From Alzner to Wilson, we're taking a look at and grading the 2014-15 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2015-16. Now that we've covered the players, it's time to turn our attention to the man behind the bench, Barry Trotz.
[Since a coach's season is hard to quantify beyond the numbers above, we figured we'd have a roundtable discussion on what Trotz did well and what he may not have done so well. Feel free to weigh in on any of these points in the comments.]
Q1: Coming from a more defensive-minded (and less offensively talented) team in Nashville, how well do you think Trotz was able to adapt his system to his new team - and vice versa?
Adam: The Capitals saw profound improvements across the board during Barry Trotz's first year in Washington. A large part of that might be how low the bar was set the previous season, regardless the Capitals were a significantly better team with Barry Trotz at the helm. The team bought into whatever Trotz was selling and, for the most part, appear to have joined the school of "heavy hockey". Trotz deserves credit for getting his players all on the same page. His improved defensive system and his, albeit somewhat traditional, breakout scheme are what really drove the Capitals this season. So I think the Capitals, as a team, did a good job playing the way that their coach wanted them to play. They punished their opponents physically and that paid some tangible returns against the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs.
Barry Trotz is a good coach and I believe that his system is geared to get the most out of both his defensemen and his checking line forwards. That's great because during his tenure in Nashville Trotz didn't have a lot to work with besides D and checkers. Coming to Washington gave Trotz a lot more talent to work and I don't personally believe that his system maximizes that talent. Trotz's heavy emphasis on making the "safe play" makes sense, but players with skill should be given the license to utilize it (even if it does occasionally lead to a bad looking goal against). Now, to be fair, the Capitals might not have enough skill to play the up-tempo game in which their top players would excel, but they certainly have enough talent to play more aggressively with the puck next year than they did this one. Trotz's system helped many average Nashville rosters look above average. Now, with a better roster, it's up to Trotz to make a few tweaks to his system to make his team exceptional. A few personnel improvements wouldn't hurt either.
The Peerless: I think there was a fair amount of give and take here. On the one hand, Trotz has more than a decade of coaching all kinds of players from a personality point of view. I think, more than any coach since Ron Wilson, certainly, he could get a feel for how to approach players on an individual level to adapt to his system of play. On the other hand, he might not have had in that experience players of high end skill such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. This is where his performance might be underrated. He did not impose a system to the point of stifling the gifts that Ovechkin and Backstrom have. Ovechkin had another Richard year, and Backstrom was once more, even with a persistent hip injury, a nearly point-a-game player. There seemed to be a lot of mutual adapting going on, and that is a reflection of Trotz' experience and his comfort level with the tools and methods he has accumulated in managing a team.
Rob: The Capitals haven't been the high-scoring run ‘n' gun team for a while now. The reputation has stuck in some circles, largely because Ovechkin and Backstrom have continued to be prolific offensive players, but the scoring depth, overall talent, and systems play in Washington hasn't been like that in four seasons. The Oates era was a complete mess, but this Trotz team didn't look all that different from the Hunter Caps did in the playoffs. The Trotz Caps had better execution and team depth, but the core of this team had already learned how to play defense-first hockey in the playoffs so I don't think it required a huge change or adjustment for the team.
There may have been an adjustment for Trotz in terms of figuring out how much slack to give the talented players, and he appears to have found that line more quickly with Ovechkin and Backstrom than the younger skilled forwards, which makes sense. Overall I think the adjustment period was in two phases: the first phase was the "this is how we play" phase when the players went through a tough training camp. The second phase was a season-long commitment to refining the system's play, and it sure looked to have payed off when the playoffs came around. I think the expectations have been set and the team should be better poised to take off from day one next season.
J.P.: The Caps improved in just about every meaningful statistical category - wins (including a 43% bump in regulation/overtime wins), goals-for, goals-against, five-on-five Corsi- and Goals-For percentages, shot differential... heck, even their power-play was better. Granted, half of that improvement was "Not Oates," but the team eagerly embraced the structure that Trotz provided and were rewarded with a 101-point season, a return to the playoffs, and a golden opportunity (several of them, really) to go further than any other Caps team during the Ovechkin Era.
