In 2013-14, the Capitals finished with a 38-30-14 record; missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. The dismal year cost then-head coach Adam Oates and then-general manager George McPhee their jobs. For majority owner Ted Leonsis, relieving both Oates McPhee of their duties was difficult. McPhee had been the team’s GM since 1997, and Leonsis bought the team from the late-Abe Pollin in 1999. Oates was a player for Washington from 1997-2004.
At the time, Leonsis stated: “today is not a happy day for me”. While both he and Team President Dick Patrick were upset, the change was necessary in order for the Caps to become relevant again. Fortunately for Leonsis and Patrick, the choices for replacements was stocked: available coaches included names such as Barry Trotz, Peter Laviolette, Guy Boucher, and Dan Bylsma. At General Manager, names such as Ray Shero, Don Sweeney, and Paul Fenton were at the top of many lists.
When it was announced that the Capitals had hired Trotz as their head coach, it was music to the ears of many. For the first time in Alex Ovechkin’s ten-year NHL career, the Capitals would be guided by a bench boss with previous NHL experience. When the Capitals promoted then-assistant general manager Brian MacLellan to replace McPhee, it was a decision many questioned. But just over a year after the two were hired, the Caps have become true contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Under Trotz’ calm, steady persona, the Caps finished second in the Metropolitan Division with 101 points, and a 45-26-11 record. MacLellan’s free agent signings, d-men Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, solidified the team’s struggling defensive corps. Ovechkin posted a plus-10 rating just a year after finishing a -35. His commitment to two-way play was on display all season and played what some called, the best hockey of his career. Trotz’ experience didn’t stop at Ovechkin, but the entire team. When the Caps were mired in a five-game losing skid in late December, Trotz changed the lineup around in order to get offense. Andre Burakovsky was placed on a line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, and Brooks Laich were a shutdown force for the Caps, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Troy Brouwer, and Marcus Johansson, were a reliable second-line. With no disrespect to Oates, who also changed the lineup, Trotz was able to pick the right players to play together; enabling the team to break the losing skid and start winning games consistently.
But Trotz’ knowledge was even more valuable in the playoffs. With the Caps and New York Islanders going to a Game 7 in the first-round, Trotz insisted that the team look forward, not backward at past losses, saying:
“A lot of guys haven’t been a part of that history. I mean, I haven’t. So it doesn’t mean anything to me, really.”
Trotz knew that dwelling on the past would only distract the Capitals from playing good hockey. He remained calm and collected and his players were able to do the same. Trotz also held players accountable throughout the season, and healthy-scratched lineup regular, Jason Chimera, after the veteran had taken a penalty in the final seconds of a third period that cost the Caps a win.
Whichever way you slice it, Trotz has been the coach the Capitals have been missing for a long time. He knows how to work with each player’s strengths and how to minimize weaknesses. His ability to communicate his point clearly and directly allows every single player to play the way he wants is phenomenal. Trotz gives the Caps a true chance to win a Stanley Cup, something that would have been an atrocious thought after 2013-14. It is his knowledge of the game that sets him apart from other coaches the team has been directed by in the past.
To put it simply, the moment Barry Trotz stepped behind the bench was the moment the Washington Capitals became legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for the first time in a long time.
By Michael Fleetwood