Unless your name is Lindy Ruff, it’s hard to imagine how Barry Trotz will feel when he steps behind the Washington Capitals bench for the 2014-15 season.
Will it be like the first day at a new school? That doesn’t do it justice. It’s the equivalent of changing schools after spending 15 years in one class, with one teacher. The Nashville Predators were all Trotz had ever known as a head coach, and vice versa. He and GM David Poile had been joined at the hip since the dawn of the franchise in 1998-99.
“When you’re there in one spot from day one, forming a lot of the culture, making a lot of decisions in a lot of areas when you’re an expansion team, it’s basically four empty walls,” Trotz says. “Being there 17 years, making Nashville your home, and all of a sudden you’re going somewhere else, it is a little bit surreal. At the same time, it’s invigorating.”
The marriage between Trotz and Poile ended amicably. It’s not like Nashville finished last overall and Poile angrily showed Trotz the door amid public calls for the coach’s head. The Preds only missed the playoffs by three points after a late-season surge, but it was simply time for something new.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you know, I’m done here,’ or David saying, ‘Hey, you’re not doing a good job, ‘ ” Trotz says. “It was just, they needed a little change, and it was time. You can see that, by the way we split it, both sides were very kind to each other and still remain friends.”
Peter Laviolette now helms what will be a more up-tempo Music City team, while defense-minded Trotz will try to improve a Washington squad ranking in bottom half of the NHL in goals against three seasons running. It’s an especially challenging task, because this isn’t a low-stakes hire for a team openly rebuilding and not expecting to contend for years. The Caps lack an identity and still intend to push for the playoffs next season, relying on Alex Ovechkin as their star. They hope Evgeny Kuznetsov becomes an impact NHL forward in his first full season, that Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer or some free agent gives them reliable goaltending, that John Carlson continues to develop as a workhorse blueliner. Owner Ted Leonsis’ oustings of coach Adam Oates and GM George McPhee says the Caps knew the situation was broke – but this team intends to fix it immediately.
It’s tough to say if that goal is realistic, as the Caps’ core has become awfully stale. Then again, this is the Eastern Conference, where any team with a pulse has a shot at the post-season. Trotz’s track record speaks for itself. He got some outstanding seasons out of some talent-thin teams in Nashville and has more raw ability to work with than he ever did there, as least on the offensive side.
“The thing that appealed to me Washington is I really believe their core players are in that big window to have success,” Trotz says. “They’re not over the hill, they’re not too young, and they’ve got some young guys coming in, too, that are in the early stages of the prime of their careers.
“Personnel-wise, we’d like to add some pieces or acquire some pieces that would help us in some areas, but I don’t think they’re that far off from being right back in the mix. I mean, they missed the playoffs by a couple points. That’s a good week.”
But let’s be honest. As long as Alex Ovechkin is in town, the Caps will go as he goes. He led the NHL in goals in 2013-14, as usual, but had one of the worst defensive seasons ever by a 50-goal man. His plus-minus ranked 884th in the league, ahead of just two players. Throwing out that increasingly irrelevant stat, Ovechkin ranked 248th in Corsi Close. That’s remarkably low considering he personally directs more shots on goal than anyone else in the sport. A ton of shots have to fly at the opposing net for Ovie to rate that poorly. So how on Earth will Trotz remedy the superstar’s defensive deficiencies?
“That’s probably the most common question I get,” Trotz says. “Obviously, if I said to you, ‘Hey, I know how to fix him, absolutely, 100 percent,’ I would be lying. I have an idea of how I would go about trying to get that fixed, and I believe in that method, and there will have to be a bit of a give and take on both sides. Alex gets a lot of credit for the success and gets a lot of criticism for the failures of this franchise, and that’s probably unfair.”
Trotz believes he can make Ovechkin a two-way player, but says his first priority is simply to build a relationship with him, as they have none yet. That’s one item on a long to-do list. Trotz wants to work with newly promoted GM Brian MacLellan to get to know his coaching staff, trainers, strength coaches, and video coaches. He’s reaching out to his other new players. And then, of course, there’s the matter of finding a place to live. That’s a more complicated projected than it may seem. He and his wife Kim have four kids. The youngest, their 12-year-old son Nolan, has special needs and Trotz says that makes the process of finding a place to live more meticulous.
And if he’s as painstaking finding a home as he is preparing for his new NHL coaching challenge, he’ll find a perfect place for his family in no time.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin