By Allan Muir
Adam Oates was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012 on the basis of his 1,079 career assists, the sixth-most ever posted in NHL history. Not a bad case. But his latest helper may be his greatest.
What Oates has accomplished this season with the Washington Capitals is nothing short of miraculous. Sure, Ottawa's Paul MacLean is getting most of the Jack Adams buzz, but if it wasn't for plucky, undermanned teams rising up against the odds, we wouldn't have half the sports movies we do.
We've seen that bit before, just like we've seen a coach cajole a star player into sacrificing offense for the good of the team. But what Oates has done with Alex Ovechkin, and by extension, the Capitals, is different. This is a rookie coach convincing a veteran superstar that everything he knew was wrong...and that Oates could make it all right.
It wasn't that long ago that almost everyone (yours truly, included) had downgraded Ovechkin to the mundane status of just another guy. (HACKEL: What's wrong with Alex Ovechkin?) He was stuck in a creative rut, disinclined to change, and content to simply take what the game gave him. That was a problem for Oates, because no team more accurately reflects its leader than Washington. While Ovi took the easy way, the rest of the Caps took it right along with him.
That led to a slow start. Really slow. By the time Feb. 21 rolled around, this team that was favored to win the Southeast Division had earned just 11 points and was dead last in the NHL. The calls started coming in from the cheap seats for the coach's head.
Despite the struggles, Oates stayed on message the entire time. And finally Ovechkin bought in.
It's no coincidence that the Capitals have gone 15-7-1 since then. Over the last 10 games, no team has strung together a better record than the 8-1-1 streak that has propelled Washington from playoff outsider into first place in the Southeast.
And it's because Ovechkin is again a dangerous player.
So what's different?
A lot's been made of the fact that he's switched from left wing to right and has nearly eradicated the outside-inside move from his repertoire. Both true. But what's made him far less predictable is that he now carries the puck less often. He's relying on Nicklas Backstrom to do the legwork, which leaves him to trail the play. Ovechkin enters the attack zone on his forehand down the right side, which opens him up for passes at different speeds. It also means that he's turning the puck over in the neutral zone less frequently.
And instead of floating on the perimeter waiting for a one-timer, Ovechkin is committed to battling to create chances down low. The results are apparent. He's using his size to earn space, and that means he's scoring more often from the 10-to-15-foot range. Actually, he's scoring more often, period. After netting just five goals in the Caps' first 16 contests, he has 20 in his last 23 games to earn a share of the league lead.
Much of that success has come on the Oates-designed power play that started slow but is now clicking along at an NHL-best 25.2 percent. Ovechkin leads the league with 14 power play goals, and is tied for the lead with 21 man advantage points. Again, it's working down low that's made the difference. Consider the power play hat trick he notched against the Panthers on Saturday.
Not one of those shots traveled more than 15 feet. He even has two tip-in goals during his past five games, which may be more than he's had in the past five years. To steal a golf analogy, he's stopped driving for show and started putting for dough.
There's also a sense that he's finally worked his way into game shape. That shouldn't have been a problem for a player who spent the lockout toiling in the KHL, but it illustrates the differences between the two leagues...or, at least, the different expectations each places on its top players. Ovechkin picked up some bad habits and it showed in his conditioning.
The heavy legs that were obvious early on are gone. Oates has taken notice that he's moving his feet more, and that's allowing him to trust Ovechkin in more challenging situations. Last season, under Dale Hunter, he was used almost exclusively in circumstances where the Caps were tied or well ahead, and that limited his ice time and his opportunities, especially in late-game situations with a lead on the line. Oates is rewarding his commitment with a heavier workload, including putting him out there with the Caps protecting a late lead. It's a responsibility that Ovechkin hopes to see frequently down the stretch as he builds up his MVP credentials.
Hard to believe the guy who floated through the first five weeks is in the Hart conversation, let alone a leading contender, but that's exactly where his play over the last six weeks has landed him.
Ovechkin can thank his coach for that. Oates could have put a penny on the tracks over and over again until he finally derailed the A-Train. Instead he worked to slowly earn the trust of a player who was once a star and is again.