I wanted to do an assessment on Head Coach Barry Trotz. The problem I ran into is, I really, really like the guy and what he’s done with the team. That makes it a little harder to do an assessment, but I set about giving things a hard look just the same.
I think it’s only fair to start with what my expectations were as a fan, and how he measured up to them. I expected we would be a playoff team. I felt we had enough talent on the roster that, even in a tough division, the playoffs were a reasonable expectation. I didn’t expect we would be division winners and I certainly didn’t expect a particularly deep playoff run. I based that on the apparent dysfunction Trotz was walking into, the need to change the tone in the locker room, and a full roster learning a completely new system.
So where was I right and where was I wrong? Obviously we outperformed my expectations overall, with a good playoff run that left us all feeling like it should have gone longer. At the end of the day, we want wins in the playoffs, and coach Trotz delivered. We were slow out of the gate and my fears about a new system and a new tone in the locker room were proven correct. How quickly we improved is a testament to both the coaches and the players, and I’ll happily eat a little crow for being wrong there. Trotz not only met, but exceeded my expectations. That makes it hard to really find fault with any of his moves throughout the course of the season. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some areas where he can improve. We’ll get to that shortly.
Before we get into things to improve on, I want to take a moment and point out some things I learned about the man who I didn’t know prior to his first season. The most obvious I think, is just how good of a person he is. As Caps fans we’ve had many playoff collapses over the years, and a long history of disappointment, but I really think we can be proud to call Barry Trotz our coach. In the same way as a kid I was proud to be a Redskins fan because of coach Joe Gibbs. Now there is another, more important parallel with Gibbs that I’ve seen in Barry Trotz. One I wasn’t expecting, but I am very glad to point out, because I think it is no small part why coach Gibbs is in the NFL Hall of Fame today. When coach Gibbs first came to Washington he was coming as a pass first, high-powered aerial attack specialist from the San Diego Chargers and Don Coryell’s, Air Coryell offense. The genius of coach Gibbs was that while he initially tried to implement that style of offense in DC, he quickly realized that he didn’t have the right personnel and changed his system to fit the players he did have. Four trips to the Superbowl with three wins says, that was a very good decision indeed. Trotz came to us as a defensive minded coach with loads of experience, so we didn’t first see the attempt to fit the players to his system. Instead we saw Trotz modify his system to suit the players he had immediately, and with similar results to what coach Gibbs experienced in 1981. I don’t think I need to remind most of you that in his second season the Washington Redskins won Superbowl XVII. That’s one of the reasons I’m so high in my expectations for the coming season for the Washington Capitals.
But enough with the compliments; we didn’t win the Stanley Cup and so exceeding expectations or not, we failed to achieve the ultimate goal. So what does the coach have to work on to make this team better? The first and most obvious thing will be incorporating some new pieces into the puzzle. It would be logical to think those new pieces were largely selected and approved by the coach so we shouldn’t expect anything but positives there. I do expect that when coach Trotz looked back over the full season he found some things that didn’t work from a systems angle. I also expect he’s picked up some missed opportunities for plays that weren’t necessarily recognized at the time. We can expect subtle new wrinkles added to the systems on both sides of the puck to account for those lessons learned.
The first big trouble spot that pops out at me is something I noticed as the season wore on, and a few stats people verified. While we improved greatly on face offs and defensive zone face offs in particular, we were very poor at exiting the zone cleanly after face off wins in our own end. It didn’t burn us on the score sheet as much as you might expect, but knowing how quickly puck luck can change, it’s a trouble spot that needs to be addressed. I don’t know if it’s a coaching or system problem, but it’s an obvious aspect that needs work.
