Capitals’ coach Adam Oates playing risky game with Alexander Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin (left) wasn’t exactly enthused by coach Adam Oates’ experiment. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

You have to hand it to Adam Oates. He’s clearly a man of his convictions.

It’ll be interesting to see how much longer Washington’s freshman coach will be allowed to hold onto them.

During his preseason preparation for his new gig, Oates came to a conclusion about the sagging fortunes of superstar Alex Ovechkin: the two-time MVP had become too predictable on the attack. If he had the puck, Ovechkin would carry it into the zone, curl in from the left wing and try to snap a shot off his forehand from the circle. If he didn’t have it, he would mill around until he could dart into the circle to await a pass that would set up a vicious one-timer.

Of course, Oates wasn’t the first to recognize this. Bruce Boudreau tried to address it and the ensuing power struggle cost him his job. So did Dale Hunter, whose weariness at dealing with Ovechkin was thought to be the prime reason for his return to junior hockey at the end of the playoffs.

So Oates took up the cause, bringing with him a reputation as an astute offensive mind. If anyone could get OV back on track, it would be the guy who spent his Hall of Fame career setting up Brett Hull and Cam Neely to succeed.

So what does Oates do? He takes the natural left winger and moves him to the right side.

In theory, it was a brilliant move that should have forced Ovechkin out of his comfort zone and into a place where he would rely on his natural creativity to keep defenses off balance.

Instead, it turned every shift into a potential episode of the Keystone Cops, with Ovechkin crashing into teammates or floating around aimlessly. Whether he was confused or simply pouting is tough to tell.

What was clear was that it didn’t work…and that Ovechkin seemed disinterested in committing to the approach. So Oates went to plan B: installing OV alongside Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb, a pair of ham-fisted grinders who don’t possess a lick of Ovechkin’s natural gifts between them.

But Oates knows he can count on those two for a full effort and a commitment to gritty, north-south brand of hockey. It’s a style intended to keep Ovechkin moving at top speed, get him involved in the forecheck and, maybe, allow him to generate some opportunistic offense off of turnovers.

So far, that hasn’t worked, either. And after a particularly listless first period against the Sabres on Sunday, Oates reunited Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer. The result? He finally scored his first goal of the year — a classic one-timer off a feed from Mike Green — and the struggling Caps went on to earned their first win.

Is that the start of something good for the captain? Hopefully.. but if he’s going to build on that breakthrough, he’ll have to do it with Beagle and Crabb.

Oates, committed to the plan, said today the trio would be together for Tuesday’s game in Ottawa.

“I thought that they provided a lot of speed for him and could maybe back the ‘D’ off,” Oates told the Washington Post. “And to get back to balance. Obviously, during the course of a game you can change it back and go through combinations. But I liked our balance.”

Ovechkin played the part of the good soldier prior to the game. “It’s good for everybody,” he told the Post. “For them, they have more ice time, they have opportunity to play against the best ones and, you know, make a score. It’s always nice for me and for them to make creativity out there….It’s opened up space for them too.”

They were the right words, but his actions told a different story. And that’s what makes this such a fascinating play by the rookie coach. He knows Ovechkin’s preference is to skate with the sublimely skilled Backstrom and he understands which one of them is on the hook if his experiments continue to fail…and it ain’t the guy making $10 million a year.

Ultimately, it’s up to Ovechkin whether he changes his game or not. It wouldn’t be easy, but all he has to do is look at what Oates did for Ilya Kovalchuk last year in New Jersey to see the value of listening to the coach. It took his countryman time to adjust, but Kovalchuk stuck with it on the way to a career season.

So full marks to Oates for his persistence. Even if his insistence on doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

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