Fifteen years ago, the Capitals acquired Adam Oates from the Bruins via trade looking for a jump-start to bolster its struggling offense from the veteran center. On Tuesday, Washington brought in Oates again looking for the same result from the newly-minted Hall of Famer - except this time with Oates taking over behind the bench.
Oates, who was one of Pete DeBoer's assistants in New Jersey this past season, will look to bring his strong hockey intelligence and creative offensive ideas to the nation's capital to resurrect what had been one of the league's most offensive clubs. In recent years, though, the Caps have struggled to light the lamp like before, and Washington hopes Oates can help in that regard.
Oates was the only one of the three apparent finalists for Washington's head coaching job - former Blackhawks assistant Mike Haviland and Norfolk coach Jon Cooper were the others - without previous head coaching experience. But Oates' biggest asset was his work with the Devils' offense - in particular the special teams - which was one of the reasons New Jersey surprised many experts and reached the Stanley Cup Final this spring.
Unlike Devils teams of the past which had adopted a much more passive offense, New Jersey got much more aggressive in that regard this past season. New Jersey would even employ the tactic of attacking point men on the penalty kill in an effort to generate scoring.
While the Devils were nearly even with Washington in goal production overall (New Jersey outscored Washington 228-222), New Jersey's special teams outproduced the Caps 61-44 with the extra man and the penalty kill combined.
The Capitals once possessed the league's most potent power-play unit, but the extra man has lately been a sore spot with the Caps - particularly noted as one of the reasons for the Caps' struggles in recent years by owner Ted Leonsis in an interview with him this past season. The Caps had the league's best power-play unit in 2009-10, but the extra man faltered badly in the team's stunning loss to the Canadiens in round one. Following the playoff upset by Montreal, the power play fell to 16th overall in the league in 2010-11 and dropped again to 18th this past season.
Oates was brought in by ex-Capitals teammate Rick Tocchet in Tampa Bay before the 2009-10 season, as he worked with the Bolts' forwards in training camp, despite not having any previous coaching experience. With Oates behind the bench, the Lightning finished with the 8th-ranked power play unit and two of its forwards ranked in the NHL's top six scorers.
When Tocchet was replaced by Guy Boucher in Tampa, Oates headed north to join new Devils coach John MacLean's staff in New Jersey the next season. While MacLean's tenure didn't last long with the Devils' slow start, Oates remained behind the bench with both MacLean's replacement Brent Sutter and Pete DeBoer this season.
Like the Devils, the power play struggled in Oates' first year - hampered by the long-term injury to Zach Parise - but finished 14th in the league this past season. In particular, Oates' system helped Ilya Kovalchuk finish with 10 power-play goals this regular season, and 5 in the playoffs - best in the entire league.
For Oates, his next challenge will be working with Kovalchuk's good friend Alex Ovechkin, and presumably helping him improve his defensive game as well as recapturing his old power-play prowess. Kovalchuk earned praise league-wide this campaign for embracing more of a two-way game, and one of Oates' responsibilities in Washington likely will be working to do the same with Ovechkin.
It will be worth noting if Oates imports New Jersey's aggressive stance on the penalty-kill as well, as the Devils led the league with 15 short-handed tallies, with Adam Henrique, Kovalchuk and Parise among the league leaders in that category. Until now, Ovechkin has rarely played on the penalty kill, but that could change under a more aggressive penalty kill.
For Capitals General George McPhee, bringing in Oates - the fifth straight coach he has hired without previous NHL coaching experience - certainly seems to be a move towards giving the team's offensive numbers.
McPhee certainly was familiar with Oates as a player - Oates was an assistant captain during the team's 1998 Stanley Cup playoff run, as well as succeeding Dale Hunter in the team captaincy in 1999.
"Adam was a highly intelligent player in the NHL for 19 seasons," McPhee said in a press release. "He has been an assistant coach in our conference for the past three seasons and is prepared to lead our club as head coach."
Ironically, Oates' trade from Boston in 1997 laid the groundwork for McPhee taking over the Capitals. After being acquired by then-Caps GM David Poile to try to improve Washington's struggling offense, Oates he sat out his first game after the deal - a loss to the Islanders - and Washington missed the playoffs by two points. That summer, Poile was replaced by McPhee.
Oates spent 19 years in the NHL, playing with Detroit, St. Louis, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Anaheim and Edmonton, scoring 1,420 points - 1,079 helpers - and played 387 games with the Caps between 1997 and 2002.
Thanks to that stellar playing career, it proved to be a pretty memorable day for Oates as well, as less than two hours after being named coach of the Capitals, it was announced he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto - just the 6th Capital to earn that honor.
"It's a huge honor for me as well ...It's a special day for me and my family," Oates said during his Hall of Fame conference call. "Obviously it's a fantastic day. ... I got to go out and play the lotto," he joked.
For Washington, the Caps hope that the hiring of Oates will help bring back a bit of the old offense that has defined the franchise in the post-lockout years.