The next area of concern is zone entries on the power play. This was particularly a problem in the playoffs but was visible intermittently throughout the season. It’s hard to believe given the potency of the power play that there is any area really in need of improvement there, but it’s true. I can’t say we need to do x or y because there are a myriad of ways to address it and I won’t presume to know more than coach Trotz (on this one anyway). I just know we need to fix it. We need to be better at carrying the puck in, and with more options we can go to if the opponent takes a play away. We also need to get better when we dump the puck in. The dump in approach isn’t a first resort but we need to be better at it just the same. Given the potency of the power play, particularly when we can enter the zone claeanly, are able to set up and start moving the puck around, this is an area that invariably shows up on the score sheet.
A less obvious area of concern is the penalty kill. While we improved in a big way over the course of the season, we also saw early on how high the price is when we don’t work on it enough. Given the turnover of penalty kill personnel after losing Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr, all three of whom played a major part on the penalty kill, coach Trotz will have to put some focus here and likely tweak systems to adjust for that turnover. The good news is, if last season is anything to judge on, he’s very capable of building a top 10 or even top 5 penalty kill unit.
Another area of concern is perhaps unfair, but I have to mention it just the same, and that’s player development. On the one hand if we look at Evgeny Kuznetsov’s development, it’s hard to find any fault with his handling of young players. He brought Kuznetsov along slowly, sat him down, left him in the bottom 6 for a period of time and never lost him. Kuznetsov always seemed to know why he was where he was, and accepted it as a challenge and really stepped up. Based purely on results, most seem to think we have a budding superstar in Kuznetsov, so it’s hard to see his handling last season as anything other than brilliant. Where many of us had a few questions and concerns was regarding Andre Burakovsky’s handling. While his “coming out party” in the playoffs was no less impressive than that of Kuznetsov’s, the route there wasn’t nearly as smooth. The talent of Burakovsky was there to see from the first day. The handling of Burakovsky however was very different. Was that simply that Burakovsky was younger and a different personality? I have my suspicions, but no more information than anyone else to confirm or contradict them. What I do know is I was baffled seeing Burakovsky sent to the AHL for a long stretch and I’m not so sure he was coming back up for the playoffs without the injury to Eric Fehr. The lack of understanding in terms of what exactly went on there concerns me. I see Burakovsky as a near lock in the top 6 this coming season. Does coach Trotz? We should know pretty quickly. Did Burakovsky do what coach Trotz required and is he now a mainstay in the NHL we think he is? Or are there remaining issues? One thing is for sure, the second line with Burakovsky on the wing and playing like he did in the playoffs, is a much more dangerous line than it was with Johansson in that same position. If there are any remaining issues there, coach Trotz needs to get them sorted quickly.
It’s also worth noting the expected advancement of Tom Wilson up to the third line this season. Given the lack of offensive progress in Wilsons game thus far, it will be interesting to see how coach Trotz is able to grow his game this season. Between Burakovsky and Wilson, we’ll be able to make a much more complete assessment of Barry Trotz and his skills managing young players after this season.
Other than these few things, I really can’t find much to criticize. Given the monumental change of last season, and the relatively minor changes anticipated for this coming season, there is every reason to believe our coach is more than up to the task. He’s shown his willingness to adjust to the different personnel, and every problem that has cropped up, he’s had an answer for. With a year to get to get know his players better, and a few new pieces plugged in where he wants them, it’s totally reasonable to expect better results in year two. This is a coach who commands respect inside and outside of the locker room. You need look no further than our captain to see the complete buy in from the team. If I were a player I’d want to play for a coach like Barry Trotz.
We’ve had some good coaches in Washington, and some beloved coaches as well. How can any of us as fans ever have anything but love for Bruce Boudreau? I for one will be sad as we lift that first Stanley Cup, that Boudreau won’t be a part of it. At the same time as fans, I think we’re incredibly lucky to have Trotz. Trotz is proving to be every bit as entertaining as Gabby was, even if his language filter seems to work MUCH better than Bruce’s ever did! As a fan, I can’t really say enough good things about coach Trotz and the turnaround he’s orchestrated for our team. Nashville let a great one get away, and I’m proud to call him the head coach of our Washington Capitals.
Thanks coach Trotz. Now get back to work and bring us that Stanley Cup. 🙂
By Ernie Mudd