On Saturday in Toronto, in between the Washington Capitals’ morning meetings and their nighttime matchup with the Maple Leafs, Coach Barry Trotz asked his taxi driver to pull over. He had spotted his two young centers, cornerstones of the franchise’s future plans and roommates on the road, walking together back to the team hotel. He wanted a word.
In the months since Trotz assumed this job, he had held many conversations with Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov. They are 19 and 22 years old, respectively, both rookies by NHL standards, and experiencing the twists of life at the sport’s highest level. Sometimes, Trotz would praise them for success. Other times, he would explain their struggles or why their ice time had dipped. Now, only a few minutes from the hotel in Toronto, Trotz just wanted to chat.
“’Hey,” Trotz told them, “jump in the taxi with me.”
With rookies, he had always tried to straddle the line between superior and confidant, because 16 years of coaching at this level had taught Trotz that young players needed reassurance and support. He also tried to be patient, and honest, too, because young players also tended to read into things, worrying that their fluctuations in ice time happened because they did something wrong.
“Try to give them understanding, sort of a little bit like Dad,” Trotz said. “Tell them why you’re doing stuff. I’ll tell you why not to touch the stove. If you touch the stove, then it’s your fault. But I’ll tell you why.”
Why, as Burakovsky and Kuznetsov learned, could mean many things. When Trotz scratched Kuznetsov earlier this season in Chicago, the first time in the Russian’s hockey career that he could remember sitting healthy, the coach called it a product of circumstance, more matchup-related than anything Kuznetsov needed to do better.
It could also hinge on certain in-game situations. On Wednesday against the Islanders, Burakovsky didn’t appear for the final 10 minutes of a tie game because Trotz wanted more experience up the middle. Earlier that night, however, Trotz also threw Burakovsky into a tough situation to show confidence. The Capitals had just taken a 2-0 lead and Burakovsky’s line had performed well, so Trotz deployed those players against the Islanders’ top line, anchored by captain John Tavares.
Seconds later, Tavares scored because Burakovsky missed his assignment off the draw. Burakovsky’s shifts grew further apart, then nonexistent by the end. The shift also served as a barometer.
“If they wouldn’t have scored, I would’ve given them more and more,” Trotz said. “But they scored, so you have to pull it back. Was he over his head on that one? Is he not quite there yet? There’s always a risk. If you try to force-feed it too much, the players look at you like, ‘Trotzie, what are you thinking?’ But it’s a feel. I gave them a shot, and they scored. We ended up coming back. We fought through that. That’s the whole process with young guys.”
And sometimes, “why” depended on each other. Over the summer, Burakovsky beat Kuznetsov out for the much ballyhooed second-line center battle, but for the past three games, he centered the fourth line beside Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle, logging fewer than 11 minutes each time, which only happened three total times in the 20 games before. In this way, Burakovsky glimpsed into the world Kuznetsov entered once Burakovsky won the training camp competition, a world which has been far more helter-skelter and unpredictable.
“A lot of pressure back home for me, but it’s very important for me,” Kuznetsov said recently. “Hockey life starting this season. I want to work and I want to win something this season.”
After logging nine points over 17 games with Washington in 2013-14, Kuznetsov started the year with 6 minutes 36 seconds against Montreal. Earlier this month, he skated less than eight minutes in five of seven games. He had already centered the second, third and fourth lines, logging just six total points, until Burakovsky’s dip opened a window.
Since Kuznetsov already spent five seasons with Chelyabinsk Traktor in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League before coming to the United States, Trotz worried more about his confidence than Burakovsky’s because Kuznetsov had experienced professional hockey. So after explaining to Burakovsky that he would demote him against the Islanders to shake things up, Trotz spoke with Kuznetsov and challenged him.
“He said, ‘One game, I’m going to show you right now, I can do this,’ ” Trotz recalled. “Now, can he follow it up?”
Skating with Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov starred Friday, scoring a goal and recording an assist in the same game for the first time in his NHL career. But the Capitals have 60 regular season games left, plenty of time for more peaks and valleys. They harbor playoff aspirations but also employ two rookies in critical spots who together hold less than a full year’s experience. General Manager Brian MacLellan has explored shoring up the position by trading for a veteran center. For now, the Capitals must develop.
“They’re going to be productive players in this league, but we need time,” Trotz said. “One of the problems is we don’t have time, so they have to learn under fire. You’re looking for that prototypical second-line center man. They’re not out there. They’re just not out there. No one’s selling them. No one’s giving them away. So we have to produce our own. That’s the best way to do it. We’re trying to weigh getting in the playoffs and developing two young center men at the same time.”