Three head coaches as different as one might imagine.
One was a "hockey lifer" who had a middling NHL career, but who was good enough to earn a spot in the American Hockey League Hall of Fame. He would go on to ride buses as a head coach in the minors for more than 14 seasons before getting his shot in the NHL.
Another would assemble a resume built over 19 seasons and seven teams that ended with more than 1,400 points and entry to the Hockey Hall of Fame. After a five-year hiatus, he found his way behind an NHL bench as an assistant, a job he would hold with two teams over three seasons before getting his shot as a bench boss in the NHL.
The third individual would never play above the Canadian junior level of hockey, but he did get an invitation to training camp for the Hershey Bears as a 20-year-old because someone thought he "might be a good minor league leader or coach someday." It was a fair assessment. The young man went on to coach seven years in the AHL, then was called upon to take the reins of an expansion team that he would guide for 15 seasons before heading off to a new city.
As if a Capitals fan needs prompting, the three individuals here are Bruce Boudreau, Adam Oates, and Barry Trotz, the last three men selected to serve as head coach of the Washington Capitals from the start of a season. Trotz, the latest of these hires, just completed his 48th game behind the Capitals bench. And while there is nothing particularly special about having coached 48 games, it does serve as a useful point to compare the records of the three as new Capital coaches.
The circumstances for each embarking on their 48-game maiden voyage with the club differ as much as their paths to Washington. Boudreau was coaching the AHL-affiliate Hershey Bears when he was called to Washington to replace Glen Hanlon, with the Caps off to a 6-14-1 start to the 2007-2008 season. Oates was named head coach to replace Dale Hunter (another first timer who we will get to a little later) in June 2012, but he would have to wait almost six months to coach in his first game for the Caps, as the NHL and the Players' Association worked their way through another lockout. And Trotz took over the Capitals after Oates was relieved at the end of the 2013-2014 season, a change at the top of a more conventional nature.
Despite their very different paths to the Washington bench, what is remarkable about these three men is their very similar records in their first 48 games:
At first glance, the win totals are pretty similar; almost the exact same number of total wins, with identical regulation and overtime wins - but the difference is found inn how they got there.
Boudreau, who would go on to become the fastest coach in modern NHL history to 200 wins, managed only two modest winning streaks - a three-game streak in December 2007 that reversed a sluggish 3-3-1 start in his first seven, and a four-game streak in mid-January 2008. While Boudreau's start operated at a slow-and-steady pace of success, it might have served as a springboard to one of the fastest finishes, if not the fastest finish in franchise history: an 11-1-0 record over the season's final 12 games, helping propel the team from the bottom of the Conference to a playoff spot. Including that finish, Boudreau would compile an astonishing record of 170-63-32 over his next 265 regular season games behind the Caps' bench (a 53-19-10/116 point pace per 82 games).
If Boudreau's record in his first 48 games was modest, Oates' was a bit deceiving. His first 48 games with the Caps constituted the entire abbreviated 2012-2013 season, the schedule being compressed into 48 games by the lockout. Oates was at the helm for three separate three-game winning streaks in his first 35 games, but the Caps managed only a 16-17-2 record that left the Caps sitting in 3rd place in the Southeast Division and 11th place in the Eastern Conference. They were only one point behind the eighth-place New York Rangers, but with three teams to climb over for a playoff spot that task was more daunting than it looked... that is until the Caps rode an eight-game winning streak to a chance at the postseason (marking the sixth consecutive season in which the Caps put together at least seven wins in a row).
While Oates and Boudreau shared the similarity of a long winning streak in their inaugural season, however, Oates departed from the script Boudreau wrote with what happened the following season. The Caps found themselves behind the eight ball early, losing four of their first five games, their only win coming in a shootout against the woeful Calgary Flames. After going 11-4-1 in their next 16 games to right the ship, Oates and the Caps could not build on the momentum over the next two months and found themselves with a mediocre 22-16-6 record in mid-January.
Then the goals - and the wins - stopped coming. Washington went 0-5-2 over a seven-game stretch, scoring only eight goals in the process and blowing a hole in their season. When the Caps lost to New Jersey, 2-1, on January 24th, they had fallen to 22-21-8, seventh in the new Metropolitan Division and 13th in the Eastern Conference. They never recovered, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and costing Oates his position.
And that brings us to Barry Trotz.
His first 48 games with the Capitals have actually looked very much like those of Boudreau and Oates, both record- and performance-wise. In an odd way, how his record was built looks a bit more like Boudreau - although one would not necessarily think of these two coaches as sharing a philosophy of the game. Like Boudreau, Trotz's new team struggled a bit early in his tenure, starting the season with a 4-5-3 record that included a five-game losing streak (0-4-1, his worst five-game stretch to date). Since then, however, his club is 21-9-6 (a 48-20-14/110-point pace), including a 19-game stretch in which they compiled a 14-1-4 record from December 4th to January 14th... despite never having a winning streak of longer than three games over that time
This is not to say that Trotz has no similarities to Oates in his 48-game record to date. It is worth noting that Boudreau's first 48 games at the helm did not produce an especially intimidating power play (21.2 percent). Oates, on the other hand, introduced a 1-3-1 scheme with the extra man that clicked more than 26% of the time, the best in the League. Trotz, even if you reduce his role to not tinkering with a successful formula, has maintained a similar success rate over his first 48 games (24.1 percent, 3rd best in the NHL as of January 30th).
And just as Trotz has kept up the power-play success established by Oates, he's also continued what is now a long-standing tradition - by both Oates and Boudreau - of being unable to find the key to a stifling penalty kill. Granted, he is the only one of the three to oversee a penalty kill that cracks the 80% mark, but just barely (80.6).
Of course, while one can draw parallels between the work done by Trotz to this point and that done by Oates and Boudreau before him, there's a fourth head coach in this time span, one who is unlike any of the three who preceded or succeeded him behind the bench - and that is Dale Hunter. Of the four, Hunter had the worst first 48-game record (24-19-5/53 points/.552 points percentage), by far the lowest-scoring offense (2.48 goals/game), the worst goal differential (-0.08/game), and the worst power play (16.5 percent). So much of his tenure stands out as an exception, but also proof that there's no definitive rule for how a new Caps' coach will tackle his first 48 games.
So where does Trotz go from here? Does he take the Boudreau Boulevard path, one with 201 wins in 329 games, two 50-win seasons, and a Presidents Trophy? Will he stumble down Oates Avenue, leading a team that fails to gain much traction and underachieves in what could be a shorter-than-hoped-for tenure? Or does he perhaps forge his own path, one that maybe leads to where the team has never been before?
The answer to that question cannot yet be found in the early-tenure performance of the new head coach. But it will be interesting finding out.