Put aside the result Thursday night, or (if necessary) Sunday, or (heaven help us) next Wednesday. The Stanley Cup playoffs have shown us this much: Barry Trotz has earned the right to return to coach the Washington Capitals.
The question — and it’s really a question for after the finals against the Vegas Golden Knights are over, but we have time to kill before the puck drops — is whether Trotz wants to come back.
Caveats: There is business at hand, the most important business in the 44-year history of the Capitals and in the 34-year coaching career that spans back to the University of Manitoba. Thursday night is Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals. Trotz’s Capitals lead Vegas three games to one. Neither coach nor franchise ever has ventured to this precipice.
Normally, a coach who has pushed his team to places it has never been has a future that is both sure and secure. But Trotz, as we noted before these playoffs started, has no contract for next year. That seemed both odd and understandable when the playoffs began April 12. (April 12?!!!) Now, it just seems weird.
“We’re gonna address everything after the playoffs are over,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said before the finals began. That makes sense, because who’s going to negotiate a contract with the Stanley Cup on the line?
But let’s be clear about this: If Trotz wants to coach in the NHL next year, he will coach in the NHL next year. He is fifth on the career regular-season win list. He now has broken through his personal barrier, getting past the second round of the playoffs for the first time. He has maintained a jovial public demeanor on what is an arduous road. He has coaxed from his team a commitment to play the way that is necessary for them to win, disciplined rather than free-wheeling.
And he has, recently, stuck to a creed that he no longer defines himself by the results he attains. During these playoffs, he has sought to divorce how he evaluates himself by whether or not he wins a Stanley Cup. Maybe, oddly, that’s helped him get closer than ever before.
“I have a clarity,” Trotz said before the series began. “. . . If you don’t win any awards or anything, I’m not going to look at you any different. If you’re a good person and you treat people right and you live your life right, then I’m going to think really highly of you. If you don’t, I’m not going to think so much of you. And I started getting that clarity that everybody looks for the wrong in people rather than the right.”
There is, of course, enough right about Trotz that he deserves to come back — if he wants. MacLellan, who took over as the general manager the same offseason team president Dick Patrick and owner Ted Leonsis moved to hire Trotz, has a good daily working relationship with his coach. Entering the season, though, MacLellan chose not to extend Trotz. Since then, he has watched a 55-year-old man evolve some.
“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure, maybe a little more freedom in terms of how he goes about things. He’s more relaxed, I guess is how best to describe him.”
So, if the Capitals win Thursday — or Sunday in Game 6, or Wednesday in Game 7, or not at all — does that mean there’s a new four-year deal in the offing?
“He’s probably going to benefit from this, too,” MacLellan said. “It’s not all not good for him.”
Of course it’s not. This will be Trotz’s choice.
Maybe he wants out of Washington? I wouldn’t pretend to know why, and I’m not arguing that’s the case. But it’s interesting to note that longtime NHL exec Lou Lamoriello just took over the New York Islanders and spent his Tuesday firing GM Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight. So even at this late date, there’s an opening elsewhere should Trotz want it.
But it’s also not crazy to think Trotz’s choice might be to step away, and it wouldn’t even have to be anything negative or nefarious regarding his relationship with the Capitals. Trotz began coaching in 1984 as a college assistant in his native Manitoba when he was all of 22. This isn’t just about the four years with the Capitals. It’s about his season at the helm of the Dauphin Kings in juniors, about his years back as the head coach at the University of Manitoba, about his three years with the Baltimore Skipjacks and four more with the Portland Pirates, the Caps’ top affiliates in the American Hockey League.
When former Washington general manager David Poile hired him to become the first head coach of the expansion Nashville Predators in 1998, Trotz now had put in time — and then coached in Nashville for 15 seasons. When he was finally fired there, he had four teams calling immediately. He settled on the Capitals, and immediately dove in to learning his new team, his new organization and his new town.
My point: Trotz never really has had the chance to breathe. Thursday night will be the 2,037th game for Trotz as a professional head coach, playoffs and regular season. If he wins it, it’s possible to think that he might say, “I need a break.”
That seems both rational and reasonable. There was, too, that odd business earlier in the playoffs, when the Capitals closed out Columbus in the first round, when amateur lip readers broke down film of Trotz and Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella shaking hands. “I’m gone,” was one interpretation of Trotz’s words, though Trotz said days later, “We weren’t talking about that.”
Whatever. Thursday night is the biggest game in the history of the Washington Capitals. Thursday night is the biggest game in Barry Trotz’s coaching career. Should those two win it together, they will have something each has spent decades pursuing, the ultimate prize in their sport. What happens next won’t matter as much as what they did together.