SAN JOSE — The news that the Washington Capitals had agreed to a multiyear contract extension with General Manager Brian MacLellan, which the team confirmed Friday, came as little surprise. Owner Ted Leonsis historically has been reluctant to dismiss his executives; MacLellan’s predecessor, George McPhee, held the job for 17 years, and Washington Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld is in the midst of his 15th season in that post.
But in signing MacLellan to an extension during the season, it raised another rather obvious question: What will be the fate of Coach Barry Trotz, who is working in the final year of his contract?
When asked whether he had had any discussions with management about a potential extension of his own, Trotz left no room for interpretation. “No,” the coach said before Saturday’s 2-0 win at San Jose. “Not at all.”
There is still plenty of time left for Trotz — and by extension his players — to make that decision for management over the final few weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs. Saturday’s victory — combined with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ loss at Toronto — briefly put Washington (83 points) atop the Metropolitan Division with 14 games to go. The Penguins (84 points) reclaimed the division’s top spot with a 3-1 victory over Dallas on Sunday, but they now have played two more games than the Capitals. And the Philadelphia Flyers (81 points with 13 games left) remain in the mix, too.
And while the Capitals will not be receiving the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular season team for a third straight year, managing to finish atop the Metropolitan would mean a first-round series against one of the two wild-card teams at the bottom of the conference — as of now, the New Jersey Devils or Columbus Blue Jackets — as opposed to potentially facing the Penguins or Flyers in the opening round.
“This game, I felt, we were playing pretty solid right through,” Trotz said after Saturday’s victory. “We have to continue it. We have to be in playoff mode going forward here. There are teams closing in on us, and we have a couple games in hand, but we’ve got to win those games in hand. This was a huge win for us.”
Not only would winning the division improve the chances of Washington again reaching the second round of the playoffs — as it has in each of the past three seasons and six of the past nine — but it would also put Trotz, 55, in better position to have the kind of playoff run that seems necessary for him to be back in Washington next season.
That’s not to say Trotz’s tenure in Washington has been a failure. After McPhee and coach Adam Oates were fired in the wake of missing the playoffs in the 2013-14 season, Trotz has steered the Capitals to more than 100 points in each of the past three seasons, and he at least has a chance to do so again this year. A third straight division title is something the team has done only once before, and the two Presidents’ Trophies that Trotz has led the Capitals to were the second and third in the team’s 40-plus years in existence.
But the Capitals have been desperate to escape from the second round-and-out spin cycle they have been in for what feels like an eternity, and Trotz has been unable to do that. With a loss to the New York Rangers in seven games in 2015, in six games to the Penguins in 2016 and in seven games to the Penguins last year, Washington again remains without even a conference finals appearance in the 20 years since the franchise made its lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1998.
If that doesn’t change this spring, it’s possible Trotz — despite the success he has had — will be shown the door. The fact that his contract is expiring and that associate head coach Todd Reirden’s deal extends through next season only adds credence to that possibility.
But if Trotz has any concerns about his status — and the potential of him not being back in Washington next season — he isn’t saying it.
“I’m not worrying about it,” he said.
There are, after all, more pressing matters at hand — such as trying to make the playoffs, win the division and finally end Washington’s cycle of playoff disappointment. If Trotz can do that, there won’t be anything for him to worry about at all.