The Washington Capitals had lost their last road game, so to continue the superstition of a hot lap before the morning skate in Tampa’s Amalie Arena, captain Alex Ovechkin needed to elect a new representative. He had been the one to do a solo sprint around the rink for the entire Eastern Conference final, but the team losing Game 5 meant Ovechkin had lost his mojo. Perhaps well aware of what was at stake for Coach Barry Trotz before Game 7, he asked him to do the hot lap.
The 55-year-old Trotz obliged, lumbering down the ice with surprising speed considering his skates hadn’t been sharpened in quite some time. At the end, he attempted a lunge to mimic Ovechkin, but he wobbled and nearly toppled over. Players laughed and smacked their sticks against the ice to cheer him. A game to decide a berth in the Stanley Cup final was just a few hours away, and the Capitals were as loose as could be, starting with their coach.
Trotz should be feeling good right about now. For someone who went through the season on the proverbial “hot seat,” coaching the last year of his deal after Washington didn’t offer an extension before training camp, his value has never been higher. He’s akin to a pending free agent player who has perfectly timed his career year. Trotz is about to coach in his first Stanley Cup finals, and should he want to continue coaching next year, he’ll do so with a pay raise, be it in Washington or elsewhere.
“We’re going to address everything after the playoffs are over,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think it could be the same effect on a player, too, that’s becoming a free agent. He’s basically becoming a free agent as a coach, and what effect does that have? Do you have your best year when you’re a free agent? I think we’ve had a couple of those guys. Look at [defenseman] John Carlson: He’s a free agent this year. I kind of look at it that way. They have maybe some pressure, but some of them don’t feel pressure to perform in their free agent years. He’s probably going to benefit from this, too. It’s not all not good for him.”
Trotz signed a four-year deal in 2014. Over his tenure, the Capitals have won the Presidents’ Trophy twice as the regular season’s top team and claimed three Metropolitan Division crowns. They advanced to the second round of the playoffs all four years, finally breaking beyond that barrier this season. Should he win the Stanley Cup, his next salary could join the ranks of some of the highest-paid coaches in the league. Montreal Coach Claude Julien signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the middle of last season. Toronto’s Mike Babcock is the highest-paid coach, with a $6.25 million salary. Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, who has won three championships, signed a reported three-year, $18 million extension in 2016.
With the New York Rangers hiring David Quinn, the former Boston University coach, this week, there are no head-coaching vacancies. But Trotz is the fifth-winningest coach of all time, so he still should have suitors if he and the Capitals don’t strike a deal.
Minnesota just hired Paul Fenton as new general manager. He and Trotz have a connection going back to their time with the Nashville Predators. Craig Leipold, the owner of the Wild, previously owned the Predators, when Trotz was hired to be the expansion franchise’s first coach.
Trotz has taken a Zen approach to his situation. He has declined to comment several times, or simply said he’s not fretting his future. Part bit and part superstition, he has repeatedly told reporters to “hydrate” throughout the postseason.
His coaching moves have been measured. He has trusted rookies Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos. A year ago, he opted for 11 forwards and seven defensemen, a lineup configuration the Capitals had never used under Trotz. The adjustments have been more minor this time, the team largely sticking to what yielded success during the regular season, and it has worked. He’s the only coach to get the organization this deep in the playoffs in 20 years.
“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure, maybe a little more freedom in terms of how he goes about things. He’s more relaxed, I guess, is how to best describe him.”
On Friday, Trotz reminisced about the 1994 Portland Pirates team he won the Calder Cup championship with in the American Hockey League. “I know I had a lot of fun,” Trotz said, and he’s tried to carry that lesson into this playoff run. The offseason could be an enjoyable one for him, too, no matter the result of the Stanley Cup finals.
“They are a grind, but they’re fun — and they should be treated as fun,” Trotz said of the playoffs. “They’re sort of all the hard work that you have to put in just to get there, and it takes even more hard work to go further, but it is fun. I’m finding I’m having a blast during the games.”
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