practice, or recommendations as to the kinds of sticks to use. It might be all of those things or none of them. Whatever it is, it looks like it’s working.
General Manager George McPhee likes to remind us that it’s a salary-capped league. The point he makes is well taken: it’s hard to get and keep enough top-tier talent to consistently dominate. Maybe a solution to that problem is to put not-quite-top-tier talent in the hands of a coach who makes players better.