When Coach Barry Trotz passed (yet another) Hall of Famer, Dick Irvin, in wins earlier this month, it’s wasn’t surprising that it came with little fanfare. As Trotz said in the post-game press conference last night in response to a different question, he takes pride in the team winning games and going deeper in the playoffs; he doesn’t give a damn about the individual stuff. But there’s a reason only five coaches in NHL history have more wins than Trotz; he knows what he’s doing and how to push the right buttons to effect successful outcomes.
It starts with assembling his talented coaching staff and continues with the communications and decisions they make throughout the season. Trotz’s ability to seemingly make all the right moves is important as the Capitals face their biggest adversity this season: André Burakovsky is out five to seven (or possibly even eight) weeks, missing somewhere between 14 and 25 games due to a broken hand the Swedish winger suffered in Thursday’s 6-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. Trotz had sat Burakovsky as a healthy scratch for three games in mid-December, and since then he had played much better and been a key component of the Caps’ resurgent third-line, partnering with Brian MacLellan’s two excellent offseason acquisitions, winger Brett Connolly and center Lars Eller.
The Capitals have had the NHL’s fewest man games missed due to injury, so the law of averages was bound to even out at some point. As I type with one hand and knock-on-wood with the other: even with just Burakovsky’s injury, Caps will remain having the least man games missed this season. It’s only fitting that Zach Sanford’s first NHL goal served as the game-winning goal in the Capitals’ 6-4 victory over the Anaheim Ducks last night; a game in which Sanford was the first to take Burakovsky’s place in the lineup. As Trotz shared during the post-game press conference last night, he told the rookie call-up between periods, “Don’t play tentative. Don’t play safe. Go for it.”
Sanford had played in 19 games with the Capitals at the beginning of the season before being sent down to the Hershey Bears. Sanford had played in place of Connolly (eight) or Daniel Winnik (seven), before injury-related scratches transpired. Both Connolly and Winnik have shown they have more to offer the Capitals this season, but Sanford has worked more on his strength and started to produce down in the AHL. Sanford also plays right wing with the Bears, and it sometimes seems as if Sanford is more comfortable as a center, but I’m not about to question any decision made by the Capitals at this point. It’s expected that Jakub Vrana, and potentially other Hershey players will get their opportunities to play in Burakovsky’s absence in addition to Sanford.
The most notable adjustment that Coach Trotz has been working on with the players, is embracing a defense-first mentality and more conservative approach to puck possession, which he called mid-week “not cheating,” something that the Caps struggled with a year ago when they surrendered the first goal in 13 of 15 matches. Going from 2.31 to 2.16 goals allowed per game may not seem like a significant difference, but it has been. The shutdown defense mindset has resulted in better offensive chances too and catapulted the Capitals this calendar year to a team that looks more formidable than last season’s President’s Trophy-winning team. Was there some slippage in “not cheating” in last night’s performance against the Ducks? For sure. We also know that, for Trotz and the Capitals franchise, getting wins deeper in the playoffs is unchartered territory. But I can’t think of a coaching staff I’d rather have leading the Capitals than the one we have. And with I say:
In Trotz we trust.
By Tim Foisie