The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Barry Trotz faces his former team, it’s mostly water under the bridge

After leaving Washington this summer, Barry Trotz is leading a surprising Islanders team, which will host the Capitals on Monday night. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

NEW YORK — It may be for just a few minutes, but Barry Trotz will be back in the Washington Capitals’ dressing room once again, standing before a team that was his for four years. Whenever the Capitals have played against a teammate from last season, they’ve invited him into the dressing room to receive his Stanley Cup ring and give a speech. With Washington playing Trotz’s New York Islanders at Barclays Center on Monday night, there’s no awkwardness in inviting the opposing coach in before the game — not when he’s the one who led them to the franchise’s first championship.

Trotz said he has already received a text message asking him, Islanders associate coach Lane Lambert and director of goaltending Mitch Korn, both of whom were on Trotz’s Capitals staff for all four seasons, to “come over to the other side.”

“I love those guys over there,” Trotz said Sunday. “There’s a bond and a relationship with those players that will never go away.”

After what felt like a bad breakup — save for the part where both sides got to celebrate winning the Stanley Cup — Monday will be a reunion with both Trotz and the Capitals having moved on. Washington is back in a familiar spot under new Coach Todd Reirden: atop the Metropolitan Division and on a five-game winning streak. The Islanders, projected to be one of the NHL’s worst teams this season, have been better than expected, just three points back of the Capitals with a game in hand.

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Though both seem to be doing just fine without the other, neither party expected to be in this position when they hoisted the Stanley Cup on June 7. Trotz thought that happy ending would lead to him staying on as coach in Washington. But less than two weeks later, he resigned, just the fifth NHL coach in the past 40 years to not return to his team the season after winning a championship.

“At the end of the day, it became business,” he said. “It became business from their side and my side.”

The result was a first Stanley Cup for Washington and Trotz, though his final season with the Capitals was marred by turmoil from the start. He entered it approaching the end of a four-year contract, and the front office made it clear that it didn’t plan to make a decision on his future until after the season. Washington had enjoyed regular season success under Trotz — in his first three years, the team twice won the Presidents’ Trophy for posting the season’s best record — but there had been three straight playoff exits in the second round, and another one would have resulted in the Capitals wanting to go in a new direction.

Trotz was very much aware of the shaky ground he stood on. After the Capitals won their first-round playoff series against the Blue Jackets, he was shown on camera shaking hands with Columbus Coach John Tortorella. Reading Trotz’s lips, he appeared to tell Tortorella, “I’m gone; I’m not coming back.”

“That was sort of tongue-in-cheek,” Trotz said of his comments to Tortorella. “Yeah, it was taken a little out of context, but looking back now, it is what it is. I talked to [Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan] when that first came up, and I just said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.’ And I didn’t. It was going to be something with my son, some time with my wife, family and all that. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

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Washington had been steadily grooming Trotz’s eventual replacement in Reirden, an assistant coach on Trotz’s Capitals staff for two years before he was promoted to associate coach. Reirden had long been considered an up-and-comer in coaching circles for his developmental work with defensemen, and he had been a finalist for Calgary’s head coaching vacancy in 2016 before he was approached for other openings ahead of the 2017-18 season.

Washington didn’t allow him to interview for those, and there was a sense that if the team decided to part with Trotz, which nearly happened on two occasions during the regular season, Reirden would be the natural replacement. Perhaps that was why the Capitals were comfortable letting Trotz walk.

Trotz described his relationship with Reirden as “professional.”

“It’s fine,” Trotz said. “Todd’s a good coach, and he’s a good worker. I learned a lot from him, and he hopefully learned something from me. We’re fine. I’m fine.”

Winning a championship triggered a two-year extension in his contract, and while it came with a raise, it was a modest one that still had him severely underpaid compared with some of his Cup-winning peers. Coaching salaries had skyrocketed when Mike Babcock received $6.25 million from the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Trotz’s request for five years and $25 million was market value for the fifth-winningest coach of all time who now also had a Stanley Cup on his résumé. His deal with the Capitals had incentives built in, but it would have paid him less than $2 million per year.

Washington considered a five-year term a sticking point, and the day Trotz resigned, 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.”

But owner Ted Leonsis said the Capitals’ decision to move on wasn’t about money.

“To me, it was more about that he had a contract,” Leonsis said in August. “We have lots of people with contracts. And if you said, yes, we negotiated a contract and now we’re just going to rip it up, there’d probably be a line outside the door. I think we respected him so much that we said, ‘You know, if you can have that as your driver right now, we’re going to let you go.’ We didn’t have to let him go. To me, it’s like a happy ending for everybody. We haven’t thought about it, and we’ve moved on. I hope he’s very successful where he is.”

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That echoes what some in the organization said privately during the summer, that Washington was arguably generous by not holding Trotz to the two years left on his contract, instead accepting his resignation so he could coach anywhere.

Asked whether it hurt that the Capitals were willing to let him go after he had just won a championship with them, Trotz said, “Yes and no.”

“That’s a question that depends on what day and what mood I’m in,” he said. “I always try to treat everything that I do sort of family-like. And it just became business.”

Trotz said other teams had started inquiring about his availability before he had even officially resigned, and he initially thought he would spend the subsequent year at his cabin in British Columbia. “I was going to put my feet up and wasn’t planning to do a whole heck of a lot,” he said. The Islanders were the only team with a head coaching vacancy, though “a few other teams” reached out, too. Just three days after he resigned from the Capitals, he agreed to a five-year deal worth roughly $20 million to be the Islanders’ coach.

What followed was a busy summer and a transition he’s still working through. Washington captain Alex Ovechkin texted Trotz when the coach had his day with the Stanley Cup in Manitoba, and Trotz said he has reached out to some players when they’ve hit a milestone this season. His wife and young son just joined him in New York, and the garage is so full of boxes that he can’t get in there at the moment.

He’s the Islanders’ coach now, but to the Capitals, he’ll always be the one who helped install a healthy culture and taught them structure and discipline. “He brought this team together, and he taught us how to play defense,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. They won a Stanley Cup with that suffocating, tight-checking style, and in the process, the Capitals showed Trotz something, too.

“People said they didn’t have it in them, but after the fact, they always did,” Trotz said. “They always had it in them; they just needed to continue down the path, and they were probably more resilient mentally. … They got it, and they’ll always have it now. That’s why when all the boys there said, ‘Let’s repeat,’ they got it. They’re not going to wither in the big moments anymore.”

The coach who will be on the opposing bench Monday night deserves a lot of credit for that.