When the Washington Capitals, who have the NHL’s most electrifying sniper scoring 51 goals in a season, do not qualify for the postseason, questions will be asked and spotlights will be directed.
In fact, such a poor finish has already cost coach Adam Oates and long-time general manager George McPhee their positions at the franchise. Now, two new men will endeavour to finally deliver the Washington Capitals that elusive trophy.
After opting for a first-time coach in Oates two seasons ago, the organisation has chosen a rather different path this time around. Along with new GM Brian MacLellan, who has been a member of the franchise for the past 13 seasons, they went with the (now formerly) longest-tenured head coach in the NHL, Barry Trotz.
Having served for an absolute age at the helm of the Nashville Predators, Trotz has been given the green light to direct Washington’s troops into the 2014-15 season. Importantly, with Trotz and MacLellan, the Capitals have a wealth of experience and knowledge to draw upon, which could propel them back into the NHL’s elite.
Barry Trotz has only known one city in his entire NHL coaching career and he was the only coach that the Music City of Nashville had known too, having been together since the team's inception. Though after 15 years in charge of the Predators, effectively taking them as far as he could, they decided not to have him back. But Trotz was quoted in USA Today as still having “a lot of juice” for coaching, and he’s landed well in picking up a Capitals’ roster with many of the key components needed to win the Cup.
At first thought, Trotz could be seen as bringing a defense-first ideology to the U.S. capital. However, perhaps the make-up of the roster in Nashville forced him to use that strategy, with the Predators being strong in their own end, but lacking firepower up front.
His team had much success in the regular season post-lockout, up until the last two seasons. Yet postseason triumphs have been few and far between, with Trotz only ever guiding them to two series wins in his 15 seasons. That is not exactly the kind of record that the Capitals want to hear about, having struggled to win in the playoffs for many years now, even after dominating in the regular season and winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10.
After finally meeting Trotz face-to-face, captain Alex Ovechkin told USA Today that changes are coming:
He's going to explain to everybody, it's not about just me, everybody will have to change…We just talked about how he wants to play with me and how he wants to play with the team. We talked about good things — lots of good things, lots of bad things — he sees what he can change with the team and what he can change with my game.
What Trotz will enforce is a stronger sense of defensive responsibility for his players and a clear system. Nashville has always been a well-disciplined team, being responsible for the puck in their own zone. No one in the league could benefit more from this ideology than the Washington captain himself.
Perhaps the most astounding statistic from last season was No. 8’s minus-38, third worst in the entire league, despite his goal tally of 51. Trotz needs to challenge Ovechkin to work on his defensive game, to make him a more complete player. He’s such an explosive skater that he could be an excellent backchecker with a bit more focus.
At times, Adam Oates seemed to have blended and balanced the gung-ho attack regime of the Bruce Boudreau days with the grinding defensive system that Dale Hunter adopted. Now, with some fierce offensive punch in the likes of Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Troy Brouwer that he didn’t have in the Music City, Trotz can work at creating a permanent balance. The Capitals have all the skill necessary but it is their decision-making without the puck that the new boss will work on. He is quoted on NHL.com as saying:
I don't want to take anything away from the Capitals offensively. ... [They have] great power plays and great individuals that can put the puck in the net…I didn't have that in Nashville. I had some real good players, but not enough up front, so we became a little more of a defensive team.
Along with Ovechkin’s form, the power play was undoubtedly one of the shining lights at the Verizon Center last campaign, finishing joint top with the Pittsburgh Penguins on a 23.4% conversion rate. So Trotz will be keen to ignite that particular weapon again in October.
What about new GM Brian MacLellan then? Firstly, he knows the organisation like the back of his hand, having spent seven seasons as assistant GM under outgoing George McPhee. He will have learnt a lot from McPhee; he knows the players and what they can do, which surely gave him an advantage over any other candidate for the job. This will also help with the transition from Oates to Trotz.
MacLellan has some important decisions to make in the new few weeks, including what to do with Mike Green, getting a back-up to Braden Holtby and using some cap space to improve defensively. Regarding Holtby himself, he needs to be made to feel like the No. 1 goaltender that he is, instead of what Adam Oates did in consistently changing up the man in between the pipes.
If MacLellan makes the correct decisions, and combines his vast experience with that of Barry Trotz to establish an identity for the Washington Capitals, then they’ll unquestionably make headway in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the next few seasons, whilst they still have that relatively young core group of offensive talent.