Around the time he learned he would become the newest head coach of the Washington Capitals, Barry Trotz phoned his star forward across the world. Alex Ovechkin and Russia had just bludgeoned Finland, 5-2, to capture the IIHF World Championships in Belarus. “I think he was at Mr. Putin’s house or something like that,” Trotz would later say, presumably referring to the celebration that produced photos of Ovechkin serving Russian President Vladimir Putin champagne from the trophy. (Edit: also via RMNB, they went to the Kremlin too.)
Trotz’s response drew a laugh from the attendees at his introductory news conference Tuesday at Verizon Center, but the overriding question will remain with him through the summer and into the preseason: How will the latest Capitals bench boss handle the face of the franchise?
“Ovi really set this franchise going forward when he came in,” Trotz said. “I’m going to have a conversation with Ovi on his role with the group and how I would like to play. We’ll decide that together with obviously putting himself in a situation to be successful within the group.”
Shifted to right wing two seasons ago by the since-fired Adam Oates, Ovechkin scored an NHL-best 51 goals last season and finished eighth in points in 2013-14. In his 15 seasons steering Nashville, Trotz never coached a 40-goal scorer. His teams there were built on blue-collar defense, thanks in no small part to a stringent payroll, and, aside from two seasons with Paul Kariya,, rarely produced at an elite offensive level.
So integrating his approach into the Ovechkin-led Capitals, a group hampered by its defensive shortcomings last season might be Trotz’s biggest challenge. On Tuesday, Trotz praised the production of Oates’ power play, which led the NHL in goals (34), but pointed at Washington’s even-strength issues (26th in the league in even-strength Fenwick-for percentages and 24th in even-strength Corsi-for) and defensive problems as areas in need of tweaking.
In Nashville, Trotz said his teams adopted the personality of his best players: two defensemen (Ryan Suter and Shea Weber) and goaltender Pekka Rinne. In Washington, Trotz finds an organization built to score goals with a history of developing forwards, none more prolific or scrutinized than Ovechkin, who remains under contract through the 2020-21 season and endured his worst two seasons under the defensive-minded Dale Hunter.
“He does something special and he scores a lot, but you can contribute in so many other ways too,” Trotz said of Ovechkin. “My job as a coach is to find a way to allow Alex and the other players to reach their potential as a group and be able to play together. One of the very fundamental things, if you have a kindergartner, they give you your report card and they say do you play well with others? My job is to get everybody to play well together.”
Later, in a more intimate setting with reporters, Trotz was again asked how he planned to coach Ovechkin.
“It starts with the relationship,” he said. “I know I’m going to work at that, but it can’t happen until I have a relationship with him, because there’s no trust. To me, Alex has to trust that I’m giving him the best advice for the team, for him to grow his game. I don’t know Alex as well. I know going against him, what he does well. But I need to know Alex the person.
“To me, coaching is not X’s and O’s. It’s people. He comes from a different culture than the guys from Canada or the States. You find that the Swedish culture is different from the Czech culture. I’ve got to find out what these guys are about. They’ve got to know that I’m about winning, I’m about them. When I take over a team, they’re a part of my family. That’s how I look at them. I’m not always happy with my kids. I tell them, but I still love them and they still play with the group. That’s how I approach it.”