Oates has faith but Caps still need wins

PITTSBURGH -- Kudos to rookie head coach Adam Oates for holding fast to the silver lining of an otherwise messy season.

While the hockey world marvels at the depths to which the Washington Capitals have sunk and the continuing devolution of once-upon-a-time superstar Alex Ovechkin, Oates insists that he sees progress.

True, when your team is chock-a-block with talent such as that of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro and John Carlson and you’re 2-7-1 and nestled at the bottom of the NHL standings, what else are you going to say?

But Oates, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November as one of the game's premier playmakers, said he believes that especially now it’s important to look at the big picture.

Teams can deviate from the plan and scrape together a few wins, but that’s not a sustainable approach to building long-term success, Oates told ESPN.com before the Caps were to take on longtime rival Pittsburgh Thursday night.

Oates said he has been enthused by the effort and by many parts of the team’s past few games, which include two losses to Toronto, a loss Sunday to Pittsburgh and a (rare) win over Philadelphia.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Oates said. “And I really believe that.”

Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma spoke several times to Oates after Oates was hired in the offseason to replace Dale Hunter. Bylsma said he still thinks the Capitals are a dangerous team in spite their struggles early on in the season.

"There are huge swings at the beginning of a season," Bylsma said, noting his own team’s stutter step start to the season before their current four-game winning streak. "They’ve got to stay with it. After tonight they need to get a few wins."

Whether anyone from the outside thinks the first-year coach is whistling past the proverbial graveyard is a moot point. If he believes there are positive signs, and more important if his team believes it, that’s all that matters.

Well, that and getting a few points.

“Of course that’s on your mind,” Oates said of the poor start, one that is exacerbated by the compressed 48-schedule that was drawn up at the end of the lockout. “But I don’t think you can give up on your ideals” and cut corners in the hopes of scraping together a couple of wins, Oates said.

The former New Jersey assistant said that was a valuable lesson he learned working with president and GM Lou Lamoriello, head coach Pete DeBoer and the rest of the Devils. The team stuck to a plan through thick and thin, and last June went to the Stanley Cup finals.

If it’s true that players take their cues from their coach, then the Caps have seen nothing but determination from Oates, who spent the lockout coaching Washington’s American Hockey League team in Hershey, Pa., preparing for his first NHL head-coaching gig.

“I think you just have to stand tall” in the face of this adversity, Oates said. “I’m actually OK personally. And I mean that. I’m fine. I’m encouraged by the way we’re playing.”

Oates said he’s still getting a good vibe from his players on the bench, even though each game seems to bring with it a new, unpleasant wrinkle. Take Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Toronto, when a miscue between netminder Michal Neuvirth and defenseman Tom Poti allowed the Leafs to take an early lead on a gift goal from which the team could not recover.

There also are issues of conditioning with top players and production from star players. Rugged winger Joel Ward, for instance, leads the team with four goals. With all due respect to Ward, that’s not a good thing. They miss heart-and-soul leader Brooks Laich, who is slowly recovering from injury, and the goaltending has been average at best.

The focus, naturally, has been on Ovechkin, who has only two goals and five points. Both goals have come on the power play as Oates has worked to move Ovechkin from the left wing to the right wing to try to give him more options offensively.

Although it is a constant topic of conversation, Oates said he never grows tired of talking about Ovechkin’s buy-in.

The two watched tape for a long time after a recent loss and there are many indications that Ovechkin is getting it and that the experiment will ultimately pay dividends, Oates said. It just hasn’t happened yet.

“I love the guy,” he said. “Personally, to be willing to play a different position, I don’t think people understand what that is and I don’t think he gets as much credit as he should get for doing this.”

“He’s got faith in me right now and I’ve got faith in him,” Oates said.

Faith is one thing, of course. What the Caps really need to go along with that faith is a few wins.