The Washington Capitals have already said they plan to honor former coach Barry Trotz with a tribute video during Friday night’s game against Trotz’s New York Islanders, his first time back in Capital One Arena after guiding his old team to the Stanley Cup last June. But there’s one person who doesn’t think he deserves anything special: Barry Trotz.
“I wasn’t there long enough,” Trotz said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I don’t think I should get a tribute video.”
Sure, Trotz’s four seasons in Washington pale in comparison to his 17-year stint in Nashville, where he was the expansion Predators' first coach. But with 391 regular season and playoff games behind the Capitals’ bench, Trotz was the longest-tenured coach of the Alex Ovechkin era-Capitals. The relationship between the coach and the captain had its bumps, what Ovechkin referred to as “a work in progress,” but there was important common ground — both men had enjoyed great regular season success throughout their respective careers without making it past the second round of the playoffs.
On June 7 in Las Vegas, it was Ovechkin who handed Trotz the Stanley Cup to hoist for a first time, a show of respect for someone who had helped him finally get to that stage. The feeling was mutual.
“You know what I learned about Ovi? He cares tremendously, and he shouldered a lot over those years,” Trotz said. “I’m amazed at what he had to shoulder being the face of that franchise. There’s some natural pressures in Washington, in that building and with that fan base that are hopefully gone, but they were real. They were real, and he’s had to endure that, and that takes a tough guy. They said Ovi didn’t have it, but he did. He’s way tougher than you think, way tougher.
“I have tremendous respect for him, boy, I’ll tell you. Even though we had our moments, I would say that in some ways, maybe we became friends because we worked together. He felt like family to me.”
When Trotz was hired before the 2014-15 season, he inherited a team in disarray. The Capitals had missed the playoffs the previous season under Adam Oates. Practice habits were uneven, and while the team had obvious offensive talent with Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and others, it lacked defensive discipline, Trotz’s specialty. But the product he wanted on the ice had to translate off it, too, and with Ovechkin the captain, it wasn’t always smooth getting on the same page.
“He was very — I’ll use the word ‘strict’ — when he got here,” Backstrom said. “He changed the culture a little bit. It wouldn’t matter to him if you had been in the league for 10 years or you were a rookie, it was the same for everyone.”
Trotz was committed to holding Ovechkin accountable, something that was tested when Ovechkin overslept for a morning skate in 2015. Ovechkin told Trotz it was an honest mistake, accidentally setting his alarm for p.m. instead of a.m. Trotz suspended him for that night’s game anyway. “At the end of the day, I knew it was right and he knew it was right. But at that moment, he probably didn’t,” Trotz said.
They didn’t always agree on Ovechkin’s usage either. As Trotz worked to develop Ovechkin’s two-way play, he initially didn’t trust him in certain spots, playing him less in late-game situations when the Capitals were protecting a lead. Then in the 2016-17 season, Trotz reduced Ovechkin’s minutes to a career-low average of 18:22 as a way to keep Ovechkin fresher later in the playoffs. Ovechkin said he didn’t think the experiment was good for him and “it didn’t work out.” He scored five goals with three assists in 13 playoff games, and Washington lost to Pittsburgh in the second round for a second straight year. He was back to skating more than 20 minutes per game the next season.
But those shared growing pains and playoff disappointments culminated in a lesson for Ovechkin: “I think we realized we can’t cheat and you have to work hard on both ends of the ice,” he said. Ovechkin’s commitment to that was never more evident than during the Capitals' run to the Stanley Cup title. Ovechkin watched one of the team’s games from the first round and told Trotz he couldn’t believe how out of position he was defensively at times.
“I watch Ovi this year play, and he’s playing pretty free this year, if you ask me,” Trotz said. “He doesn’t look jammed up to me. All 33 goals he’s got already, he doesn’t look jammed up. … He understands how important it is for him with the puck, and he understands how important it is for him without the puck to do what he necessarily has to do to then have success.
“I hope I had some impact on him.”
While Ovechkin needed to get more diligent about certain aspects of his game, Trotz needed to lighten up a little, especially in the postseason. Ovechkin appreciated how relaxed his coach seemed during the playoffs last year, especially when he did a solo “hot” lap around the rink the morning of the Capitals' Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. Players laughed and tapped their sticks as he made his way around — albeit slowly — in an effort to lighten the mood by participating in Washington’s new playoff tradition.
“As soon as we saw that he was angry or serious, we’d start getting angry and serious,” Ovechkin said. “Last year, when we down in Tampa, [three games to two], I didn’t see any panic. In previous years, there was lots of panicking and everybody was getting tight in the shoulders. We didn’t see that last year.”
Trotz’s Islanders are surprisingly in playoff position, just three points in back of Ovechkin’s Capitals in the Metropolitan Division standings entering play Thursday. Their professional relationship ended when Trotz resigned over a contract dispute, but there will always be a friendship for what they endured together during those four years. Ovechkin, for one, is looking forward to Trotz’s tribute Friday night.
“He was our championship team coach,” Ovechkin said. “Every player, every coach, every guy who was involved in that has to be treated right. It doesn’t matter what the situation was with the contract or whatever he did, there’s nothing we can do, but I’m pretty sure the fans are going to be very happy to see him back. And he’s going to be emotional as well.”