There’s some thinking pertaining to the Washington Capitals that this year — after everything they’ve been through, without the noose of being the Presidents’ Trophy winners and feeling the buzz that comes with being the Stanley Cup favorites — will be the one Alex Ovechkin’s Caps finally break through, finally win two playoff series, finally at least reach the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s counterintuitive, sure. But I get it. The pressure’s off, so now they’ll go. We’ll begin to learn the validity of that train of thought Thursday night, when the Caps — who have home-ice advantage in the first round for the ninth time in 11 years — open the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Anticipation,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “This is the best time of the year.”
It hasn’t been Trotz’s best time of the year, however. And as the Caps push forward, it’s increasingly hard to envision a fifth season with Trotz — unless a deep run is afoot. The pressure might be off the Caps as a whole. But it’s clearly on their coach, who at some point must alter a flawed legacy, both in his Washington tenure and over his career.
In some ways, this past season could represent Trotz’s best work with the Capitals. No longer loaded, these Capitals began the season not only still stunned from another Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh but also from a retooling process necessitated by the salary cap.
And yet here they sit, with 49 wins and 105 points, totals topped by just five teams in the NHL. The Caps did this despite a subpar season from goalie Braden Holtby, who begins the playoffs on the bench, with forward T.J. Oshie scoring roughly once ever four games he played rather than roughly once every two, as he did a year ago, and without the major addition at the trade deadline Trotz was afforded in the past. Kudos, for sure.
But this April holds the same truism from each of the past 18 Aprils: Not just that Barry Trotz has never won a Stanley Cup. Not just that Barry Trotz has never reached the Cup finals. But Barry Trotz has never reached the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
(Wait. Alex Ovechkin has never reached the third round of the playoffs. Hmmmm. Seems like some overlap.)
This can seem complicated, until it’s not. Trotz’s résumé is, in some ways, unassailable. Here are the coaches who have more than Trotz’s 762 regular season wins: Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock and Al Arbour. That’s the list. Each of those four coaches has won at least one Stanley Cup; they have combined for 17. Bowman and Arbour are in the Hall of Fame. Quenneville and Hitchcock could be someday.
Given all Trotz’s time and all of Trotz’s teams — both the past four in Washington and the previous 15 in Nashville — doesn’t he wonder: How have I not broken through?
“Yeah, you look back,” Trotz said Wednesday. “But I looked at it. I’ve been in some tough conferences. I was in a conference with Detroit when they were loaded. That rolled into the Chicago days where they had their massive teams. I moved over here, and I’ve run into the Pittsburgh Penguins a few times. It’s just luck of the draw. That’s what it is.”
Is it? There’s truth in what Trotz said, because his Nashville teams in 2008 and 2010 lost first-round series to Detroit and Chicago, respectively, in years the Red Wings and Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup. That’s also the Caps’ fate the past two springs, when Pittsburgh ousted Washington, then went on to win the whole thing.
But that’s not the only way Trotz’s teams have been bounced from the playoffs. Five times, including in 2015 in Washington, the team that beat Trotz’s team was, in turn, beaten in the next round. They haven’t all been juggernauts, and Trotz hasn’t always been the underdog.
At some point, there is a clearly discernible pattern, and at some point, if that pattern isn’t broken, a single postseason has to be a referendum on a coach’s tenure in a certain place. With Trotz, that pattern has been established, and this is the postseason that must become the referendum.
To those who pay attention to the Capitals before the springtime, Trotz’s unsteady footing has been telegraphed. Trotz does not have a contract beyond this year. Two of his assistants, Todd Reirden and Blaine Forsythe, do. So does General Manager Brian MacLellan. That’s some odd dynamics. It doesn’t take a slide rule to do the math.
So, then, does Trotz feel like he is coaching for his future in these playoffs?
“I’m not even going to comment,” Trotz said. “I haven’t lost any sleep about it. That’s a ‘Mac’ question or an ownership question. I could care less about that question other than that’s a question for them.”
The question was put to Caps owner Ted Leonsis last month by The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan, and Leonsis’s answer was swift and sure: “I don’t talk about contracts.” MacLellan said he preferred to consider the season as a whole, and for a franchise that by now is an annual playoff participant, the season as a whole isn’t 82 games. It is, hopefully, 100 — or more. Those responses, midstream, are both fair and telling, because if he’s your guy going forward, you say so. If that’s not determined, you duck and dodge.
In the past, Trotz has been unafraid to turn to the unconventional in the playoffs — with mixed results. A year ago, he dropped Ovechkin to the third line. He dressed seven defensemen. The coaching was different. The results were the same, and devastatingly so.
Keep in mind, too, that Trotz wasn’t an easy choice to bring back for this season. The loss to the Penguins last May was one of the most difficult this franchise has endured, and that’s saying something. It required the deepest introspection from players, coaches and the front office. Not all the feedback was positive — nor should it have been, given the result. Ultimately, Leonsis doesn’t want to run a franchise that fires a coach that just posted the league’s best record two years in a row. Understood.
Now, though, the Caps don’t have the best record. Maybe that’s freeing — for the players, the fans, the coaches. In that sense, this could be fun.
But if this different team with diminished expectations delivers the same result, expect at least one thing to change: the coach. Because at some point, not pushing through to at least the conference finals isn’t the luck of the draw.