He had spent 15 seasons with a franchise not known for its lucrative spending, so when Barry Trotz heard himself predict the Washington Capitals would approach the salary cap if necessary, it felt entirely different – and refreshing.
“The organization wants to win,” the first-year coach said. “So I don’t think that’s a question. They’ll be smart. It’s not going to be reckless or anything like that, I’m sure.”
Not that his former employers, the Nashville Predators, were reckless in their contracts. In fact, their average cap space over the past five seasons has been $10.8 million, on par for a small-market club seeking frugality, while the Capitals, particularly under owner Ted Leonsis, have never been afraid to sniff the cap.
“It’s tough on the [Nashville] organization for a few years and it’s been tough on [General Manager] David [Poile], who’s handled it an excellent way,” Trotz said Saturday at the NHL entry draft in Philadelphia. “It’s been a grind, especially on him. He’s put the hours in. Sometimes it handcuffs you when you get a contract, the way it’s put together. The one thing about Nashville, they’ve always been resilient and they’ve always been that way. It’s part of their culture and DNA. Hopefully I had something to do with that.”
But those days are behind Trotz, swapped for an offseason in which the Capitals have a shade more than $12 million to address their needs, chief among them a veteran blue liner and a backup goaltender. In a thick market for netminders, the latter acquisition shouldn’t cost much, especially since Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan has made it clear that Braden Holtby is the starting goalie. So how much is MacLellan willing to spend for a top-four defenseman?
“I think we want some veteran guys back there to stabilize things and allow some of the younger guys to develop so you put them in the right hole,” Trotz said. “I think a right- and left-handed shot, if you know of anybody. There’s a couple D-men that we’re actually targeting that probably so are 20 other teams. Teams are smart. They lock up their core for a long period of time. The windows of those guys have changed.”
Washington’s free agency plans didn’t change at Wells Fargo Center, nor did the Capitals acquire anyone to address needs on the NHL roster. They drafted six players and traded for a backup AHL goaltender. Trotz believed that the trade market wouldn’t truly spring into action until next week, once free agency kicks off and the market eventually stales.
One month into the Washington gig, Trotz has finished reviewing film of the roster and seemed bullish on the young Capitals defensemen rising through the organization, such as Nate Schmidt, Patrick Wey and Connor Carrick. He also talked about being stronger around the net, leveraging position to “tie up people” when pucks are batted about. But those are matters best handled during the preseason, and Trotz knows the Capitals need to act now.
“The great thing about Washington is they have lots of assets in terms of forwards, some teams might be looking for scoring, we can do something there,” he said. “That’s really up to Mac. I think the first phase of making our team better is, I thought Mac did a good job of getting the staff in place right before the draft here. That free agency period to getting to talk to people and what have you, you’re going to talk to a free agent, he knows what the staff is. I think that’s really important.”
Equally important, Trotz said, has been the line of communication that extends from MacLellan to Trotz and throughout the organization. The ultimate say lies with MacLellan, the rookie GM who spent 14 years with Washington as a pro scout and assistant GM, but everyone – from Trotz to the new assistants hired – has an input.
“Obviously [MacLellan] knows where we want to…he knows where he wants to allocate dollars, but he’s been great in terms of communication and what we want and a select number of players right now for the allocated dollars we have,” Trotz said. “He’s always looking to improve a team by throwing potential trade ideas or names that float out from other teams. Obviously other general managers talk.
“Communication’s been really excellent, really through the whole organization. When I got here I got that feeling that that was going to happen. The communication, horizontally and vertically, up and down through the organization, it’s been really good. Everyone’s on the same page. That to me gives us a chance to succeed.”
>> Running down the roster, Trotz singled out “how great a guy like Nicklas Backstrom is, how effective Troy Brouwer is.” Trotz has spoken about Backstrom before, and believes that Backstrom is Washington’s most complete player. He also mentioned Marcus Johansson as having “a lot of talent,” then named Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Karl Alzner without much commentary attached.
“Going around and talking to a lot of the veteran players, I really feel like there’s a lot of good pieces, there’s lots of talent on the club, but we’re not a good team,” Trotz said. “We need to be a better team. Our focus is plain and simple. I want to bring some of the team aspects. If we’re going to win, I always say if you want to go somewhere fast go yourself, but if you want to go somewhere far, go with a group.”
Then Trotz was asked about defenseman Mike Green, specifically his thoughts on someone who, the reporter said, may have been written off by Capitals fans.
“It’s probably unfair for me to go he’s written off,” Trotz said. “He’s not when I look at him, I see some of the things and say you can do that a lot better. Then sometimes I see things and I’ll go wow, that’s guys got things a few people can do.
“With Mike it’s getting a fresh start with me in terms of that and hopefully it’s a big deal for him.”
Green is entering the final season of a three-year deal annually worth $6,083,333 in cap hits and will become an unrestricted free agent when next summer hits. Trotz was aware of this, and seemed to say that a rebound season for Green would both help the Capitals as a team and bring more money for Green too. They’ve crossed paths and chatted recently at the practice facility in Ballston.
“I’m excited about that opportunity, because he’s pretty dynamic back there,” Trotz said. “He’s had some injuries. Hopefully he’ll get over that. I’ve seen him training at the facility and talked a few times. It’s a matter of getting him to play to the level he’s capable of.”