This is the busy season for former Bruins center Adam Oates, darting across North America for the better part of 90 days, June through August, to work one-on-one with his 50-plus NHL player/clients as the game’s consummate Mr. Fix It.
Oates, 56, hung out his shingle four years ago as sole proprietor of Oates Sports Group, dedicated to enhancing his clients’ skill level, particularly their offensive production. Results have been strong.
According to Oates, 37 of his players reached career-high point totals last season, including Ryan O’Reilly. The Blues pivot posted personal bests in assists and points, then opened a postseason hardware store by winning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for the Cup-winning Blues and added the Selke as the NHL’s top defensive forward.
“I love the life,” said Oates, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012, and today ranking 18th all time in NHL scoring (1,420 points). “I love working with the guys.”
There is, as Oates calls it, a “secret sauce” to what he teaches, and it’s no surprise he protects the recipe.
“You go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac . . . you pay for it, they hand you one, right?” he mused recently when reached on the road in Minnesota. “They don’t tell you what goes into the sauce.”
It has long been a mystery here why NHL teams, for all the training and coaching methods they’ve devised and embraced over the last 30 years, haven’t carved out space for a scoring coach the way, say, baseball teams have added hitting coaches.
What’s more important to a team’s success than putting the puck in the net?
A case could be made for goaltending, of course, which in itself underscores that wins and losses come down to how much vulcanized rubber makes it over the goal line each night.
Like money, scoring may not be everything, but it makes life infinitely easier.
“I see a need for it, no doubt,” said Oates, pondering whether coaching staffs should devote more time and resources to the art of scoring. “I just don’t think there are guys out there that know how to teach it.”
Surely there are some guys up to the task?
“Yeah, me,” said the ever-glib Oates, whose 1,079 assists rank No. 7 all time in the NHL.
OK, surely there must be more than a committee of one?
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Oates, a fit of laughter finally assuring he was kidding, presumably. “I would say teams are now going to add that [coaching] element, yes . . . it’s too vital a statistic.”
Ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler has been an Oates client for the past couple of seasons. The 6-foot-5-inch right winger has responded with back-to-back campaigns of 91 points, career bests, after averaging 76 points the two prior seasons.
“That’s 15 points, and I can tell you, Blake loves him,” said Matt Keator, Wheeler’s Boston-based agent. “He’s helped build an extra dimension into his game — small things that make a big difference, the use of time and space out there, more spatial awareness.”
Two of his best teachers in the scoring art, noted Oates, were ex-teammates Steve Yzerman in Detroit and Brett Hull, his former wingman in St. Louis. Oates’s days in Boston also had him on the ice for thousands of shifts with Cam Neely and Ray Bourque, another pair of Hall of Famers, with a combined 2,273 career points.
“I remember early in my time in Detroit with Stevie [Yzerman],” recalled Oates, who joined the Wings as a free agent signee out of RPI. “And my dad said, ‘You know, he’s better than you.’ I’m like, ‘C’mon, geez, I know that!’
“If you’re a student of the game, and motivated to get better, you can see the things those guys do, what made them so good.”
In his current gig, noted Oates, it’s his ability to size up a player’s game and detect oft-subtle weaknesses that is the foundation of his business. In the Oates world of better scoring, production begins with the stick (proper fit essential) and puck handling.
Too many players, by his eye, overtrain on both shooting and conditioning. To wit, the Oates take on each:
■ “Shooting is the most overrated thing to work on in the world. Because, think about it, some guys get one shot every two games and it’s a rebound, a tip, a breakaway. Your job is to be in the right spot at the right time. That’s it. Get there. Execute that. If you do that, you’ll get more shots. If you get to that point, and you’re still not scoring, then we’ll talk about shot.”
■ “When you allocate your time in the summer, what really matters? What really matters? You know, we’ve got into this craze of the strength coaches, right? OK, you gotta be in shape, I get that, you have to be strong. But for hockey, if you are spending more time being in the gym than working on your hands, you’re an idiot. You look at the world’s strongest man vs. the world’s martial arts champion, who is going to win? No-brainer: The martial arts guy. They just don’t look good, but they’re the killers. End of the day, if you are strong, in shape, then get on the ice.”
