When Adam Oates asked the right-handed shooting Alex Ovechkin to move from left wing to right wing last season, he changed more than just the shooting angles for his star forward.
He changed the way his entire team would play.
No longer would the Capitals be an east-west team that serpentined out of all three zones, prone to giving up just as many chances as they created.
They would become a puck-possessing, north-south team that played by the book – his book. Righties on the right side of the ice, lefties on the left.
“I believe it needs to be that way,” Oates said when asked to explain his reasoning. “I think you have the best opportunity for success. You don’t expose the puck to the middle and when it’s in the middle of the ice it’s dangerous.”
Oates said he first noticed the right-left differences when he began playing with Europeans who played on their off wings. Players like Peter Bondra, a left-handed shooter who played the right wing.
“The Europeans grew up that way,” Oates said. “They’re bigger rinks [in Europe], it’s different hockey. They come against the grain. When they first started coming over is when I first noticed it. All of a sudden I’m playing with a guy on his offside. I wasn’t a good skater and I got slower, really fast.”
As an opposing coach in Tampa and New Jersey, when Oates saw the right-handed Ovechkin driving down the left wing and cutting to the middle for his patented shot, he saw a talented player putting himself in a position to get the puck stripped and turned the other way.
Oates thought by moving Ovechkin to the right side, he would not only alter his shooting angles, but make him more available to carry the puck in the zone, something he always relied on Nicklas Backstrom to do. So, in addition to protecting the puck better with hs body, Ovechkin was getting more touches.
“Ovechkin’s a primary example because he’s the identity of our team and I need him to get more touches,” Oates said. “If he’s behind Backy he’s not going to touch the puck. They’ve got to come together.”
Capitals general manager George McPhee said the team experimented with Ovechkin on the right side in the past and he liked the look, just as he did when they moved Bondra from right wing to left wing during the Caps’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.
“He got into the habit of cutting into the middle too much to get the shot and not taking it deep and you get turnovers and it goes the other way,” McPhee said of Bondra. “…It’s not something new, but we happen to have a coach who likes it and I endorse it.”
Oates’ right-left philosophy applies to his defensemen as well. Every time a defenseman has to go on his backhand to retrieve a puck on the wall, Oates sees valuable time and space lost.
“It allows your team to go north,” he said. “Every time you go back, you let the [opposing] team reset. Now you’ve got to beat five guys and you know what? Over the course of 60 minutes you’re not good enough to beat five guys all the time. No one is.”
It’s the biggest reason the right-shooting Tyson Strachan replaced righty Mike Green on Friday night in Detroit, even though the left-shooting Dmitry Orlov was available.
“When you watch a team, there are moments when you see them get handcuffed,” Oates said
Oates doesn’t want that to be his team. But are there times he might take that position to the extreme?
“We’re not so fixated on it that we’re not going to give somebody an opportunity and not have a right-handed guy playing o the left side,” McPhee said. “We’re going to do that if necessary. If you have a righty go down and you need a righty from Hershey and there’s a righty playing well there, well, yeah, that’s easy.
“But if you don’t have a righty and you’ve got a lefty who’s playing pretty well, then bring him up. Give him a chance.”