PHILADELPHIA – Barry Trotz sees something about himself in Alex Ovechkin — something about every coach for that matter — and the scrutiny that hounds the star Capitals forward on a daily basis.
“I think when they win he gets a little too much credit,” Trotz said Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, as the second day of the 2014 NHL draft concluded. “When they lose he gets too much blame. That’s hard for a star in this league now, because there’s a lot of criticism on that. My job is to deflect some of that and have his back and [tell him] it’s not his fault and praise him when he does the things he needs to do. Same with the other guys.”
Except none of Trotz’s other new players have won four Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophies as the league’s top scorer. The latest honor, after Ovechkin netted 51 goals in 2013-14, offered the perfect opportunity for Washington’s first-year bench boss to meet Ovechkin for dinner last weekend in Las Vegas, site of the annual league awards ceremony.
Over 15 seasons in Nashville, Trotz developed a reputation as a hands-on, players’ coach. An open-door policy made the Predators’ players comfortable with popping into his office to chat. They shared thoughts and feelings and problems and triumphs, and Trotz listened. When he arrived in Washington, he began the task of forming a bond with players he had only known from afar, none more critical to the team’s success than Ovechkin.
“[I] talked to him on the phone. We started that process of getting to know each other, what I expect of him, what he’s trying to get a feel for what I bring to the table,” Trotz said. “That’s the first thing. We’ve got to have a relationship and trust with your top players. I think it’s a partnership. I believe Alex may be the best goal-scorer in the National Hockey League right now, but at the same time he still has to grow his game. If we’re going to win a championship in Washington, everybody has to give something. It’s not staying the same. We didn’t make the playoffs so it can’t stay the same. Let’s get better.”
Where to start? The criticism for Ovechkin reached new heights last season thanks to a minus-35 plus-minus rating, third-worst in the league, that revamped calls for improved defense from the winger. At the Las Vegas dinner, though, Trotz focused on something else. He saw Ovechkin gliding too much on the ice. Lingering in space made Ovechkin a stationary target for opposing defensemen.
“Space is not getting up ice, but sometimes it’s coming back so you can get the puck in a good position so you have some speed, then you have some options,” Trotz said. “Sometimes when you’re standing still, you think hey I’m in a position where if I get the puck I’ll score, but you’re easier to cover. We talked about that. That’s a process. But I think he gets a little less glide in his game, he’ll be as dynamic and hard to handle as he ever was.”
During an interview last weekend in Las Vegas, Ovechkin declined to divulge what he and Trotz decided with regards to his wing positioning, another hot topic since former coach Adam Oates made the decision to shift Ovechkin to the right side.
Ovechkin has proven himself adept at firing from the left circle, particularly on the power play with his powerful shot, but Trotz too sees him beginning the season on the right wing.
“Right now I know he can go on the left,” Trotz said. “I think there’s a lot of benefits to playing right side, coming out of your own end and you naturally turn into the puck and face the puck and play your normal side. Everybody tends to slide and turn to their backhand. If you’re a lefty you’ll go the left side, if you’re a righty you’ll go to the right side more than you go the other way, so you’ll naturally turn into the puck. And so from that standpoint, coming out of your end and being in better position that way, the right side makes a lot of sense.
“We’re going to balance it out,” he continued. “I told Alex, I said, ‘I know you can play both sides, but right now I’d probably say I’ll start you out on right.’”
But above all else, Trotz issued one basic request.
“Just … be open-minded about which way you’re going to play this game,” he said. “More than I want Alex to have success, because he’s always the focal point, this team needs to have success. I think Alex is all in on the team, buy in, but he also wants everybody else to buy in too. Everyone else has to do it.”