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2016-17 Rink Wrap: Barry Trotz

Now that we've covered the players, it's time to turn our attention to the man behind the bench, Barry Trotz.

Washington Capitals v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

As always, since a coach's season is hard to quantify, our review of the past season for Barry Trotz will be via a roundtable discussion on what he 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: What adjustments did you see Barry Trotz make - before the season, during the season and throughout the playoffs - that you think had a positive impact on the team’s performance? Were there any adjustments that you thought either didn’t need to be made, or that needed to be made and weren’t?

Rob: I think overall, when looking back to the start of the Trotz tenure until now, he came in preaching “heavy hockey” and was very defensive and hesitant to trust some of the lighter, more skilled players on the team. He clearly realized that the team needed to be faster and rely on talent if they were going to succeed, and to that end we saw him consistently relying on Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and even gave Jakub Vrana some legitimate opportunities to produce when he came up.

He still has a little bit to go in that direction--there shouldn’t have been any question whether Nate Schmidt was dressing post-trade deadline--but I appreciate that he has been willing to recognize the way the game is played in the NHL these days and attempt to make it work. I’m not sure there were any better forward options for the playoffs, it seems unlikely that Vrana or Chandler Stephenson were going to change the picture much against PIT (and depending on who they replaced, they may not have upgraded the team’s speed all that much).

Adam: The Capitals came into the season wanting to roll three scoring lines, to eliminate their propensity for slow starts and to improve their ability to produce on the rush. I’d say they largely accomplished those feats this season. I’ll give Trotz some credit for those second two points but I’m not so sure on the first one. Throughout the season, and even in the last 20 games, Trotz continued to give the fourth line as much even strength ice time as the team’s “third scoring line”. Trotz isn’t the first coach to have an unhealthy infatuation with Jay Beagle but when you’re heading into the playoffs you’d like to see a little more emphasis on getting your scorers scoring.

As Rob notes above: Nate Schmidt should’ve been dressed consistently down the stretch. I’m not sure how big of a difference it made, but playing seven defenseman against the Penguins didn’t really work out as planned. Trotz did a good job reducing Brooks Orpik’s ice time this year and his decision to stick with Dmitry Orlov through his early struggles ended up paying big dividends down the stretch.

Peerless: I think the best adjustment Trotz made in the regular season was one he didn’t make -- loading up ice time on a narrower set of players as the season wore on. He managed ice time pretty well, although that happens with a deep team like the Caps. For instance, no Capitals defenseman played more than 10 games logging more than 25 minutes (John Carlson had ten). Don’t think that’s a big deal? Mike Green logged 46 such games in 2009-2010. Only three defensemen had any games with more than 25 minutes (Karl Alzner had one, Matt Niskanen had nine). Alex Ovechkin had the lowest average ice time of his career (18:22), as did Nicklas Backstrom (18:16). It kept players fresher and got more players involved in meaningful situations.

As for adjustments that didn’t work or needed to be made and weren’t, the Caps seemed to spend a lot of time in the postseason just not ready to play or lacking the urgency the situation required (as opposed to panic). The Game 7 effort against the Penguins might have been the most confounding one I’ve seen in watching the Caps for more than 30 years. As the game wore on, there were times they treated it like a weeknight game in January against Colorado. That might have been frustration, given how much the Caps dominated possession in that series, but champions fight through that. Even against Toronto there were stretches when the Caps were not impressed with the circumstances in which they were playing. I can understand keeping an even keel, but it made me wonder if there is the “inspiration” tool in Trotz’ coaching toolbox that was, and is missing.

Pepper: I agree with Peerless’ take on the Game 7 effort, and it seems impossible to me to understand the cause and how much of the blame Trotz deserves for it. It’s possible that Trotz’s intensity and focus only increased rather than relieved pressure and frustration on the part of the players, but we can’t know for sure.

Adjustment-wise, I thought he approached the balance of ice time and usage better this spring as compared to last spring, particularly in the first round series against the Leafs, riding the horses of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. Moving Ovechkin to the third line and Burakovsky to the top trio, regardless of the captain’s health at the time, was brilliant and helped push the second round series to a Game 7. On the other hand, it’s difficult to forgive some of the defensive deployments in specific situations, particularly involving Brooks Orpik against certain forwards during both playoff rounds.

