In new Hall of Famer Adam Oates (right), the Caps hired a superb teacher. (Shelly Castellano/Icon SMI)
By Stu Hackel
You won't see a guy have a better day than Adam Oates had on Tuesday, being officially announced as the head coach of the Washington Capitals and an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame (video) within the space of a few hours. “Obviously an absolutely fantastic day," Oates said. "I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. I have to go out and play Lotto, I think. Two huge honors."
"Huge" was also the word that Devils captain Zach Parise used to describe the impact of losing Oates from New Jersey's coaching staff where he was an assistant for two seasons.
“He was the power play guy and the forwards guy, but a lot of people don’t know he helped a lot of the D out and worked with a lot of the D,” Parise told Rich Chere of The Newark Star-Ledger. “From a forward’s perspective, everyone knows how good of a player he was. A lot of people are good players, but they don’t know how to teach. He can teach."
Parise had similar remarks about Oates's coaching acumen for Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “I think he really helped develop a lot of players and develop a lot of guys’ games. Every morning he would have stuff on his laptop for you, showing you different things and helping guys out in different areas. Even defensemen, too. He was unbelievable. It really is a big loss for us because a lot of the players looked up to him. All the players respected him and learned a lot from him. So, definitely, to lose someone like that, it is a big loss."
But the Devils' loss is the Capitals' gain and if anyone is a good fit for that group -- which prospered as a regular season power in the wide-open Bruce Boudreau era, then had some playoff success this spring under defense-first Dale Hunter -- it's likely Oates, a guy who knows the benefit of both approaches.
Here's video of Oates introductory press conference on Wednesday.
Caps fans should enjoy watching their team again as well. Washington's fan base mushroomed as the Capitals grew into a marquee NHL attraction on the strength of their racehorse style as personified by Alex Ovechkin, and while fans liked the club's spring success under Hunter, they were not enamored with the diminished entertainment value. Oates will turn the horses loose again while insisting on defensive responsibility. That's what worked for the Devils this past season and it's what GM George McPhee sought in a new coach -- someone who can marry an up-tempo style with a commitment to compete hard for every puck.
If you watched the Devils the past two years, especially during their run to the Stanley Cup Final this spring, Oates was the guy you saw with the whiteboard diagramming X's and O's for the power play. That surprised no one who witnessed Oates during his playing career, where his reputation as a playmaker was perhaps second only to Wayne Gretzky.
"Yes, Wayne Gretzky was certainly the best player, the best that's ever played the game, but I'll tell you what: In my era, it was Wayne and it was Adam Oates for playmaking," recalled Joe Sakic, another Hall of Fame selection on Tuesday. "You remember going into St. Louis and watching Adam and Brett Hull, the magic they had. But it's not just with Brett. If there was a guy that you want on your team to set anybody up, it was Adam Oates…one of the best playmakers of all time."
“There are a lot of things he showed that helped my game out a lot," Parise told Chere. "I’m sure a lot of other guys can say the same thing. He’d show me a lot on video, small things like taking a pass where you’re in a better position to shoot. Things even a lot of the hockey world doesn’t recognize.”
If you're a Capitals fan, these are words you're happy to read. Oates' experience, knowledge and ability to communicate can only benefit Ovie's center Nicklas Backstrom, new second line center Mike Ribiero, and by extension, the rest of the team.
"I just talked to him briefly and he seems to be a great person," said Ovechkin during a break in the NHLPA meetings in Chicago. "I'm looking forward to working with him and again, you're always excited when something big happens with your team...I hope we're going to work well and we're going to play and we're going to win I think.
"It's not blocking the shots and it's not dump and chase," Ovie added about Oates' brand of hockey. "Any system that I play I learn a lot. I'm an offensive guy, it's not a secret to anybody, and I'm pretty excited and very happy to hear the Caps signed that kind of guy who likes offence."
There's always the concern that an assistant coach, whose role often gets him close to the players, will stumble when he has to adopt the sterner approach required of the boss. Parise isn't concerned. “Sometimes it’s different with the transition you go through from assistant where you’re buddy-buddy with the players," he told Gulitti. "It is different when you’re the head coach, but I think he’ll do a great job.”
There are a lot of people who don't think that the Hall of Fame did such a great job of its selection of new honorees. Few had a problem with Oates, Sakic or Pavel Bure, but critics are scratching their heads at how Brendan Shanahan was omitted in favor of Mats Sundin. The snub of Fred Shero and Pat Burns, two coaches who would have to be selected in the Builders' category, also angers some fans and observers.