Just days ago, Oates took on what may be the greatest challenge of his four years in the skills biz, adding former Bruin Milan Lucic to his client list.
The 31-year-old “Looch,” who was recently flipped from Edmonton to Calgary, is in dire need of offensive help and overall career recovery.
Once a 30-goal scorer with the Bruins, he potted only 16 goals in his 161 games with the Oilers the past two seasons.
Prior to getting dished to the Flames for an underperforming James Neal, rumors were rampant that he could be bought out (four years remaining with a $6 million cap hit).
Oates would not go into detail regarding what prescriptive fix he had for Lucic, but sounded assured he can help a guy he sees as motivated to reclaim his stature as a player with brute force who can add some offensive pop. He’ll have to help Lucic get off the mark faster, and enhance his puckhandling, which is Page 1 on the Oates primer.
“It’s not a magic wand,” said Oates, not speaking specifically to Lucic.
“It takes some time and thinking and whatever. But at the end of the day, when I watch a player, I watch his game as if I’m his dad, as if I’m him, as if I’m his coach, as if I’m his GM.
“I know what everyone wants. I can tell you what makes a guy a success or a failure.
“That’s what I’m good at.”
Directions few in running Wild
A source familiar with the ongoing GM search by the Wild, who recently turfed Paul Fenton after one season, figures both ex-Bruins Bill Guerin and Tom Fitzgerald went into the weekend as the front-runners for the coveted spot.
Guerin is currently Jim Rutherford’s top lieutenant in Pittsburgh and Fitzgerald the same for Ray Shero in New Jersey. Neither of the former forwards has ever held a GM role, which is not necessarily a disqualifier. But owner Craig Leipold could seek a more experienced hand after being disappointed by Fenton, promoted after some 15 years as David Poile’s second in Nashville.
Fenton, 59, has yet to speak publicly since his abrupt dismissal. “Death by a thousand cuts,” as the cashiering was described by Athletic scribe Mike Russo.
Leipold was uncharacteristically blunt about his disappointment in Fenton the day of his news conference, noting that the Wild “culture wasn’t the same” and “it was just a feeling that we didn’t have the right leader for the organization.
“We’re kind of in an area of not really knowing where we’re going to go,” Leipold added.
Fenton, a Boston University product (Class of 1982), was considered a strong talent evaluator in his Nashville days. He no doubt made mistakes. Among the biggest: flipping an effective and pricey Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for a pricey nothingburger in Victor Rask. The change worked wonders for the Hurricanes, who made it to the Eastern Conference finals, and the Wild ended up a playoff DNQ for the first time in seven seasons. That’s not all because of one deal, but it sticks out boldly on Fenton’s folly list.
Keep in mind, though, the Wild have been just this or that side of mediocre for a very long time, boring and hamstrung by the megadeals Leipold encouraged to be written for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Fenton was hired to shake the mediocrity, which virtually guaranteed the culture wouldn’t be the same and that egos throughout the organization would be bruised.
That’s how it typically works in the business world.
Leipold often stresses that he wants a family atmosphere throughout his organization, which in itself is admirable, but it also brings into question whether the object is to develop a winning hockey team or a good, rousing rendition of “Hakuna Matata”.
It’s quite possible Fenton was the wrong man for the job, but his tenure was so brief (14 months) and his dismissal so abrupt, it makes Leipold look equally incompetent, as well as impulsive.
He sounds like a guy who felt the culture needed to change — presumably why he didn’t keep Chuck Fletcher on the job — then became spooked, or miffed, when, lo and behold, the culture changed with Fenton on the job.
A big step up in this Junior class
John Beecher, the Bruins’ top pick (No. 30) in the June draft, drew a lot of attention in the recent Team USA camp that brought 44 of Uncle Sam’s best to Plymouth, Mich., to audition for the 2020 World Junior tourney that begins Dec. 26 in Czechia.
Beecher showed some unexpected scoring pop and was “hands down” the best player in camp, according to NHL.com’s Mike Morreale.
All good, and Beecher one day could prove to be a “find” at No. 30, but it’s often a mistake to get carried away when assessing how 18- and 19-year-olds mix in the same gene pool, particularly when it’s summer hockey.