Q2: Another year, another second-round exit for both team and coach. How much of the Caps’ failure to show up in Game 7 do you pin on Trotz, and how much responsibility do you think falls on the players?

Rob: The vast majority of it is on the players, but you can’t ignore that the job of a coach is to get the team ready to play. Listening to Mac’s comments about the “philosophical difference” between he and Trotz regarding the weight of playoff (failure) history, it’s clear that Trotz didn’t put any focus or attention into that psychological component of the game. I have no idea what the right answer is to get these guys out of their own collective head, and you can’t ignore that every single coach has had the same challenge, but if you don’t even acknowledge the challenge it would follow that you will not properly prepare for the challenge. I would have loved for Trotz to take the Ovi-era history more seriously, but at the end of the day it’s on the players to go out there and make it happen. He didn’t spike Braden Holtby’s water with ex-lax or tell Alex Ovechkin that not all the inches matter. When the intensity and desperation were even, the Caps were just out-classed by the Penguins.

Adam: First off, the Capitals did show up for game seven. They started the game exceptionally well but they weren’t able to convert...and that’s when things went to shit. The team entered the game with the right mentality but they weren’t able to fight through their demons as the game progressed. I put a lot of that on the players but not all of it. Barry Trotz’s unwillingness to even acknowledge the past leads me to believe that he didn’t feel a need to prepare players for the eventualities that ended up playing out.

I don’t really buy the argument that “the Penguins could’ve outplayed the Capitals the whole time but they didn’t until they were desperate” thing. It’s easy to degrade the Capitals but they played the stuffing out of the Penguins for almost the entirety of the series. If Braden Holtby played like he did during the regular season, the Capitals could’ve very well been the team up 3 games to 1 heading into game 5. I don’t believe the Penguins would’ve rallied from that’s very difficult to win three straight games in the NHL playoffs (even when you’re playing the Caps).

Peerless: This isn’t the first rodeo for any of the core players or the coach. Complicating the matter were two elephants in the room -- lack of success in Games 7 and that other team. Trotz appeared to actively shrug off both, but then and in retrospect it seemed a little like whistling past the graveyard. Games 7 and the Penguins are a big chunk of the history of misfortune in this franchise. You can ignore it, saying it has no relevance to this team, this year, or you can embrace it, be pissed off about it, and declare it’s not happening on our watch. The Caps -- players and coach -- pursued the former strategy. It didn’t work. It’s on all of them.

Pepper: I’m with Rob on highlighting the “psychological component of the game.” Trotz did and said the typical things: staying loose; embracing the challenge; seizing the moment, etc. But in retrospect he may not have fully appreciated and confronted the full weight of the franchise history involving that team in Western PA. Of course the players play the game, but I think a majority of the Game 7 failure, and the circumstances of having to win three straight games, falls on the head coach.

Q3: Overall, what grade would you give Trotz for his 2016-17 season behind the bench?

Rob: The guy just picked up his second Presidents’ Trophy in a row, playing with a roster that a lot of people questioned whether his ability to utilize. He didn’t get a crazy percentage binge/Vezina-winning Holtby. He didn’t get a crazy percentage bing/new-leading-scoring performance from Kuz. There were injuries throughout the defensive corps all year. Ovechkin returned to 30-goal Ovechkin instead of 50-goal Ovechkin. It was a consistent team that was one of the best regular seasons teams in the league virtually wire to wire.

On the other hand, there are open questions about his ability to adjust tactically within a playoff series; but the way Holtby played early against PIT I don’t think those question relate to their defeat this season. I would love to see him embrace a speed and skill game a bit more; but with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Williams, and Oshie all in your top-six you’re never going to have a particularly fast group of forwards to rely on. The (complete lack of) evolution in Ovechkin’s game has been a topic of discussion forever, and the return to 30-goal Ovechkin once again highlights how limited his even strength game has become, but that can’t possibly be a huge knock against Trotz given how many coaches have tried and failed to make that evolution happen (and the one coach that didn’t even bother trying).