As for the flip side of the coin, Trotz couldn't have been more effusive in his praise of Alex Ovechkin's work ethic and Nicklas Backstrom's skill, and the two of them certainly made his job easier, so while we may no longer be in the honeymoon phase of the relationship, it's off to a strong start. With a year of "Trotz Hockey" under their respective belts and a roster that will continue to be molded more to what Trotz and Brian MacLellan have envisioned, there's no reason to think that the Caps can't continue in the right direction next year.
Q2: One of the criticisms of Trotz in Nashville centered around how he managed the team's young, up-and-coming players (e.g. Filip Forsberg). With a year in DC under his belt, do you think he worked well with players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, or is this still an area of concern?
Adam: Nashville didn't do a good job developing talented forwards while Trotz was in Nashville but they didn't do a particularly good job drafting them either (but they did pretty well trading for one). So in Washington, where swinging for the fences is encouraged when drafting, Trotz started the season with two young skilled forwards in Kuznetsov and Burakovsky . The ensuing epic was a tumultuous one with highly variable ice time, questionable scratches, and some seemingly misappropriated blame. In the end Trotz ended up trusting his young players in the playoffs, albeit some of that was due to injuries to his preferred veterans. At this point in time I think it's fair to say that Trotz's handling of youth is still worth paying attention to. The true test will be next year, Burakovsky and Kuznetsov have both shown themselves to be top six talents... it's up to Trotz to put them in a position to succeed.
The Peerless: I'm not especially concerned with the variable ice time and changing roles the Trotz imposed on the young guys like Kuznetsov and Burakovsky. A longer apprenticeship in which young guys learn different roles in different settings does not impress me as a bad thing. On the contrary, it could give them a strong foundation on which to build. I would be concerned if this behavior carried over into next season. Kuznetsov and Burakovsky have earned a benefit of the doubt from the way they played late in the season. I think both go into camp in September as top-six forwards. I think the big challenge now is going to be Tom Wilson. How he is dealt with and brought along is going to be a test of Trotz' skill in development.
Rob: I always thought the narrative that Trotz couldn't develop young talent was overblown. I'd put a lot more of that on the draft choices by the front office than on a specific coach, and this year we got a bit of a demonstration of that. In Burakovsky and Kuznetsov he had the most talented young forwards he's coached in his entire career. He played virtually the entire season with one of them as the second line center, and when push came to shove Burakovsky was a staple in the playoff lineup. He was conservative with Burakovsky, no doubt, and he managed Kuznetsov's minutes carefully, especially early. Next year I think both players will be more comfortable in the NHL, and Trotz will be more comfortable with them so I'd expect both of them to be played in the top-six all season, without the kind of conservative management that we saw at times this year. If that turns out not to be the case then maybe I'd revisit the question, but I don't see that happening.
J.P.: I'm with Rob here. Between Burakovsky and Kuznetsov splitting duties as second-line center and Burakovsky's and Wilson's time as the first-line right wing, the Caps had at least two "kids" in the top-six nearly every night during the regular season (and that doesn't even include old man Marcus Johansson). And while I definitely advocated for more ice time for both Burakovsky and Kuznetsov at different times, those micro concerns didn't really seem to be problematic in the long run (to wit, each of those young guns turned in a memorable playoff performance of his own). Ironically, as Peerless touched on, my bigger concern now is Wilson's development. The true "skill" forwards will develop just fine... but turning Wilson into a more productive player may take some work.
Q3: Usually a new head coach is brought in to change the culture of a team; from an (admittedly limited) outside perspective, how successful do you think Trotz was at changing the culture of the Caps?
