Since a coach's season is hard to quantify beyond the numbers above, we figured we'd have a roundtable discussion on what Barry 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.
The 2015-16 regular season was a historic one for the Caps, with a number of team and individual milestones achieved. How much of that do you credit to Barry Trotz and his systems, adjustments, etc.?
J.P.: Few things in hockey analysis are tougher than deciphering what impact a coach is really having on a team. It's obviously easier at the extremes - we're pretty sure we can identify bad coaches *cough*, and know who some of the allegedly great ones are - but the overwhelming majority of coaches are somewhere in between (such is the nature of non-extremes, by definition), and for those guys, measuring impact can be a bit of a fool's errand.
The Caps ran away with the Presidents' Trophy this year, but they were far from a perfect team. They had terrific special teams, but were good-not-great at five-on-five (sidenote: here's score-adjusted Corsi-For percentage for the second-half of the season; notice anything about two of the top-three teams, four of the top seven and seven of the top ten?). They rode high percentages at fives, but that's not terribly surprising or necessarily unsustainable - this team having above-average finishing talent and goaltending is certainly believable.
So how much of that do you attribute to Trotz (and his coaching staff), how much of it is the roster that Brian MacLellan assembled doing its thing, and how much is simply random variance? How much of, say, Evgeny Kuznetsov's breakout season owes to Trotz and how much is a young player coming into his own? Did Trotz maximize what he was given in terms of deployment? (Arguably not even close.) And so on.
Trotz may well win the Jack Adams Trophy later this week, and he'd be a worthy recipient - his Caps dominated the regular season and were able to cruise to the Presidents' Trophy, and that's not nothing, regardless of somewhat underwhelming underlying numbers. That's coaching. The question remains, how much of it is coaching, for Trotz (or anyone)? Not to take away from what Trotz has been able to accomplish in his two years in D.C., but certainly one of the best things he's done is "been someone other than Adam Oates."
Adam: I might be in the minority here but I don't think Barry Trotz deserves a ton of credit for the team's regular season. As J.P said above it's really hard to measure the impact of a coach, so I could be wrong here, but I expected more out of the roster during the regular season. I'm obviously not talking about the team's point totals but their overall play.
Despite the Capitals' roster being, on most accounts, better this year than it was last year the team saw almost no improvement in their overall puck possession numbers and continued to struggle with the same issues they've had in the past (i.e slow starts). I know it's easy for me to play monday morning quarterback but Trotz, and the team, would've likely been well served by a more hands-on approach to the team's underlying issues and end of season struggles.
That being said the Capitals were still a very good team during the regular season. While their possession numbers didn't improve they were still good...and the team did win the Presidents' Trophy with relative ease. I don't think Trotz was the best coach in the league this season but he will be more deserving of his Jack Adams Trophy than most recent winners.
Pepper: Coach Trotz has accomplished in two seasons one of the main goals his hiring was intended to achieve: the building of a winning culture within the organization. At least by the accounts of some of the longer-tenured Caps to the media, Trotz and his staff instilled - or maybe renewed - a confidence that they could win every night out, all the way to the Cup even, if they just "stick to the script." For this organization, that culture change was important.
And it's difficult to argue that the coach of a Presidents' Trophy winning team didn't do a lot of things right. Regardless of what happens in April through June, a Presidents' Trophy is a tremendous accomplishment.
But like JP and Adam both addressed, Trotz could have made better use of the roster (in hindsight). That chart in the article JP mentions plots the two Stanley Cup finalists in far better position than it plots the Caps (correlating line combination total ice-time together versus offensive performance together and total ice-time together versus defensive performance together).
The issue of slow starts to games, which crept up at times in post-season as well, remains a serious, unresolved issue. As we discussed on JRR episode 6, the cause may be the team's approach to seemingly being open to playing any style that an opponent employs and then countering it, rather than executing its own approach from the opening draw. Justin Williams put it this way: "We showed throughout the year that we can adapt to any style, but more importantly you want teams to try to adapt to you, you want to play your game."
Further, Brian MacClellan (which to me points the finger at Trotz): "I think sometimes I see it more as we don't enforce our style of play on the speed team. We sit back and let them do the speed game ... we need to enforce the way we want to play on teams, and more consistently." So Trotz may still have the winning formula and be the sherpa to take this team, in the last season of its current "window," to the mountaintop. But maybe next season's slogan should be "Write the Script."
Rob: Trotz obviously deserves a lot of credit for the team's success. Even highly skilled teams don't perform like that on skill alone. Ask yourself if this is the most skilled team you've seen in recent history relative to their peers? Obviously not. But the team played a cohesive style for the vast majority of the year, even when it was relatively uninspired in the second half of the season.
The bottom six was something we expected to be a tire fire before the season started, but it wasn't much of a liability at all and during periods of the season even looked a bit like a strength. Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were a powerhouse third pair when the top four defenders were healthy. That's coaching. But at the same time, Braden Holtby erased a lot of mistakes and made the team's record look a lot better than the true performance probably deserved. I don't necessarily have a problem with Trotz getting the Jack Adams nomination, but he wouldn't be the favorite if I were voting.
I share Adam's concern that the team didn't really build on a lot of the improvements in puck possession we saw last year, despite the increased talent and further development of the young forwards. My concern is that last year's possession improvement is more of a dead cat bounce from Adam Oates than a true sign of Barry Trotz coaching genius.
The performance is good enough to keep the team in the top echelons of the league in the regular season, but Trotz couldn't figure out anything to solve the issues past the top line in the playoffs (which is not a problem unique to him during Ovechkin's career, of course), and it's particularly galling when you look at the Penguins' third line dominating the Caps and the fact that a D corps that was treated as a laughingstock for much of the year was basically able to shut the team down at five aside, even when they lost 30 minutes of Kris Letang in game 4.
Tommy: Echoing Rob's point, I do think it's a bit concerning that, while we saw an improvement in puck possession from the Oatesian era of hockey to the initial Trotzian era, was that improvement due more to Oates' incompetence as a head coach in Washington dragging down the Capitals' possession numbers, or Trotz's adjustments simply made the Capitals better? Maybe it's a bit of both, but if we are looking at the relatively stagnant possession levels between this year and last, despite a clear improvement in the forward unit with the addition of T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and a more mature Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov, is that a bit concerning?
I think, overall, Trotz did an excellent job, because I simply think it's ridiculous to believe that a team that finished with the 21st-best point percentage in the NHL over the last 100 years wasn't influenced by their head coach. But the above is concerning. And while I agree with Rob's note on the lack of playoff adjustments in the lines outside of the top-three, I'm not sure I'd blame Trotz for the majority of the lack of production, more so the players themselves.
Despite the historic regular season, both team and coach once again failed to get out of the second round - do you think there were things Trotz could/should have done differently in the second-round matchup against Pittsburgh?
J.P.: One quote from the Pittsburgh series sticks with me and it's not going anywhere any time soon:
Trotz said puck possession has become higher priority for Caps as series has gone on. Focusing less on physicality for physicality's sake.— Bill West (@BWest_Trib) May 10, 2016
That quote was from the scrum following the morning skate prior to Game 6. "[P]uck possession has become higher priority for Caps as series has gone on." It's troubling that puck possession wasn't more clearly valued from the start of the series (though it's worth noting that the Caps had a massive five-on-five hit differential of plus-31 in Game 3 and a huge score-adjusted Corsi-For percentage of 64.5%... that's one they should've won), and maybe it took Trotz too long to realize that the brand of "heavy hockey" that had been effective at times in the past wasn't going to work against a Pens team that was so quick to transition out of its own zone.
He was also perhaps too slow to shake up his line combinations to try to get something out of the second line, and either didn't emphasize or didn't allow for a bit more creativity in the offensive zone (particularly a east-west play, rather than just north-south).
