Adam Oates’ exit from the Nation’s Capital in the spring of 2014 was void of fanfare, as his short stint as the Capitals Head Coach did not go well. In the end, he would last less than two full seasons, earning a 65-48-17 record and a flight out of town along side Capitals’ GM George McPhee. After a few additional coaching stints with varying titles and responsibilities, Oates’ pro coaching career seemed to come to an early end. It appeared coaching may not be in the cards for the hall-of-famer.
It’s part of the human condition, the search for your place in the world. The path that place may be longer and more winding for some, but in the end, most of us find our spot. After his stints as a team coach, Adam Oates has found his spot as a one-on-one hired gun.
Oates was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame on June 26, 2012. The honor came on the very same day he was named the new head coach of the Washington Capitals, the 16th head coach in franchise history. Not a bad day for the former Capital.
The 2012–13 lockout delayed Oates’ coaching debut in Washington, so he would bide his time as a co-coach with Mark French for Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. When the season finally began, Oates and the Capitals struggled out of the gate, winning just two of their first 11 games. But ultimately he and his players would find their groove and finish strong, rising from last place to first place in the Southeast Division. The Capitals would exit the postseason in the first round, losing to the Rangers in seven games, but a certain level of optimism was in place for the following season. Not a bad start to Oates’ head coaching career.
But it wasn’t to be. The Capitals struggled throughout the 2013–14 season, as the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 16 years. The team finished with a 38–30–14 record, but finished ninth in the Eastern Conference. As a result, the Capitals opted to cut ties with both Oates and GM George McPhee.
Albeit a brief run, Oates still left his coaching mark in Washington. Whether it was trying Ovechkin on the right side, which ultimately met much disdain, or implementing new power play strategies, which are still utilized by the Capitals as well as most of the league today, his time atop the coaching tree was certainly impactful.
Finding A Niche
Oates continued searching for his niche. He knew professional hockey well, but not how best to apply his knowledge. He just needed to find the best way to capitalize on his expertise. Enter Oates Sports Group, started by Oates more than four years ago, with a sole focus on improving his clients’ offensive production. Alas, his niche was found.
“I love the life,” Oates told the Boston Globe, today ranking 18th all time in NHL scoring (1,420 points). “I love working with the guys.” It’s clear Oates has found his spot, and business is good.
The Hired Gun
In a recent interview with Kevin Paul Dupont for the Boston Globe, Oates shed light on his life as a so called “hired gun”, and the offensive/scoring successes his clients have realized as a result of his one-on-one coaching.
According to Oates, 37 of his 50 player-clients reached career-high point totals last season, including Ryan O’Reilly. The Blues pivot posted personal bests in assists and points, then opened a postseason hardware store by winning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for the Cup-winning Blues and added the Selke as the NHL’s top defensive forward.
Ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler has been an Oates client for the past couple of seasons. The 6-foot-5-inch right winger has responded with back-to-back campaigns of 91 points, career bests, after averaging 76 points the two prior seasons. “That’s 15 points, and I can tell you, Blake loves him,” said Matt Keator, Wheeler’s Boston-based agent. “He’s helped build an extra dimension into his game — small things that make a big difference, the use of time and space out there, more spatial awareness.”
There is, as Oates calls it, a “secret sauce” to what he teaches, and it’s no surprise he protects the recipe.
“You go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac . . . you pay for it, they hand you one, right?” he mused recently when reached on the road in Minnesota. “They don’t tell you what goes into the sauce.”
“I see a need for it, no doubt,” said Oates, pondering whether coaching staffs should devote more time and resources to the art of scoring. “I just don’t think there are guys out there that know how to teach it.”
In his current gig, noted Oates, it’s his ability to size up a player’s game and detect oft-subtle weaknesses that is the foundation of his business. In the Oates world of better scoring, production begins with the stick (proper fit essential) and puck handling.
It has long been a mystery here why NHL teams, for all the training and coaching methods they’ve devised and embraced over the last 30 years, haven’t carved out space for a scoring coach the way, say, baseball teams have added hitting coaches.
Oates told the Globe his two primary teaching philosophies:
“Shooting is the most overrated thing to work on in the world. Because, think about it, some guys get one shot every two games and it’s a rebound, a tip, a breakaway. Your job is to be in the right spot at the right time. That’s it. Get there. Execute that. If you do that, you’ll get more shots. If you get to that point, and you’re still not scoring, then we’ll talk about shot.”
“When you allocate your time in the summer, what really matters? What really matters? You know, we’ve got into this craze of the strength coaches, right? OK, you gotta be in shape, I get that, you have to be strong. But for hockey, if you are spending more time being in the gym than working on your hands, you’re an idiot. You look at the world’s strongest man vs. the world’s martial arts champion, who is going to win? No-brainer: The martial arts guy. They just don’t look good, but they’re the killers. End of the day, if you are strong, in shape, then get on the ice.”
A New Client To Watch
According to the Globe piece, just days ago, Oates took on what may be the greatest challenge of his four years in the skills biz, adding former Bruin Milan Lucic to his client list.
The 31-year-old “Looch,” who was recently flipped from Edmonton to Calgary, is in dire need of offensive help and overall career recovery. Once a 30-goal scorer with the Bruins, he potted only 16 goals in his 161 games with the Oilers the past two seasons.
Oates would not go into detail regarding what prescriptive fix he had for Lucic, but sounded assured he can help a guy he sees as motivated to reclaim his stature as a player with brute force who can add some offensive pop. He’ll have to help Lucic get off the mark faster, and enhance his puckhandling, which is Page 1 on the Oates primer.
“I know what everyone wants. I can tell you what makes a guy a success or a failure.
“That’s what I’m good at.”
By Jon Sorensen