NEWARK, NJ - MAY 29: Assistant coach Adam Oates of the New Jersey Devils watches from the bench during the media day skate at the AmeriHealth Pavilion the day prior to Game One of the Stanley Cup Final at Prudential Center on May 29, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Adam Oates took an unconventional route to NHL stardom. Now he's taken an unconventional route to NHL head coach with the Washington Capitals.
Most hockey Hall of Famers don't end up as NHL coaches. But Adam Oates isn't like most hockey Hall of Famers.
The new coach in charge of guiding Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin -- the first overall pick in 2004 -- was himself undrafted before entering the NHL. Oates was passed over in the draft and went the college route at a time in the mid-1980s when few future NHLers did.
But with an analytical mind -- private engineering college Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is not exactly known for dumb jocks -- Oates brought a soccer midfielder's vision to the game. As a player, he found seams and passing lanes in the flow of play that made many Hall of Fame goal scorers happy men. Brett Hull and Cam Neely are among his many beneficiaries. Never a speedster, he instead relied on surgical strikes administered with a general's view of the overall rink.
Will that player history serve him well as a head coach? It's impossible to say, but players say it served him well in his recent stops as a bench assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New Jersey Devils. Former teammates like Jeff Halpern call Oates "an elite hockey mind" whose insights helped them as players.
And it makes sense: Oates, named to the Hall of Fame only yesterday (in what was a banner day for him), was not the typical superstar. Sure he racked up points and even captained the Capitals, but he was the more quiet, studious kind of star. More out-going running mates like Hull and Neely took the limelight which Oates happily conceded.
During his 17-year NHL career, Oates played for seven different teams and at least 10 different coaches -- several former NHL players (but no Hall of Famers) among them. From excitable Jacque Demers to the fiery Brian Sutter (twice) to the aggressive Ron Wilson to the analytical Craig MacTavish and Mike Babcock, Oates played under a wide spectrum of successful coaches.
While he has no head coaching experience himself, Oates in the last two years in New Jersey has served under two head coaches who have found the balance between defensive hockey and the opened-up game that post-lockout rule enforcement has created. More than just helping design the power play, Oates excelled with the Devils under both old-school defensive disciplinarian Jacques Lemaire and new-school mind Pete DeBoer.
Next to him as an assistant on the Devils bench? Larry Robinson, a fellow reserved superstar and one of the few Hall of Fame players to have success behind the bench.
The whole "coaching lineage" and "rubbed elbows with greats" thing is probably overdone, and is certainly no predictor of success behind the bench. But Capitals followers are hoping for someone who balances the offensive firepower of former coach Bruce Boudreau and the dull, defense-first nature of his short-time successor Dale Hunter.
Given all the approaches and gameplans the studious Oates has experienced as both player and as assistant coach, if you're looking for a guy who brings both yin and yang to the table -- and who commands respect as a recently anointed Hall of Famer -- Oates just might be it.