There are two versions of the way the Caps season ended last spring.
The first might as well be etched onto the spinal columns of the team’s battered supporters: Game 7: L (OT). There was a three-games-to-one lead in a playoff series, and a twinkle of hope, and then there wasn’t. “The script has been familiar,” as Grantland put it, while cataloging Washington’s 30-year postseason root canal.
Now consider another way. In one season, Washington scrubbed away the dysfunction of the Adam Oates era. Organizational roles were redefined. Months of violent change yielded an MVP candidate, a franchise goalie, a pair of fledgling offensive stars, a seasoned coach, and a playoff team that is again being touted as a Stanley Cup contender. That, Barry Trotz concluded, was not something to hide in some closet of organizational shame.
“For us to come in this year and say, ‘Okay, it didn’t work last year, we didn’t win the Stanley Cup, so let’s go in a different path,’ that’s absolutely the wrong thing,” Trotz said this week. “I can see the horizon. I know where I’m going. And because I see the horizon and I didn’t get there last year, I’m going to turn left?”
Trotz is a man who adores catchy slogans and aphorisms. So when he met with his staff to come up with this season’s motto, he wanted something that would assure his players they were headed in the right direction, history be damned. The coaches “threw spaghetti on the wall a little bit,” Trotz recalled, and then video coach Brett Leonhardt hit on the winner: “Stick to the script.”
That’s why Caps players had “Stick to the script” ballcaps in their stalls Tuesday, hats with more than a little Trump in ’em. It’s why Trotz has written that message on his white board, and used it in interviews. It’s why, when players reported for training camp, they watched a four-minute video preaching that same theme, a video narrated by Mike Knuble, a beloved member of past Caps teams that never reached the horizon. A version of that video will be shown inside Verizon Center before Saturday’s opener.
(Why Knuble? That was another Leonhardt suggestion, tapping a familiar voice that’s still respected inside the dressing room. Leonhardt wrote the narration for the video, which was then tweaked by Trotz and his coaches before being sent to the longtime right winger, who said he would be honored to participate.)
Asking a team — or rather, its tortured fan base — to stick to the script after a second-round playoff loss is no modest request. For decades, the script has included promising regular seasons, and playoff crack-ups, and a pledge to do better the next year. It’s why some Caps fans refuse to be seduced by potential in October (or April, or May.) In that context, “Stick to the script” could prompt jokes and jeers, and feels almost like tempting fate. Trotz disagreed.
“It’s not really a leap of faith,” he said. “Everything great that’s been done in the world, everything from the telephone to the satellite, it didn’t always work the first time you did it. Before every great idea, there was a lot of failure. So it wasn’t that just because they failed once they’re going to go in a different direction. That was sort of the thought.”
The next question is how players would receive this message. You sometimes wonder how 30-something athletes respond to sloganeering; our staff meetings at The Post never feature “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it” ballcaps. (Though one of our bosses did hand out “Tricks for Clicks” t-shirts, now that I think of it.)
“Sometimes it’s just nice to have a trigger: a trigger word, a trigger saying,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who repeatedly thought about last year’s “Feed the Right Wolf” catchphrase during his summer workouts. “So if you have to put 20 of them up to get 20 different guys to figure out which one works for them, then you just do it. Barry’s big into that. He’s really big into that.”
And players understood what Trotz was saying. Just five teams had more wins than the Caps over the final 30 games last season, when they displayed a disciplined and effective approach that appeared well-suited for the postseason. The goal is to recapture that feeling this fall.
“We have a way that we want to play the game: a different structure, trying to hold ourselves more accountable in certain areas to the details of the game and to our work habits,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “If you don’t talk about certain things, then it’s pretty easy over the course of time to just kind of lose sight of what you’re focusing on. You need those little reminders — even if they’re cheesy sometimes — you need those little reminders just to kind of keep everybody with the same goals in mind.”
Niskanen does not, naturally, include “stick to the script” in the cheesy category. But what if you present a sparkling new slogan to your team, and it falls flat?
“I really don’t give a [care], personally,” Trotz said with a twinkle. Players don’t have to love the message. He just wants them to think about it.
The Caps spent the offseason acquiring more complementary firepower in Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie. They’re counting on significantly more from the baby-faced Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. And they have now spent a year “doing more and more things that were associated with consistent clubs,” as GM Brian MacLellan put it. “Our practice habits changed; our off-ice workout habits changed; the whole culture shifted to something that seemed to be a little bit more stable.”
That’s why they don’t want to run away from last year’s ending. And it’s why this year’s slogan means more to Trotz than just something to slap on a baseball hat.
“Stick to the script was really important to us, because we felt that we’re trying to write our own legacy in this market, with this group,” he said. “We were starting to write our own story last year. And the ending wasn’t the way we wanted it to be. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have another chapter to the story.”