Two days after the Washington Capitals’ season ended at the skates of the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins, Coach Barry Trotz suggested that in a “copycat” league like the NHL, teams would attempt to model themselves after the eventual victor. Now that the Penguins have been crowned Stanley Cup champions, teams are making adjustments to be quicker next season, including the Capitals.
But while Trotz would like Washington to play faster next season and might make some systematic tweaks to foster that, expect any changes to be few and subtle, as Trotz doesn’t think the Capitals are going “to play a lot differently.”
“I talked to the Pittsburgh people, their coaching staff, congratulated them and they said, with chances and shots against, we were the team that sort of had the better of them in some of those things and they didn’t have that problem in their other series,” Trotz said earlier this month. “So, we’re really close. Will we try to be faster, play faster? That’s going to be a mandate around the league. There’s a difference between being fast and being smart, and you have to find that balance.”
Where the Penguins had success is spreading their most skilled offensive players throughout the top three lines and then filling in holes with speedy wingers, even if they weren’t as skilled. Sidney Crosby centered a top line with AHL call-up Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist. Evgeni Malkin centered a second line with Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust, another AHL call-up. That put Phil Kessel on a third line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, and that line became a matchup nightmare in the postseason because Kessel would be a first-line winger on most other teams and Hagelin is among the fastest skaters in the league.
As Trotz reflected on where things went wrong in Washington’s second-round series against Pittsburgh, it was the Capitals lack of offensive depth that he thought hurt them.
“To me, when you look at it, it wasn’t Sidney Crosby or Malkin beating us,” Trotz said. “I thought our top six might have outplayed their top six. Where we couldn’t swing with the Penguins is more in the bottom six. Everybody talks about their speed offensively, but it wasn’t a factor as much offensively as it was defensively; they got back quick and they blocked shots. To me, they played extremely well defensively.”
The Capitals addressed the weakness in their bottom-six forwards by trading for Lars Eller, a two-way third-line center that has more offensive upside than Jay Beagle or Mike Richards, Washington’s third-line centers in the playoffs. The Capitals also added winger Brett Connolly for depth, a low-risk inexpensive signing that has potential for improved offense. One way Washington might attempt to mirror the Penguins is by spreading their top offensive players through the top three lines, as Trotz has already warned that the forward trios are likely to be switched often.
“They kept it simple,” Trotz said. “They flipped pucks out, and they didn’t spend a lot of time in their zone. There wasn’t a lot of puck possession, it was actually flip to the space and flip the possession, that type of thing, and put pressure on you. Teams will emulate some of that. Teams will emulate how they built their roster. You can emulate all you want, but when you’re starting with Crosby and Malkin, there’s not that many teams that can match the Crosby-Malkin and then you go to their third and fourth line. So, a lot of teams will be able to emulate the third and fourth, but they won’t be able to touch their top two.
“You’ve got to be in the right window as an organization to do that, too.”
The Capitals believe they’re still in that “right window,” and their opportunity to measure up against the Penguins will be in the regular-season opener, when Pittsburgh unveils its Stanley Cup banner in the rafters of Consol Energy Center.
“We had 120 points and we’re probably as close to the Penguins as you’re going to be,” Trotz said. “We just need to get more production out of those bottom six.”
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