Before he was welcomed as the Capitals’ new head coach Tuesday, Barry Trotz shook hands with four players seated at Verizon Center for the occasion. He offered praise for their suits, cracked a few jokes and congratulated defenseman John Carlson on his recent engagement. “This is the way it started,” Trotz would say later. “It feels like coming home.”
After 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, the longest-tenured NHL coach did not have his contract renewed, which gave the Capitals license to pursue their top choice to replace Adam Oates. Trotz was a familiar face to the organization, having scouted part-time for the Capitals in the late 1980s before coaching Washington’s minor-league affiliate in Baltimore and later Portland, Maine.
But it was his reputation for his defense-minded, no-nonsense Predators teams that made Trotz the only candidate Washington’s front office interviewed.
“One of the things I like about Barry’s style of coaching is . . . it’s a consistent, disciplined style for every game, 82 games a year,” said Brian MacLellan, the new Capitals general manager, who helped hire Trotz and was introduced alongside him. “They don’t veer off it.”
Trotz said he felt refreshed and ready to work. The NHL draft lurks one month away, with all the requisite trade talk embedded within, and free agency begins shortly thereafter. On Wednesday, he planned to begin searching for a new home after rooting his family in Nashville for so many years. He had already begun to reach out to players and others around the organization, for introductions and evaluations, but declined comment on his vision for his coaching staff.
Trotz’s biggest challenge will be marrying the approach that led the Predators to seven playoff appearances in eight seasons, none of which extended past the second round, with a Capitals roster built foremost to produce goals, not prevent them.
“You talk about how young this team’s defense is,” Trotz said. “It’s not the defense. It’s a five-man unit playing team defense. That’s how you do it. But I don’t want to take anything from their ability to score, because they’re a dangerous team.”
In Trotz’s 15 seasons in Nashville, the Predators finished among the NHL’s top 10 goal-scoring teams just three times. With a low payroll built around players like goaltender Pekka Rinne and defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, the Predators played this way to survive, and won at least 40 games in seven straight seasons.
With the Capitals, Trotz inherits a roster led by forward Alex Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 51 goals last season but had his defensive shortcomings further thrust into the spotlight.
“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.”
Trotz said altering the culture of the team would determine the Capitals’ ability to return to the playoffs after missing the postseason for the first time in seven seasons.
“Everything’s a work in progress,” Trotz said. “There’s players who play a certain way or [have] done things a certain way here that I don’t want them to do, and it’s going to be an adjustment for them. We just have to get comfortable with each other.”
Among the four Capitals who attended the news conference, goaltender Braden Holtby and forward Brooks Laich said they paid close attention to Washington’s coaching search and hoped Trotz would eventually be hired. Only one current player — Joel Ward — has played under Trotz in Nashville, but his enthusiasm for the coach with a player-friendly reputation has already spread on the roster.
“We were just excited that we had the opportunity to get him here, and we knew if he came here he’d do wonders for us, and if things don’t work out it’s our fault,” Holtby said. “That’s a great responsibility that we get to have as a group, that we can put that pressure on ourselves and listen to the experience Barry has.”
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