Watching the Washington Capitals battle in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs — and, make no mistake, he is watching — has been bittersweet for Adam Oates, whose former players have already reached a level they never achieved under his guidance.
“It’s hard to watch the guys that you spent so much time with, but you’re also happy for the guys,” Oates told us last week in Toronto where he was to participate in the Scotiabank Baycrest Pro-Am.
Oates still speaks frequently with his former captain, Alex Ovechkin, a guy he considers a good friend to this day and one of the top five players in the league.
“The first day of free agency [in 2014] they added a couple of defencemen, and I think that was an important addition,” Oates said, referring to top-four blueliners Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, who rank second and third among all Capitals in ice time this post-season. They have also contributed five points from the back end.
"It helped them get through the first round. They’ve become a better team because of that.”
While Oates' replacement behind the Washington bench, Barry Trotz, has been praised for turning the team around, it's true that Oates was working with a thinner defence during his two-year tenure in D.C., where the Hall of Famer went 65-48-17 in his only gig as an NHL bench boss.
Though he won the Southeast Division as a rookie head coach in 2013, Oates' Caps lost Game 7 of the first round to the New York Rangers. When Washington finished out of the playoff picture last spring, both Oates and general manager George McPhee were fired.
Oates got back in the game just after Christmas when New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello fired head coach Peter De Boer and asked Oates to co-coach the club with Scott Stevens. (Update: On Monday Lamoriello named Ray Shero the Devils GM and tasked him with hiring the next head coach.)
"Unfortunately in our league, coaches have a life expectancy. Working with Scotty and Lou, it went fine. We get along well. It happens so fast and you play so many games, you don’t really have time to think about it. You just try to do the best for the organization,” Oates said.
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Hampered by the 28th-ranked offence, the aging Devils would prove difficult for any coach to turn around.
“It’s hard to put your finger on anything, but we didn’t score a lot of goals. You have to find a way to score more. I think we did a good job of keeping the puck out of the net. We have a lot of young D. We have a great goalie," Oates says of workhorse Cory Schneider, who posted a .925 save percentage.
“He’s very underrated."
Despite all the Devils old-guy jokes, Oates looks at a young blueline that features 22-year-old Adam Larsson, 22, Eric Gelinas, 23, and Damon Severson, 20, and sees building blocks.
“We have some young D that if they can blossom into the position where they can be, the franchise will upgrade," Oates explained. "You gotta wait your turn and find these guys that can help you put the puck in the net. But it takes time. It’s hard to change a franchise overnight.”
As for the man himself, change is imminent. Oates's contract is up. He is a free agent. And Lamoriello won't want to kick off 2015-16 with another co-coach situation. Oates spoke with Lamoriello about 10 days ago and said he doesn't know where things stand.
"Of course," he'd love to return to Jersey, Oates said. But in the meantime, he's free to take a job elsewhere. This past weekend he served as an analyst on Sportsnet.
"It’s up to Lou," he said. "That’s the way it happens, and we all know the rules."
But would he be content to serve as assistant, or does he want another crack at running a bench?
“Absolutely I want to be a head coach," Oates said. "I think I am one. I think I’m a good coach. So that's where I am right now in my life.”
Bonus Beat: Adam Oates' Top 5 Passers in the Today's Game
In 19 seasons as an NHL centre, Oates set up more dudes than Hitch. The Hall of Fame playmaker left the game ranked fifth all-time in assists with 1,079, but he sees the perfect pass as a bit of a lost art.
“I really think it’s a skill that’s going away in our game,” Oates says. “I coached Scott Gomez this year. He’s a fantastic passer. He is a pure passer.”
We asked Oates to name his top five passers in today's game. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Nicklas Backstrom
2. Joe Thornton
3. Ryan Getzlaf
4. Patrick Kane
5. Scott Gomez