NEWARK, N.J. – As they round the final bend of December and close the calendar year, the Washington Capitals have learned at least one thing about their new, albeit veteran, bench boss. Through 32 games, Coach Barry Trotz has demonstrated himself unafraid to brandish ice time as a threat not to be taken lightly, like shipping children to bed without supper.
The latest example came Saturday night here at Prudential Center, when one defensemen who had not missed a game this season watched from the press box, and the team’s first-line right winger sat for more than 12 minutes during the second period, both because Trotz had not liked what he saw.
“Sometimes you have to reset players when they’re not going very well,” Trotz said, after the Capitals closed a thorough 4-0 win over the New Jersey Devils. “You have to give them a little jolt.”
Trotz had summoned similar tactics with both youngsters, like rookies Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, and veterans, like Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr. Now, he would try motivating defenseman Nate Schmidt and forward Tom Wilson this way too.
Let’s start with Schmidt, the healthy scratch for the first time this season, by all accounts a breakout year for the bubbly 23-year-old Minnesotan. During training camp, Schmidt emerged above the cluttered sixth defenseman battle and snatched the starting job beside Mike Green.
Through 31 games, two more than he logged last season after cracking the club as an undrafted free agent, Schmidt ranked fourth among Washington’s regulars with 53.4 percent of total shot attempts going his favor at even strength, driving possession with Green against weaker competition with heavy offensive zone starts.
But Trotz found recent fault in Schmidt who, in his words, “has had a big miscue which has cost us a goal or it’s led to untimely penalties and stuff by creating some stuff.” Over Schmidt’s first 24 games, he logged less than 12 minutes only twice; over the past seven games, it’s happened six times.
So Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden tasked Schmidt with watching from the press box and handed him a list of items to watch from above. They had done similar things with Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, two anchors of the organization’s future vision, and by all accounts the surprising Schmidt, whose one-year contract expires next summer, fell into the same category.
“Sometimes with a young player, the grind of the NHL season eats you up,” Trotz said. “That’s why guys are such good pros when guys are really consistent. That’s a little bit of a learning curve. For him it’s a little bit of a reset too, just as we want to do with [Burakovsky] and a few other guys. We felt that Jack was deserving to go back in.”
Jack would be Jack Hillen, the team’s clear seventh defensemen who, until Saturday, had skated only when Green missed time with injuries. Hillen more than acquitted himself against the Devils, dishing a slick pass to Green just inside the offensive blue that tabled the Capitals’ first goal. Green believed Hillen never even saw him before whipping the puck.
“He just heard me and put it right on my tape,” Green said. “I thought Jack played outstanding considering he hasn’t played for a while. Very composed. Knows the system very well. He was a pleasure to play with.”
Less than five minutes after Green put the Capitals ahead for good, Wilson returned to the bench and found himself sidelined for the remainder of the second period. He sat down, fifth from stage right, and never moved, except to applaud teammates or keep fresh during a television timeout. Here, Trotz also delivered a clear message.
“Real simple,” he said later. “I think I need better play from Willie. I didn’t think he had a lot of jump, I didn’t think he was playing his game, so he watched for a bit. I talked to him after the second period and said just get ready to go in the third, and he looked better in the third.”
Indeed, Wilson skated four third-period shifts but still finished with just 11 minutes 10 seconds of ice time, his fourth time in six games receiving under 12 minutes, hardly the deployment typical of a top-liner. Wilson, like Schmidt with Green, has benefitted from playing beside Washington’s most stable possession anchors in Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin but, clearly, Trotz wanted to see more.
“It’s almost like a shot across the bow sometimes where you have to say, ‘You’re up there for a reason, you’re up there, give us the minutes and the level of play that’s expected of you,’” Trotz said. “It’s no different than I’d do with anyone else.”