The Peerless: I don't know if was as much a "culture" change as it was establishing that there was an adult in charge. You would have to go back a long time to find a coach for this team who was experienced and as even-keeled in his approach as Trotz. Even Ron Wilson, despite his experience, was somewhat more quirky that Trotz. I think that kind of maturity and stability behind the bench was something this team needed and wanted badly. In an odd sort of way, this season played out like the old series, "Father Knows Best." Players embraced the roles they were given, and Trotz was the stable core, even when situations might have led to a more emotional response from behind the bench.
Adam: For the first time since 2010-2011 the Washington Capitals appear to have an identity, even if it's not a particularly exciting one, and that's in large part due to Barry Trotz. The team's new culture impacted how the team played the game and that's a good thing.
Rob: I believe that culture matters in life and in hockey, but I don't think we are well positioned to evaluate Trotz's impact. To some degree the impact had to be his, culture in many ways starts at the top. But the Caps brought in two new veteran defensemen, one of whom is a reputed cultural leader. They brought in new coaches for the defense and goaltenders. They added two highly talented rookies. When comparing the Trotz Caps to the Hunter Caps, was it the culture or the talent that explains the difference (a difference that was in practical terms basically meaningless when it came down to how the seasons ended)? When comparing the Trotz Caps to the Oates Caps, was it the culture or the vast improvement in systems and coaching that explains the teams' differences? Trotz seems to have the team working hard and buying in, but I'm not sure how much that has always been a problem for this team (see the Hunter half-season). Without having the insight to validate any claims about culture I'll settle for saying that Trotz has made the Caps better than they've been at least since Boudreau left, and that's good enough for me.
J.P.: The highs weren't too high and the lows weren't too low, which is, in and of itself, a change for this team. There was accountability, but the players weren't treated like children. There was confidence without arrogance, and, at least outwardly, belief without blind faith. It seems as if there's a good balance there, and Barry Trotz is a big reason why.
Q4: Overall, how would you grade Barry Trotz's rookie season as the Caps' bench boss?
The Peerless: I would give him a B+. I waffled on giving him an A-, but going out in the second round after being so close to eliminating the Rangers left me giving him the lower grade. Overall, though, I think he deserves a pretty high grade. He came into a difficult situation, a team that unexpectedly missed the playoffs after six straight appearances, one in which there was no discernable philosophy, one that had experienced a revolving door of new coaches over the previous half dozen or so seasons, with players (well, "player") to whom a narrative was attached of being a coach-killer who was indifferent to any part of the game that did not involve scoring goals. He got the team back on a good path on which sustainable progress is possible.
Adam: I'd give him a B. His style of plays maximizes output from middle tier players, which the Capitals have a plethora of, and he was able to lead the team back to the playoffs. The Capitals possessed the puck relatively well during the first 82 and didn't look out of place in the postseason. Trotz, like any coach/person, has his flaws but he certainly wasn't a hindrance to his roster (as was his predecessor). I expected this roster to make the playoffs and potentially win a round, they did just that. Trotz and his team met my expectations.
Rob: I'd say B+ as well. I thought this team would really struggle just to make the playoffs, but they won the second seed in the division and were clear of the playoff bubble jumble by the end. I didn't think they had the talent up front to compete with a lot of the other potential playoff teams, and certainly not enough to win a playoff series, but they kept proving me wrong and were a position where anything but losing three straight games would have had them in the Eastern Conference Finals. Finding a way to capitalize a bit more on the young offensive talent up front, or simply winning one of those final games against the Rangers would have bumped him up into the A range, but all in all it was a pretty satisfactory season.
J.P.: A-minus. In his first year in town, working with a mostly inherited roster, he got a Hart-caliber season out of his captain, a Vezina-caliber campaign out of his goalie, a 101-point season and top-seven finishes in Goals-For and -Against out of a team with marginal talent up front, and got them to within less than two minutes of upsetting the Presidents' Trophy winner and advancing to the Conference Final. Obviously there are things with which I quibbled along the way, and some standing issues going forward, but that's a hell of a first year for a franchise that desperately needed it. For a team that had been in a downward spiral for years, Barry Trotz was precisely what the doctor ordered. Now he needs to improve upon that.