Beecher is big (6 feet 3 inches, 210 pounds) and he is fast, but from a pro perspective, his game really needs to fill out — precisely why he is headed to the University of Michigan, where he is expected in the Oct. 11 opening lineup vs. Clarkson. It’s a good bet he’ll be in Ann Arbor for at least two seasons, and not out of the question he’ll stay through the spring of 2023, although his raw size inevitably will influence his decision-making when weighing when to turn pro.
Now, as for the World Junior tourney (with games in Ostrava and Trinec, near the Polish border), Beecher’s performance in Plymouth likely secured him a spot on the 23-man squad that will open play Dec. 26. Despite his show of offense in camp, he still projects as a third- or fourth-liner, possibly at left wing on a trio with Jonathan Gruden (son of former Bruin short-timer John Gruden ) and Trevor Janicke. Gruden is an Ottawa pick out of Miami, and Janicke an Anaheim selection with Notre Dame.
Also pegged to play for the Yanks: ex-BC forward (and Bay State boy) Oliver Wahlstrom, who departed the Heights after one season and signed with the Islanders (three years/$925,000 cap hit if he makes the varsity) in late March.
Wahlstrom, who played 10 games for AHL Bridgeport after flying the Eagle coop — five in the regular season, five in the playoffs — has his eye first and foremost on landing a roster spot with the Islanders. He trained much of the summer in Sweden, his dad’s homeland, with Vastra Frolunda, and played well enough in the AHL that he’ll merit at least as initial look from Islanders coach Barry Trotz.
Ex-BU defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, surprisingly bought out by the Rangers, will recoup $1.75 million in lost wages with his one-year deal in Tampa. The Bolts tried to acquire him from the Blues at the 2017 trade deadline, but Shattenkirk was wheeled to the Capitals and then hit it rich (four years at $6.65 million) as expected as a UFA with the Blueshirts. He was ditched, in part, after the Rangers recently paid Jacob Trouba a whack of money ($56 million/seven years), but also because his processing speed too often was a tick off when placed on the No. 1 pairing and power-play point duty. In Tampa, he’ll have the luxury of playing fewer minutes, and lower in the order, and coach Jon Cooper can spot him as needed rather than rely on him for nightly heavy-duty lifting . . . Ex-BU forward Chris Drury, second to Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, was denied permission to talk to the Wild about the open GM spot in St. Paul. A year ago, the Rangers reportedly blocked the Sabres from talking to him about the opening that went to Jason Botterill. Keep in mind: clubs sometimes impose the “block” when the employee in question privately expresses that he has no interest in leaving the gig. Drury grew up in Connecticut, is well compensated as the Blueshirt assistant GM, and life is just ducky along Broadway. From that perspective, Buffalo or St. Paul likely did not seem attractive . . . By the way, going rate for an assistant GM is roughly $500,000 per annum. The GM pay scale begins around $1.5 million and tops out around at $5 million . . . By this time next month, the Bruins will be in the thick of their rookie camp (Sept. 6-9) in Buffalo, opposing fellow frosh among the Sabres, Devils, and Penguins. It will be interesting to see how 2018 draft pick Jakub Lauko has grown his game after his year in Rouyn-Noranda, where the winger scored 54 points in 63 games, including playoffs. Lauko has some feistiness to his game and a scorer’s ego . . . Headed into the weekend, one-time primo pick Jesse Puljujarvi (No. 4 overall in 2016) was still expressing no interest in returning to the Oilers. Meanwhile, he also didn’t have a job back in Finland or elsewhere. He just may have to come back hat in hand to new Oilers GM Ken Holland. Remember when the Blue Jackets were skewered for not taking him at No. 3 and instead opted for Pierre-Luc Dubois? After three seasons, Puljujarvi has a meager 37 points, while Dubois ranks sixth in the ’16 draft class with 109 points . . . Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon encouraged his GM, Don Waddell, to pursue the open GM job with the Wild. Dundon later said he’s eager to keep Waddell on the job, albeit without a contract. Which is another way of saying — despite Dundon’s bon mots — that Waddell can walk any time and he’ll just find another guy to fill the desk. Like, say, Bob from GM temps. Can the job really be that easy? Uh, no.