Ovechkin, Capitals hope to thrive under Oates' new system
For four seasons, the Capitals played firewagon hockey under Bruce Boudreau, saw Alex Ovechkin score a ton of goals, and couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs.
Last season they tried sitting back and blocking shots under Dale Hunter. Ovechkin said it made him feel like “a plumber’ and again, they couldn’t get past Round 2.
On Sunday, new Capitals coach Adam Oates introduced an attack-the-puck hybrid style that seemed to excite every player on the first day of training camp.
Most notably, the Capitals’ 27-year-old captain.
“The system he tells us, I think is great,” Ovechkin said after taking part in a 70-minute practice attended by hundreds of fans at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “You can play well offense and defense. I’m excited, it’s good.”
What makes Oates’ system different than the one Hunter installed – with great resistance -- last season?
“Everybody’s involved,” Ovechkin said. “You can create. It’s not like dump and chase like we played before. I think we have a team that can create offense and if we want to play the right way defensively like he tells us it’s going to be good.”
On Sunday, everyone in the Capitals’ locker room was in complete agreement with Ovechkin. Defenseman Mike Green, who was a shadow of his former self last season with three goals in 32 games, said Oates’ system is “a balance of the two structures we’ve had before, and that’s what we needed.”
Before hitting the ice at 10:30 Sunday morning, Oates and his assistants, Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter, walked the team through a long video session that broke every aspect of how Oates wants to play, from attacking opponents in the neutral zone to playing sound positional hockey in the offensive zone.
“We’ll be pretty aggressive on the puck all over the ice,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “That’s the way we’re gonna do it. But really, the bottom line is getting the players to buy into whatever you’re teaching. There are different ways to win a Cup, but the buy-in is most important.”
To the Capitals’ credit, they eventually bought into Hunter’s defense-first system, even if many of them didn’t like it, and it carried them to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Marcus Johansson, who opened camp on a top line with Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, said the Caps will look different this season under Oates.
“It’s a lot more fun,” he said. “I think we have a fast-skating team and a lot of guys want to skate. I think it’s better than standing around waiting for the guys to come at you. Skating a lot will keep the game at a high tempo and I think that’s when we’re good.”
On Sunday, Ovechkin alternated between his natural left wing spot and the right side. The switch was actually an idea Ovechkin brought to Oates during a long conversation they had over the summer. Last season, Ovechkin managed 38 goals and a career-low 65 points and many believe his drop in production was the result of becoming too predictable.
“He came to me and we talked about it and he said he’d like to try it,” Oates said. “I’m all for it. Obviously, he knows what he’s doing on the left side and it gives us a little bit of a balanced attack.
“We’re going to use him every way we can to try to utilize him. He’s a force in this league, he’s very important to us and I want to make sure he knows I’m going to do my best to let him be successful.”
Along with that will come the responsibility of holding Ovechkin accountable.
Troy Brouwer, who opened camp on a second line with Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolksi, said Ovechkin’s adherence to Oates’ system is paramount to the team’s success this season.
“We’ll have to see how that goes,” Brouwer said. “He’s in a system where he’s got to be responsible defensively.
“He started to do well at it at the end of the season last year with blocking a few shots here and there and making sure he was a little more defensive minded. But like I said before, he can’t just think offense all the time. He’s got to make sure he’s back helping out his d-men and the other guys on his line and making sure he’s not just getting stretch passes trying to get breakaways.”
Asked if that’s always been a part of Ovechkin’s game, Brouwer said, “It’s Ovie. You can make your assumption.”