When it comes to Shanahan, whose numbers certainly merit induction, several theories have been forwarded as to why he was bypassed this time. We can't know, of course, because the selection committee reveals nothing about its deliberations. Ken Campbell, in The Hockey News suggests, among other things, that a Toronto bias intrudes on the selection committee's collective thought process.
On Yahoo's Puck Daddy, Greg Wyshynski reviews others possible reasons (ranging from selfishness and marital issues to run-ins with coaches) and surmises that Shanny's off-ice behavior played a role. "The Hall of Fame Selection Committee loathes misbehavior and ego," Wyshynski writes.
Perhaps, although that's a general trait of hockey's establishment culture. The guidelines for selecting a player state that "Candidates for election as Honoured Members in the player category shall be chosen on the basis of their playing ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to their team or teams and to the game of hockey in general." But not having sat with the committee, I'm reluctant to second Wyshynski's charge as it applies to Shanahan or anyone else.
Wyshynski also mentions the notion conveyed by Jimmy Devellano to Gregg Krupa of The Detroit News that Shanahan's current job with the league, controversial in itself, may have played a role. Jimmy D. is one of the few people I've found who believes that it was not Sundin, but Oates who should have been bypassed in favor of Shanahan. "I don't want to diss anybody," Devellano said. "But I'll just leave it up to anybody to compare the two, Shanahan and Oates. And there really is not a comparison."
Well, far be it from me to second-guess Devellano, but Oates ranks 16th all-time in NHL scoring. Shanahan is 24th. Oates is sixth all-time in NHL assists. Shanahan is the second highest goal-scoring leftwinger in league history. All told, they're pretty comparable. (It should also be noted that Devellano traded Oates from Detroit to St. Louis in 1987, a deal he says may have been the worst he ever made as Red Wings GM.)
Yet, there may be another reason why Sundin was selected over Shanahan that has nothing to do with character or other superfluous considerations, and that's his international resume. Remember, it's not the NHL Hall of Fame, but the Hockey Hall of Fame, and while it has been slow to recognize the international component of its domain, it has added a number of European-born members to the selection committee in recent years and that may have played a role.
Sundin's performances for Sweden in Olympics and World Championships were outstanding. He represented Sweden 15 times and was his country's captain for nearly a decade. He won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze in World Championship play and a gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics (scoring eight points in eight games). In five World Championships, he had 18 goals and 29 points in 22 games, and 20 points in 16 Olympic contests. His play in the 2002 Olympics (nine points in four games) and the 2004 World Cup (five points in four games) also drew raves.
Shanahan's international career isn't bad, either, having played on Team Canada seven times and won an Olympic gold, a World Championship gold, and the 1991 Canada Cup, but his stats are nowhere near Sundin's. It very well could be that the selection committee put some additional weight into Sundin's international production, especially because he played for some poor Maple Leafs teams over the years.
So with only four players allowed to be inducted in any one year, that may have been the deciding factor between the two. Shanahan will get in to the Hall, maybe next year, maybe in a few years, but with a surplus of strong candidates eligible this time around, he may have been victimized by the inductee limit.
The problem for Shero and Burns is that coaches too often get bypassed because there is no specific category for their profession in the Hall. They get lumped in with Builders and that encompasses too many areas of the game. It tends to be dominated disproportionately by team owners and executives.
When it comes to Shero specifically, he was one of the game's most eccentric and innovative minds, and his ability to motivate and devise winning game plans are unassailable. He only coached in the NHL for 10 years, however, and many suspect that the biggest factor in his ongoing exclusion is his role as ringmaster of the Flyers' infamous Broad Street Bullies, the team responsible for the darkest chapter in NHL history. He may or may not have only been carrying out the wishes of those above him in ownership and management, but the only fame that team brought to the game is one that retarded its growth and acceptance in the U.S. While the best players, the managers and the owner of those Flyers have all been enshrined, it could be that Shero continues to take the fall. That's too bad, because no one loved the game more or devoted more of his life to it.
As for Burns, only the selection committee knows why it excluded him. It's possible the members may believe he was such a beloved figure, one who inspired a grassroots campaign for induction, that they can't evaluate his credentials dispassionately. That's only a guess, and probably not a good one.
Not every great hockey figure is an automatic member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Despite his credentials, Adam Oates' selection was on hold for five years after he first became eligible. But when you have a day like he had on Tuesday, it was probably worth the wait.
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