A neat-and-tidy negotiation is what the Washington Capitals and their fans probably deserved, particularly after the former group provided newfound elation to the latter in the form of a Stanley Cup. But where the Capitals and their now former coach, Barry Trotz, are concerned, the relationship has been neither neat nor tidy dating from this time last year, facts that even possessing the Cup can’t change.
Do yourself this favor: Don’t let Trotz’s resignation Monday take the shine off the Stanley Cup. The group that won it is stitched together for eternity. Trotz was the coach of that team. This doesn’t change any of that. Flip through the photos of the parade on your phone if it helps. It really happened.
But acknowledge, for sure, that there’s intrigue here. Intrigue and disappointment.
The story is that winning the Cup triggered a two-year extension to Trotz’s contract, an extension that he negotiated on his way in the door four years ago. Once the Capitals’ first Cup was secured, Trotz wanted more money and more years — five more years, General Manager Brian MacLellan said at a Monday evening news conference. According to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, Trotz asked for $5 million for each of those years — numbers that would have placed him among the most well-compensated coaches in the NHL.
The Capitals wouldn’t go there. Not in length. Nor in money. So Trotz resigned, and 11 days after he stood on the ice in Las Vegas watching his players hoist the Stanley Cup, MacLellan had to explain why his to-do list now includes: hire a new coach.
“I think the five-year term is probably a sticking point,” MacLellan said at the news conference, held at the Capitals’ training complex in Arlington. “You have a coach that’s been here four years. You do another five, that’s nine years.”
Nine-year NHL coaches are essentially glen plaid unicorns who can speak. There are 31 NHL teams. Only one has employed its current coach that long — the Chicago Blackhawks and Joel Quenneville. That relationship produced a Stanley Cup in its second year. And its fifth year. And its seventh year. That relationship is unusual.
Beyond Quenneville, only one coach — Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper — has completed as many as five seasons with his current team. Shoot, Scotty Bowman won more games than any coach in the history of the NHL. He coached for 30 seasons and won eight Stanley Cups. But he never coached in one place more than nine years, and twice he left a job — first in Montreal, later in Detroit — after winning the whole thing. The league is built on turnover behind the bench.
“There’s not many coaches that have that lasting ability,” MacLellan said. “It’s a long time, and it’s a lot of money to be committing to a coach.”
So at one level, it makes sense: Trotz was on uneasy footing entering this season because — think back a bit so you can recall — the Capitals had ended 2017 with a kick-in-the-solar plexus loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. At two distinct points during this past season, Trotz might have been fired. And none of this discussion would have seemed surprising had the Capitals lost in the first or second round.
But they didn’t. They won everything there is to win. So this is dicey.
“It’s hard for me,” MacLellan said. “It’s hard for guys in the organization. In the end, I think sports is a business. You want it to work out. You want it to be a game. You want it to be all fun, but 10 days after you win a Cup, you have to come here and do this. It’s not fun.”
I’m not about to regurgitate all the feelings that coursed through veins in this town for years — and by “years,” I mean the quarter-century between the football team’s last Super Bowl championship and the Caps’ Cup — that there’s some sort of commonality, a curse, to the sporting misfortune here.
But there is something odd about how coaches here don’t last. Really, they don’t do much more than take the Red Line once from Glenmont around to Shady Grove. The good ones are here long enough to make the return trip. Much more than that? You have to go back to Joe Gibbs.
Jay Gruden has coached the Redskins for four years. Around here, he feels like a lifer, particularly because no coach under Dan Snyder’s ownership has seen opening day of season five. Scott Brooks has coached the Wizards for two seasons, the 11th coach in the basketball team’s last 20 years. The Nationals are playing their first season under Manager Dave Martinez, who is here only because ownership decided the two division titles delivered in the previous two seasons weren’t enough to warrant bringing back Dusty Baker.
And now, the Capitals are looking for a replacement for the only coach to deliver a championship to the team and the town. Alex Ovechkin will enter his 14th NHL season in the fall. He will do so under his sixth coach.
It’s almost as if the political cycle so overwhelms mere existence here that it has some bizarre impact on the coaches. If we have an (R), we must need a (D), or vice versa. Drain the swamp? Something.
Seriously, though: Do the franchises here not value coaches enough? I have argued that about the Nationals for years. The Redskins have paid their coaches well (Mike Shanahan checks bank account, and smiles), and Brooks is earning — “earning”? Sorry. “Making” — $7 million annually.
The Capitals, though, seem to fall into that Nats’ category. They won’t pay the money the big-market hockey teams — those in Chicago and Detroit and Montreal and Toronto — can pay their coaches. The decision not to give Trotz what he wanted falls to owner Ted Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick, but there’s no way MacLellan could recommend five more years and $25 million to his bosses, either.
So what we’re left with is something short of a mess but not the neat-and-tidy stroll into the sunset people would have wanted for Trotz. Maybe he could have asked for something more reasonable — but he’s 55, and he is never going to be more marketable, so take your best shot now. Maybe the Caps could have added a third year and bumped his salary way up.
Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
“There’s not a negative thing I can say,” MacLellan said of Trotz. “It’s just, we didn’t get it done on the negotiations, both sides.”
Which is neither neat, nor tidy. It’s just too bad.