With Todd McLellan no longer in consideration as a coaching candidate for the Buffalo Sabres, I’d like to stand up and throw a new name into the ring – Adam Oates. So Mr. Botterill, if you’re reading (which we know you are), pay close attention.
Usually, my motto about hiring a retread coach is “tread lightly”. However, the term “retread” applies a bit differently to Oates’ unique experience as the head boss behind the NHL bench. After serving as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Oates latched on as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils, helping the team reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012.
The following year, Oates garnered his first head-coaching job with the Washington Capitals. An early playoff exit in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and a 9th place regular season finish in 2013-2014 urged the Capitals to clean house, firing both Oates and general manager George McPhee. It was his one and only true head coaching job, taking into account being named “co-head coach” with the New Jersey Devils - along with Scott Stevens - after Peter DeBoer’s firing in the middle of the 2014-2015 season. The Devils eventually hired John Hynes as their head coach the ensuing offseason.
Currently, Oates has started his own personal player development coaching business called Oates Sports Group. His clients include some of the elite players in the NHL such as Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Ryan O’Reilly, Mark Scheifele, and some guy named Jack Eichel. Upon firing head coach John Stevens in November, the Los Angeles Kings became the first team to hire the group’s consulting services.
So why should the Sabres be interested in Adam Oates?
His attention to detail, proven track record in player development, and overall mindset and approach top the list. These are the things the Sabres seem to be missing, and the mantra to Oates’ coaching.
Attention To Detail
In order to get a better understanding of Adam Oates as a coach, check out this quote from episode 115 of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast, which was released back on October, 10th 2018:
“One of my pet peeves is guys going offside. When I watch guys’ video, and when I watch games night in and night out, going offside drives me nuts. I don’t think I went offside in my career. When you think about it, why does a guy go offside?...What they don’t realize is, that’s a huge mistake. You know, because everybody’s analytics crazy, and, you go offside you just lost offensive momentum…that means you’re a little out of control, so if you’re a little out of control, there’s going to be other areas of the game that you’re a little out of control. So that’s one of the things I look for, like when is a guy out of position and why.”
Oates goes on to explain that a simple play such as staying onside can lead to more o-zone time, which can lead to a shot or powerplay, which really accentuates how crazy a mistake going offside is. He also touched on coaches’ systems and how a player can potentially compromise a coach.
“Every coach has a system. Everything’s a system…what I say is, what breaks down a system? Like if you have a d-to-d pass, and the guy puts it in the guy’s feet, that’s a mistake. Like the system doesn’t shut off, like the house just lost power because you put it in the guy’s feet. If you put it on the guy’s tape, he can keep the system going, right, and move the puck up the ladder. You know, and I don’t think people recognize enough what the mistakes are in our game.”
His point? Take care of the little things and the stat sheet will consequently populate itself.
One of the big tasks with taking on the Sabres job would be developing the young talent on the roster. Undoubtedly, his experience tutoring players would translate well into developing the key parts of a young player’s game. He has a well-defined approach to player training and development – hand skill and hockey IQ.
Oates goes on to say:
“I love the way the guys train now. But I still think, in my mind, you know, when you workout and you train, your hands have to be first. Every single night, you watch any goal, and somebody either fumbled with the puck, or somebody made a really good play with the puck.”
His tactics have some merit. 14 of his clients had career-highs last season.
“The biggest thing that I see with every guy, that is pretty weird when you’re going to hear it, is when you go out for 45 seconds, are you paying attention all 45 seconds? Because, very few guys do on a shift-to-shift basis, all night long, every game.”
A good message to get through to his players, and get through he does. Oates has a reputation with players who played for him as a strong communicator and a very personable coach. Relating to his players has never been an issue, because, as he says, “once you get on the ice, there’s never a problem.”
Mindset and Approach
Here’s an excerpt on something Oates enlightens the podcast listeners about goal scorers that he learned from The Great One:
“Wayne Gretzky told me something a couple years ago that I had never thought. And it makes so much sense. And he said, you know what makes Hully (Brett Hull) special, how smart he was? And I was like, what’s that? And he goes, not only did he know how to shoot a puck, but he knew how to time you. That’s his greatest strength – his brain. He’s not going to skate faster than you up the ice, he’s not going to go into the corner faster than you, he’s going to wait for you. And that takes unbelievable patience, to understand that you gotta wait for that guy to go steal the puck or be ready to make a pass to you. And quite honestly when he said that I’m like, that makes perfect sense. When you watch the good goal scorers of the world, they know how to time it. You know, because they’re timing the guy that passes to them.”
Clearly, Oates sees the game just a little differently than the clichés you’ve heard from other coaches in the past.
Also, when asked about “fancy stats”, Oates responded:
“I think it gets a lot of attention, but I think most guys, or, most GM’s probably try and use a stat to find some sort of edge, or some sort of statistic that is glaring for their team whether it’s pro and cons. And I kind of do the same thing.”
He explains that coaches, like himself, have their own specific data they like to explore that sheds light on how a player or team can improve. He doesn’t value corsi alone, rather, he values team corsi in specific shot areas. As any hockey data analyzer will tell you, if a player’s corsi is positive, then they’re generally put in a position to succeed. A deeper dive is required to truly get a feel for a player’s effectiveness, such as zone starts and shot charts.
So Mr. Botterill, did I sell you yet? Sabres fans – are you on board?
There’s one issue. Oates’ willingness to ditch a successful, lucrative business to jump back into the NHL full-time is in question.
When asked by the Chiclets crew if he’s looking to get back to head coaching in the future or if he prefers what he is doing now, Oates stated:
“A couple years ago I came out and said I’m not going to coach anymore, because the last thing I wanted was any coach out there to think that there might be some funny-business going on, or sabotaging going on, and you know what? I just wanted to clear the air that, no, I’m just going to work on these guys, and try to improve their skills. That’s all.”
Since this quote, however, Oates, and his team did agree to a consulting role with the Kings, associating himself with an NHL team for the first time since 2015.
While working with top talent, having flexible hours, and not worrying about job security are certainly keeping Oates content, it’s tough to believe his name has not come up in consideration for the many recent and current coaching vacancies. If I was in Botterill’s position, I would really test the waters. He’s the perfect “retread” – a mixture of a forward thinking, experienced, and respected NHL coach with an emphasis on player development.
If the Pegulas are willing to open the checkbook enough to lure Oates out of his new-found comfort zone, they will have my support. Now, who’s with me?