As Alex Ovechkin raised both arms, tilted his head back and closed his eyes, the image of both joy and relief as the Washington Capitals celebrated their first conference finals appearance in 20 years, Coach Barry Trotz was on the bench hugging his assistants. He and his captain share what Trotz referred to as a “kinship,” both known for greatness in the regular season but perennially falling short of the third round in the playoffs.
But as the Capitals advanced past the Pittsburgh Penguins and the second round with an overtime goal in Game 6, Trotz didn’t have the same exhale moment as Ovechkin. For Trotz, that time came roughly a year earlier, when during a difficult but enlightening summer he decided to stop worrying at a time others would’ve been fretting most.
Salary-cap constraints and an expansion draft had weakened his roster, and Trotz was about to enter the final season of his four-year deal. Lacking an extension, Trotz was on the proverbial “hot seat” if a team that was expected to struggle actually did so.
“I had some friends pass away, and I had a number of things that sort of shed some light on life in general and how I look at it and what’s important to me and what’s really important in life,” Trotz said. “What I’ve done in the league and where I am, I’m good with [it]. If you win a Cup or you don’t win a Cup, I’m not going to be defined by that. My life is way more important than the wins and losses and games. They mean nothing, really. They’re just pieces of paper with numbers on them, and that’s it.
“Obviously, to win a Cup is a goal, and there’s no question that will always be my goal, and we’ll continue that. But it’s not going to define me as a person. I think what I do with my family and just how I’ve lived my life, I don’t think that the game of hockey is going to define me one bit.”
How ironic then that Trotz is the closest he has ever been to winning a Stanley Cup. As the Capitals prepare to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning Friday night, just eight wins separate Trotz’s team from that ultimate goal. Perhaps it was the shift in perspective, which yielded a more relaxed demeanor, that helped the Capitals take on that same loose identity in the playoffs for a change.
But reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the Ovechkin era hasn’t yet earned him an extension. The team has made no offers since Washington ousted Pittsburgh and both Trotz and the Capitals’ executives seem content to wait until this playoff run is over to discuss his future with the team. This is a rare and odd situation for the NHL. One of the more recent examples was in 1986, when Jacques Demers coached the St. Louis Blues to within one win of the Stanley Cup finals without a written contract agreement for the next season. He then left for the head-coaching job in Detroit, apparently miffed that while he and the Blues had made a verbal agreement earlier that season, nothing had ever been put into writing.
Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan received a contract extension this year, but though Trotz coached Washington to a third straight Metropolitan Division title, the coach did not. Before the playoffs, MacLellan said the team “wanted to wait to see how the year finished up total, the total year,” before addressing Trotz’s status.
“I signed for four years, and this is the fourth year,” Trotz said. “Beyond that, who knows? I haven’t worried about it. I haven’t lost any sleep or anything.”
His players don’t think that viewpoint is unusual.
“I don’t know how many guys we have on expiring contracts this year, but I don’t know why it’s any different when it’s the coach,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
There’s a danger that players can tune out a coach seen as a lame duck, especially one who was at the helm for three straight second-round playoff exits. But considering the circumstances, this was undoubtedly Trotz’s best coaching job in his four seasons with the Capitals.
In his first year, he improved a toxic locker-room culture from the previous regime, but his roster had never been as inexperienced as this one. He regularly played four rookies in the lineup – Washington tied a franchise record this postseason with six making their playoff debut – and he had to manage a late-season goaltending controversy.
At times, he was patient, allowing 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana to continue playing in the top-six forward corps even as he went more than 20 games without a goal. At times, he was firm, most notably when he ripped his team in the locker room after a poor performance against the Colorado Avalanche in November. He didn’t let his own lack of job stability change his approach or become a distraction.
“I think he had a good feel for when to press and when to challenge us,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “And then he had a good feel for when to just lay off and let something go. Let the group take care of it themselves, work themselves out of it, or let the veterans address something. He laid the hammer down a couple times, and he needed to. He got guys’ attention, and I think everyone has a respect for Barry as a person, so that goes a long way when a coach is trying to get your attention or needs to have a stern message. …
“I don’t know that I heard anyone talk about [his contract] even. Earlier in the season, that potentially could’ve became an issue if we had a rough month or something, but right now, that is not an issue.”
Trotz had made some reactionary decisions in past playoff runs. He scratched young defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt after costly turnovers two years ago and then suddenly played 11 forwards with seven defenseman last postseason, though the team had never gone with that kind of lineup before. This time he seemed more easygoing, opting for small adjustments over wholesale ones. As the locker room developed inside jokes throughout the season, Trotz didn’t intervene or try to control everything.
In a year that should have been more stressful than any other, he found a certain peace that his players responded to.
“I think when you have good clarity, you’re a lot more relaxed,” Trotz said. “It just slows down for you. …
“I said it to Alex [Ovechkin] and this group that it gets thrown in their face every May. I’m lumped in with them, too. And I’m like, ‘It doesn’t define me.’ I’m glad we got to the next round, but not for me. I’m okay.”
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