But here's the deal: Pittsburgh had the better team and their goalie made more saves and they won. The Caps played them even at fives in terms of possession (something the Pens' subsequent opponents can't say), shut down Crosby, Malkin and Letang, won the special teams battle. That all doesn't happen if the coach isn't doing his job.
Rob: I am with JP in that it obviously wasn't a poor coaching performance, or the Pens would have skated the Caps right out of the series. But yet again the team couldn't create offense when they needed it. I know they had the shot totals, but they didn't have many second chance looks and I think part of that is coaching and getting the team in the mindset of scoring dirty goals.
When you look at the defensive corps on the Penguins, the inability to take advantage of that is easily the most glaring failure. The inability to find a matchup to control the Penguins third line is also an issue I have. The power versus power match up on the top line was great, so that option wasn't working. I acknowledge that the Pens bottom six has been riding a golden horseshoe, but finding a checking line to control them was crucial and not only did he fail to do that, he didn't seem to be doing much to try to find that solution.
Pepper: You guys nailed it. It also felt to me that Trotz was slow to make adjustments in the playoffs, in a long series against the same opponent game after game. It took far too long into the second round series against the Penguins to begin to make tactical changes to the "heavy" approach that worked against the Flyers but left the Caps backpedaling against the Pens.
And granted Brooks Orpik's suspension in round two was a major factor, the press-box treatment of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov felt too reactionary and not at all like "sticking to the script." I can't help but wonder, with Coach Trotz's consistently stellar regular season win totals but haunting inability to advance deep into May, is he an impeccable "regular season coach" and team builder but an average "playoff coach"?
Adam: I agree with Rob to an extent but I think the problem in the offensive zone had more to do with the Capitals inability to open up lanes than an unwillingness to go to the dirty areas. The Penguins were really good at collapsing and the Capitals simply weren't moving enough to pull the defenseman out of position. I think part of that is due to the team's low-to-high offense. Moving forward I think the Capitals need to increase their pace of play in the offensive zone and to do that they will need to get away from the board play they are so fond of.
The Capitals have the talent to run a more fluid offensive zone system and it's up to Trotz to trust his skilled players to make the plays that they are capable of.
Overall, what grade would you give Trotz for his second full season behind the bench?
J.P.: Trotz put a very good team in a position to win a ton of games, which they did. Their special teams excelled, they were good at both ends of the ice, Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals, Braden Holtby tied the all-time wins record, young players developed, veterans led by example, et cetera. For the most part, this is what a contending hockey team was supposed to look like, and his demeanor and decision-making played a large part in all of that. There are aspects of his approach that may be a bit dated, and this team absolutely must figure out how to start games better and dictate play (rather than reacting to it). But, by in large, he did his job and did it well. I'd give him a solid B-plus.
Rob: At the end of the day, the majority of the issues we've identified are a lot closer to nitpicking than they are to critical flaws. The team was one of the most successful teams in recent history, and at the end of the day, the Caps were the most competitive team to face the Penguins. Losing to the best team in the league (and one riding hot percentages) hurts for sure, but it's not something to be ashamed of. I think something on the B-plus / A-minus range is a fair score.
Adam: The team had a very successful regular season and played well in the playoffs but I'm concerned about the Capitals' underlying numbers. The lack of improvement between last season and this one is troubling given the roster improvements Brian MacLellan made during the offseason. For that reason, and Trotz's inability to correct the team's slow starts, I give him a B/B-.
Pepper: I give him a B-. The Presidents' Trophy is great but it was not the goal of the organization and, for the team's home-ice advantage throughout, they played on only six home dates. The Caps were far closer to advancing into round three in 2015 than they were this season. And to put it in perspective, the team advanced as far as did the Islanders.
Tommy: A coach that is up for the Jack Adams Trophy and put together an outstanding, historical season deserves at least an A- in my opinion.