Adam Oates knows that as a first-year head coach, the cards are not exactly stacked in his favor as he awaits word on the end of the NHL labor dispute.
With two of his best players in Russia – one of them sidelined by a neck injury – and most of their teammates scattered throughout the world, Oates realizes his first training camp as Capitals coach will be a difficult one.
“We’ll be flying by the seat of our pants a little bit,” Oates said Wednesday after a handful of players worked out at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
“We’ve got a new coaching staff and a couple new players. There are a couple new things to do with the system that we’ll have to do at a rapid pace, and then worry about conditioning with a lot of guys. So there are a lot of factors going on.”
One of Oates’ biggest concerns is the health of Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps’ 24-year-old center injured his neck when he was checked into the boards in a game for Moscow Dynamo on Dec. 26. He has not played since and according to his European agent Gunnar Svensson, Backstrom is being listed as either day-to-day or week-to-week.
The biggest concern of the Capitals is that Backstrom suffered another concussion, but because they are not permitted contact with him during the lockout, they won’t know for sure until he arrives for training camp and is examined by team doctors.
“George [McPhee] and I talked about it today,” Oates said, “but I don’t know.”
In addition to injuries, the concern of every NHL coaching staff is the conditioning levels of players, some of whom have played 30 games in Europe or the AHL; others who have not played a game since last spring.
Among the Capitals, 10 players -- Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, Marcus Johnasson, Michal Neuvirth, Brooks Laich, Joey Crabb, Wojtek Wolski, Mathieu Perreault, Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov -- have spent most of the lockout playing in professional leagues.
That means about half the Capitals have been working out on their own.
Oats met with Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish on Wednesday to discuss ways to handle the wide variety of conditioning levels.
“How do you catch up? How do you give some guys rest?” Oates wondered. “It’s tough because we haven’t been able to talk to them, so you kind of hope that they’ve been [skating] on their own. Everybody’s got to go through it. You want to do it right and not get anybody hurt in the process.”
Caps left wing Jason Chimera spent two weeks playing in the CzechRepublic, but otherwise has worked out at Kettler with teammates Jay Beagle, John Carlson and Mike Green, along with former teammate and current New York Ranger Jeff Halpern.
“You want to get things rolling as quick as possible, especially with a new coach, a new system and new players coming in,” Chimera said.
“[Oates] hasn’t really gotten a chance to put his stamp on this team. You’d like to have a long training camp -- two, three or four weeks to get going. So it would be nice to get at least one exhibition game in there.
“No one has not been skating or working out so everybody’s ready to go. Some guys are playing more games than others but I know Halpy has been working us like a drill sergeant. We may have six or seven guys, but he works us like there’s 20 guys.”
Oates played for the Boston Bruins during the NHL’s last shortened season in 1994-95, playing in all 48 games and finishing fourth in the NHL with 41 assists.
“I’ve been trying to remember that season,” Oates said. “I think you still experience the highs and lows as you do in an 80-game schedule. I also think teams are going to have 10 guys in Grade A shape and 10 guys that aren’t, and I think that will affect wins and losses.”
As far as his coaching staff, Oates said assistants Calle Johnasson and Tim Hunter have alternated between the practice rink at Kettler and their homes over the past several weeks and will be ready to get to work as soon as the lockout officially ends.
“We’re almost over prepared,” Oates said. “We’re just waiting for some news so we can focus on how we’re going to schedule everything in a short amount of time.”