At center, Oates is Marginalized

Sunday, June 3, 2001

Don't look now but the honeymoon is over between the Washington Capitals and captain Adam Oates. The center, who turns 39 in August, will almost certainly be playing somewhere else next season. The club has a $3 million option on Oates, which must be exercised by the end of the month, but it seems a lot more likely that the Capitals will excise the veteran from their roster and make him an unrestricted free agent.

Oates's fall from grace is as puzzling as it is sudden. Here's a guy who is one of the smartest and most talented playmakers in the game and who ended up the season tied with Jaromir Jagr for the NHL lead in assists with 69. He was first in power-play assists (37) and he led the Capitals in scoring with 82 points.

Yet, once the Capitals acquired the decent-but-not-great Trevor Linden from the Montreal Canadiens, Oates was practically relegated to spare-part duty.

In six games against the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, Oates, who averaged 20 minutes 59 seconds a game in the regular season, saw his ice time drop off markedly. He was even benched at times by coach Ron Wilson.

Rumors abounded that Oates was injured - there seemed no other logical explanation - but he said that wasn't the case.

"I wasn't hurt,'' said Oates, who was reached by telephone in Palm Springs, Calif., for what he said were his first public comments about the situation. ''I'm really disappointed the way the end of the year happened.''

Oates said the writing was on the wall after a March 11 game against the Ottawa Senators.

"The day before the [Linden] trade, we beat Ottawa, 6-5, and I had three assists, including one on the tying goal and the winner with two minutes to go,'' he said. ''Then, two days later, all of a sudden I can't play. It's like I got old overnight. All year long, I wasn't slow. Now I'm slow? How did I get slow overnight?''

It seems the dynamics of the team changed when Linden and Dainius Zubrus came over, which raises the question of why management would change so vastly so late in the year with a team that was winning. Linden, practically a reclamation project, began playing with the best players on the club - including right wing Peter Bondra, whom Oates didn't see any time with five-on-five - but he played a different style than the other pivotmen on the team. Wilson talked often during the year about how the Capitals' attack was structured around Oates's talents. When Linden arrived, it caused a bit of dysfunction in the system.

Oates found himself with Chris Simon and Dmitri Khristich or James Black during even-strength situations. In one game against Tampa Bay, Oates skated with Black (a total of one goal all year) and Brantt Myhres (zero goals).

The situation only deteriorated in the playoffs. In Game 3, after Oates won a draw but Mario Lemieux scored with a shot off the foot of Sergei Gonchar, Oates was benched for the entire third period even though the Capitals were down a pair of goals. In Game 4, Oates played just 8:28, which he said was a mortifying experience.

"I felt like Cam Neely in Boston, I really did,'' said Oates, referring to Neely's benching by coach Steve Kasper during a game in Toronto in which he and Kevin Stevens didn't skate a shift. ''It was the most embarrassing moment of my whole career.''

Capitals general manager George McPhee was scheduled to be in Florida late last week for organizational meetings with primary owner Ted Leonsis and minority owners to discuss, among other things, the budget and where the franchise is headed. Both McPhee and Wilson, who were with Linden in Vancouver, seem set on passing the top-center mantle to Linden, which most likely leaves Oates shopping for another team. Strangely, Linden has flourished more in a second-line role than he ever has in a first.

"Don't get my wrong, I think the trade was a good one, I really do,'' said Oates. ''I just wish things had gone differently.''