Less than two weeks after the Washington Capitals won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, Barry Trotz resigned Monday as head coach. This marks just the fifth time in the past 40 years that a coach did not return to his team the season after winning the NHL’s championship.
Though the NHL often churns through head coaches at a dizzying rate — the league has seen 34 in-season changes since the start of the 2009-10 season — it is extremely rare for the title-winning coach to break from his team. The last time a team did not retain its head coach after winning a championship was 2002, when the legendary Scotty Bowman retired after winning the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings. Bowman previously had left the Montreal Canadiens in 1979 to become coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. In 1994, Mike Keenan won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers and then announced a month later he was a free agent because of a breach in contract by the Rangers. Bob Johnson of the Pittsburgh Penguins died of brain cancer in 1991 after winning the title.
The resignation by Trotz ends a strange year-long saga between the Capitals and their coach. Trotz, the NHL’s fifth-winningest coach all time, didn’t receive a contract extension before the start of the 2017-18 season and entered the last of a four-year deal as a lame duck. Lacking security despite compiling the league’s best regular-season record each of the two previous seasons, he spent the past year in limbo and was nearly fired twice during the season.
Winning the Stanley Cup, however, triggered a clause in Trotz’s contract that gave him an automatic two-year extension, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. The extension included a modest raise on what NHL salary-tracking database CapFriendly.com lists as a $1.5 million annual salary. Incentives in the contract pushed that figure over $2 million due to the playoff success this past season. That still left Trotz far from the ranks of the league’s highest-paid coaches, and compared to other Stanley Cup-winning coaches, Trotz would have been undercompensated. Trotz did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment.
“His representative wants to take advantage of Barry’s experience and Stanley Cup win and was trying to negotiate a deal that compensates him as one of the better coaches in the league — a top-four or five coach — so he’s looking for that type of contract,” MacLellan said Monday.
MacLellan said he was hopeful the two could agree on a “shorter-term deal,” but he said that a five-year term was a “sticking point” because that would have kept Trotz with the team for nine seasons and “there are not many coaches who have that lasting ability,” MacLellan said.
Montreal Canadiens Coach Claude Julien signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the middle of last season — and Trotz was believed to have been asking for a similar deal, which would’ve meant more than doubling his salary. Toronto’s Mike Babcock is the highest-paid coach, with a $6.25 million annual salary. Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, who has won three championships, signed a reported three-year, $18 million extension in 2016. All three men have won at least one Stanley Cup, and all three spent at least nine seasons with a team during their coaching careers. While coaching salaries have ballooned thanks to those deals, Trotz and his agent negotiated his first arrangement with the Capitals four years ago under a much different payscale.
After Trotz won the Stanley Cup this month, he expressed interest in returning, and MacLellan said that if Trotz wanted to be back, he would be back. Ultimately, the financial differences led to his resignation. MacLellan said Trotz “does, probably, in some people’s minds” deserve to be paid in the neighborhood of those other Stanley Cup-winning coaches, but he added that he doesn’t think “all teams pay that type of money and years. Certain teams are open to it, and the rest of the league isn’t.”
“It’s a long time and a lot of money to be committing to a coach,” MacLellan continued. “There are probably four guys that are making that money, so it’s the upper echelon. It’s the big-revenue teams.”
Internal friction may have also played a role in Trotz’s decision. The Capitals made the unusual move of having two members of Trotz’s coaching staff — associate head coach Todd Reirden and assistant Blaine Forsythe — under contract for 2018-19. Many in the sport interpreted the move as essentially securing Reirden as an in-house replacement for Trotz, should the team need to make a change during or after the season. Had Washington not advanced past the second round of the playoffs for a fourth straight year, Trotz would not have been retained, according to a person familiar with the team’s thinking.
Just days after Washington won its championship, Trotz admitted he was aware a midseason firing was possible.
“I think with my situation, I would say that all year you felt like that,” Trotz said on June 9. “But I got over that. I probably made jokes about it, but I was past that. I knew whatever happens happens.”
The absence of an extension while the two assistants were locked in for the following season created awkwardness within the staff. When Trotz was asked if he would want to keep his coaching staff intact should he return as head coach, he cryptically said he and MacLellan had “some issues to work through.” Adding to the tension was an extension given to MacLellan in March and the optics of Trotz not receiving one at the same time, even as Washington was poised for a fourth straight postseason berth.
“After careful consideration and consultation with my family, I am officially announcing my resignation as head coach of the Washington Capitals,” Trotz said in a statement through his agent. “When I came to Washington four years ago we had one goal in mind and that was to bring the Stanley Cup to the nation’s capital. We had an incredible run this season culminating with our players and staff achieving our goal and sharing the excitement with our fans. I would like to thank [Capitals owner Ted] Leonsis, Dick Patrick and Brian MacLellan for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this great organization. I would also like to thank our players and staff who worked tirelessly every day to achieve our success.”
After the Capitals won their first-round playoff series against the Blue Jackets, Trotz was shown on camera shaking hands with Columbus Coach John Tortorella, and Sportsnet reporter Elliotte Friedman, reading Trotz’s lips, suggested that Trotz told Tortorella, “I’m gone. I’m not coming back.” Trotz later denied that.
Trotz is believed to be interested in coaching next season, and the only current vacancy is with the New York Islanders, a divisional opponent. Because the Capitals accepted Trotz’s resignation, he is in no way restricted from coaching next season. During Trotz’s four years with the Capitals, he guided Washington to two Presidents’ Trophies as the league’s best regular-season team, along with three Metropolitan Division titles and, finally, a Stanley Cup.
“I think he was pondering taking a year off, in my mind,” MacLellan said. “I wasn’t positive on it, but I think he ended up enjoying the final part of the season, obviously, and probably changed his mind that way.”
Assistant coach Lane Lambert had followed Trotz from Nashville, as did director of goaltending Mitch Korn, and it’s doubtful either of them will return. MacLellan said he doesn’t he feel pressure to immediately name Trotz’s replacement, even as he’s meeting with the representation for the team’s pending unrestricted free agents at the NHL draft this week. Reirden is the overwhelming favorite to become Washington’s next head coach, but he will have to go through a formal interview process.
“I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or for someone else,” MacLellan said. “We’ll see how the talk goes with him and then we’ll make a decision based on that. If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open [the search] up a little bit.”
The departure of Trotz dampens the buoyant and wildly festive feelings that swept through Washington following the city’s first championship since the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992. Players circulated the Stanley Cup throughout the city in a booze-soaked celebration that lasted through last week’s parade down Constitution Avenue. On Monday, the realities of the sport finally resumed.
“Sports is a business,” MacLellan said. “You want it to to work out. You want it to be a game. You want it to be all fun. But 10 days after you win a Cup, we have to come here and do this. It’s not fun.”
Read more on the Capitals: