Everything clinchable has been clinched. The Caps have lassoed their second Presidents’ Trophy. They’ve won their division and their conference. They’ve guaranteed that any Game 7 triumph or heartbreak will happen on either Fun Street or Fear Street, as the case may be. So is it now time to worry about these strange final few days of the season, real games with nonexistent stakes?
Not for Barry Trotz. For Washington’s coach, the danger came before this, during a 20-or-so game stretch when the playoffs were both inevitable and an eternity away. That’s when he reached out to a trio of the NHL’s most decorated coaches, asking Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, Boston’s Claude Julien and Toronto’s Mike Babcock how you keep sprinting when you’re all by yourself.
See, Trotz has solved plenty of puzzles during his 17 years as an NHL boss. He’s coached the 10th-most games and earned the ninth-most wins in the history of the league. Before this season, though, he had never won a division title, much less a Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s top record. And now he had a group unable to jockey for position, because there was no one to jockey with.
“It’s really tough in the NHL — I feel, anyways — to go from game 50 to game 70,” Trotz said after a recent practice. “When you have a little bit of space, I think it’s really hard, because that’s human nature. We’re in a marathon. And right now, we’re leading by three miles. So how urgent can you be?”
There aren’t too many NHL coaches who can appreciate that dilemma. In Quenneville, Julien and Babcock, Trotz found three who could. You want some experience winning races? Together, they’ve claimed four of the past 10 Presidents’ trophies, often in commanding fashion.
“Got any advice?” Trotz asked Babcock, who had the league’s top record twice in Detroit. “You’ve been here. I haven’t.”
“I’ve been watching you guys, and I know exactly what you’re talking about,” Babcock said. “You’re getting sloppy in areas, [and] guys are trying plays that they wouldn’t try normally.”
(Before you worry about communing with the enemy, bear in mind that Trotz will work with all three men on Team Canada’s coaching staff at this year’s World Cup of Hockey. Also, that the Caps faced all three of their teams between games 61 and 65, smack in the middle of that trickiest part of the season.)
What Babcock and the other coaches told Trotz was more reassuring than prescriptive. They said he should feel encouraged by the way the Caps had responded to their lulls, how they kept erasing their early mistakes and rallying. They noticed how the Caps so often played their best when games were on the line, even during off nights. And they said Trotz needed to rely on his core group of leaders to take control once April finally arrived, revving the engine back to ludicrous speed.
“You’ve got to trust the group,” Babcock told Trotz. “If you trust the group and you keep the group involved, they’ll move the dial for you.”
Some of this might feel fanciful to fans who have raised specific concerns about the Caps’ recent play: whether Braden Holtby is slumping, whether Alex Ovechkin is hurt, whether this team has six playoff-caliber defensemen, whether their won-loss record has outpaced their puck-possession stats. Can some impossible-to-measure effort meter, some video-game power-up, really return this group to its January form?
Good luck convincing yourself either way. The thing is, no one blinks at the notion that playoff hockey offers a double-espresso version of the regular season. Trotz, in fact, believes teams kick their games up by 20 percent in the postseason. So why wouldn’t the reverse be possible: that a team playing for nothing in early March might struggle to pretend otherwise.
“What I’ve found is you can’t get urgency unless you’re urgent, you know what I mean?” Trotz said. “It’s something that you have to be. You have to have your back against the wall. We haven’t had our back against the wall. … We’re not battling to get in the playoffs. We’re not going to game 82, like I’ve gone many a time, to get in the playoffs. That’s the blessing. The curse is that we haven’t played a really meaningful game, if you will — where it could knock us out of first place — we haven’t really played one of those for quite a while. So it’s hard to create urgency.”
The standings have been irrelevant for weeks; “I don’t even know our record, to be honest with you,” Trotz said. Without that external pressure, his coaching staff tried to artificially make things a bit uncomfortable for their players. They fiddled with the lines. They implemented systematic tweaks — “nitpicking,” in Trotz’s word. They briefly adopted a four-line mentality, trying to even out the minutes for all 12 forwards.
And they didn’t panic over losses. A planned team curling outing in Ottawa went on as scheduled, even though it followed a dud in Pittsburgh. Trotz has had occasional harsh words about lax play and individual mistakes — including his comments about Dmitry Orlov Monday night — but he has mostly followed Babcock’s advice and trusted that his team will return.
“You can take guys’ ice time, and I have,” Trotz said. “But at the same time, if everybody’s turning the puck over, you can’t bench 20 guys. Everything starts from the core, the core group. Everybody follows the core.”
That doesn’t mean just the players who have been here longest, nor the captain and his alternates. Trotz ticked off virtually half his lineup when discussing his core: newcomers like T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams; veterans like Jason Chimera, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen; mainstays like John Carlson and Karl Alzner; stars like Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom; and the workaholic Holtby. Those players, he said, “are an extension of the coaching staff,” and if they need to jiggle the team’s motivational dials this week or next, they will.
Trotz is already tired of answering questions about desire. The risk for malaise, he thinks, is mostly in the past. His team has just seven games left. It’s about time for those dials to move, even if this particular race has already been decided.
“The trick is that I don’t want to just walk in,” Trotz said. “Because you’re going to run another marathon, and you’re going to forget how hard it is.”