Commentary

Too many coaches on the ice?

Updated: October 30, 2012, 1:26 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

HERSHEY, Pa. -- One minute Mark French, one of the rising stars among AHL coaches, is barking out instructions to the American Hockey League Hershey Bears at a morning practice.

The next minute, there's Hall of Fame-bound Adam Oates, putting the players through their drills.

Do too many whistles spoil the broth or does it make for a tasty hockey stew?

The Washington Capitals are going to find out.

While it has been common for NHL head coaches to make regular trips to see their club's AHL affiliates play during the current lockout, the Washington Capitals have rewritten the book on lockout coaching etiquette by installing Oates as a co-coach at the AHL level.

They are the only NHL team to have done so.

Awkward?

Absolutely.

But will it work for the greater good?

If the classy manner in which both Oates -- hired in the summer to be the Caps' head coach -- and French -- the fastest man to 100 wins in AHL history -- have responded to the unusual circumstances, maybe everyone ends up coming out on top.

"It's been different, but it's been a tremendous opportunity to learn," said French, who is entering his fourth season as Bears coach, having piled up 144 wins and a Calder Cup championship in his first three seasons.

"On a personal level, it's given me and [assistant Hershey coach Troy Mann] an opportunity to understand what kind of stamp Adam's going to put on this organization."

Oates, of course, hoped to be standing behind the Capitals' bench at the Verizon Center after getting his first NHL head-coaching gig after three years as an assistant (one in Tampa and two in New Jersey, where he was part of a team that advanced to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals).

[+] EnlargeAdam Oates
AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaAdam Oates expected to be behind the bench at Verizon Center at this point in the season instead of sharing coaching duties in Hershey, Pa.

It hasn't worked out that way, so he's in Hershey trying to make the best of what is a unique job-sharing situation, honing his skills and preparing for an NHL season everyone hopes is just around the corner.

"It's very different for both of us. I thought for [coach French], allowing me to come down here and work with him, I thought he has been very gracious and very professional about it and I appreciate that," Oates said.

"We talk a lot of hockey and I think that's probably good for both of us because we check each other."

As the lockout approached in mid-September, Washington GM George McPhee came to the conclusion that whatever short-term pain the jamming together of two coaching staffs in one place might produce, the long-term gain for Oates, his new staff and the Capitals was worth it.

The theory makes sense on a number of levels.

Although Oates has experience behind NHL benches, it's a significant jump to being a head coach at the NHL level, so McPhee wanted Oates to get as much head-coaching experience as possible with the lockout in effect. He also wanted Oates and his staff, former teammate Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter, to be on the same page.

"All coaching staffs use different terminology and expressions. They need to be speaking the same language," McPhee told ESPN.com this week.

The Caps under Oates also were looking to introduce new systems. Oates is the team's third head coach in the past year as Bruce Boudreau was dispatched 22 games into the 2011-12 season and replaced by Dale Hunter, who was captain of the Capitals when Oates was a player. Hunter returned to London, Ontario, after the playoffs, though, to the junior hockey team he owns and coaches with brother Mark Hunter.

Having Oates and his staff impart their systems to French and his staff and the rest of the Bears' players, a handful of which will be with the NHL club should the players and owners strike a deal, also was part of the plan.

French acknowledged that when Hunter took over for Boudreau, the Bears didn't really modify their schemes, which had been tailored to how Boudreau wanted his players to play.

"When the change was made and Dale came in, we kind of stayed with the same philosophy that held onto Bruce's systems. With Adam coming in and going to summer camp with him, we knew there was going to be a transition in the style of play. I think it's been a considerable advantage that we've had him here to instill that," French said.

"I think me and Troy would have muddled through it and put it into place, but it's probably sped up our learning process having him here, and obviously the players' learning process to put into play that we had a guy that's actually implemented those systems."

The delicate part for McPhee in charting this unusual course was how it would play with his AHL staff. As much as the AHL is a feeder league for the NHL in terms of players, it is also a proving ground for NHL coaches. With his successes, French is a legitimate NHL coaching candidate and McPhee wanted to make sure the staff understood this wasn't about their competency but rather about preparing the NHL club the best way possible given the uncertainty of the lockout.

"My concerns, obviously, were how it would affect the coaches in Hershey," McPhee acknowledged. "That had to be explained and they understand now."

French noted that this is a chance for the coaching staff to practice what it preaches in terms of self-sacrifice.

"I think the understanding needs to be that our goal is, as an employee of the Washington Capitals, is to do what's right for that organization and I think there was a quick realization that this was what was needed. We ask our players to sacrifice and to be unselfish all the time; it's no different for a coach," French said.

"It's all in how we take it, and I'm still a young coach who has a lot to learn and I'm seeing a different perspective on the game that I believe improves myself as a coach."

The idea, of course, is that this is a short-term situation.

If the owners and players can find their way to a deal, the potential for a very quick turnaround to the start of the NHL season is great.

McPhee acknowledged they haven't discussed how this will play out if an entire NHL season is lost.

The down side is that there is a potential for mixed signals with two coaching staffs trying to get players ready for games.

"We just had a meeting with the older guys that all four coaches are trying to get on board, so we all have the same answer for them. So if any player went to any one guy, we're not confusing them with conflicting information. So we're trying the best that we can that we're all on the same page and trickle it down," Oates said.

The Bears are one of the AHL's most successful franchises with home crowds averaging nearly 10,000, and they have led the AHL in attendance for the past six seasons. The team is off to a modest 3-3-1 start, but the players aren't using the multitude of coaches as any kind of excuse.

"The more coaches, the merrier," defenseman Cameron Schilling told ESPN.com this week.

One of the team's rising young defensive stars, Schilling has been spending time with Johansson, who played 17 NHL seasons, working on his stick positioning and other intricate details of the defensive game.

"I think that's definitely going to help me develop," he said. "It's great having them out there."

Veteran forward Jeff Taffe signed an AHL contract this offseason and thinks the younger players should relish the opportunity to learn from the coaching talent that has been assembled, even if it's just for a short while.

"It just doubles the amount of people you can talk to and ask questions of," he said. "I think guys really need to take advantage of it."