All in all, I’d give him an A- on the year. I could convince myself a couple guys around the league could have improved the performance of this roster, but I can see a lot more guys that would have done a lot worse.

Adam: I’m sure we’ll get into this in Brian MacLellan’s Rink Wrap but Barry Trotz was given one of, if not the, best roster in the NHL to work with this year. The Capitals and their coach were able to win their second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy and were an exceptional puck possession team while doing so. I listed my grievances with his roster management in my answer to the first question so I’m not going to go into it again here.

Trotz’s biggest flaw continues to be his inability to make adjustments quickly during a playoff series and given what’s been reported about Todd Reirden’s lack of availability; I’m not sure the Capitals have a lot of faith left in Barry Trotz. I give Trotz a B for this season, he did some things wrong but it’s hard to fault one guy too much for a team’s inability to make it over the hump.

Peerless: I was a teacher once. The last semester I taught, no one got an “A.” No one on this team gets one, either, not players or coaches. The Caps had a fine regular season, a great one, in fact. That’s nice, and it’s not irrelevant, but teams either take the next step, or they don’t and regress in place. The Caps did that this season with a postseason that ended at least one round too early and against the worst team to have end their season. I don’t subscribe to the notion of the Caps and Pens, as the best teams in the league, playing too early because of the playoff set-up. You play the team in front of you, and whether it’s the Pens in the first round or in the conference finals, I don’t much care. This team was set up to take on and beat all comers, regardless of round. They didn’t, and that has consequences. You can’t do poorly on the final and expect a superior grade, even if you aced the exams during the semester. I’d give him a “B.”

J.P.: I largely agree with what’s been said (and really encourage folks to give the Japers’ Rink Radio Episode 51 a listen, because we go into the whole Trotz question in pretty great depth), but may be a little more critical than some of my buddies here. The roster he was given was tremendous and remained healthy throughout the season (to the tune of the fewest man-games lost to injury during the regular season and a blessing-in-disguise and perhaps series-saving injury to Karl Alzner in the Toronto series), and he got commensurate results. Indeed, for the first time in a long time, the Caps really did look like a team that was greater than the sum of its parts.

But that was in the regular season. The playoffs were, have been and continue to be a different story, and I don’t think a handful of bad goals or missed offensive opportunities absolves Trotz from his role in that. Besides his role in preparing the team, mentally, for adversity, there’s the actual nitty-gritty coaching aspect with which I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with Trotz’s performance. I talked about it a bit on the PDOcast and again on Japers’ Rink Radio, but (and this is clipped from an early comment I made on the site):

I think there’s a huge piece to this (playoff analysis, that is) that people miss – individual game prep during the season is minimally focused on the actual opponent. This isn’t the NFL. So you can win a ton of regular season games on talent and a few wrinkles. But there’s much more time to game plan a playoff opponent, and good coaches (and coaching staffs) will obviously do better here. It’s probably why Babcock gave them some trouble in R1, and why Sullivan did at the beginning of the series. And maybe it’s part of why Bruce and Barry struggle some from time to time. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a piece people ignore and may explain some of why this crew has such a disparity between regular season and playoff success.

The Caps always seem to be chasing series or allowing them to be closer than they should be, particularly at the outset, and it’s hard not to point at the coach for that.

So, what’s to be done? It’s hard not to feel as if Trotz - entering the last year of his contract, with Todd Rierden waiting in the wings as his putative successor and Brian MacLellan’s awkwardly extensive review of the organization prior to giving his year-end media availability - isn’t very much in the hot seat. And if Trotz isn’t going to be your guy in late-November or December or whenever, he probably isn’t your guy now.

But it’s a heck of a lot easier to find someone who would do worse behind the bench than improve the situation. That said, ask yourself what reason there is to believe that things will be any different next April or May than they were this time around (assuming that they really need to be different) without a marked change in approach to those games. As a fan (and then imagine answering as a player), how sure are you that this is the guy that can get the Caps to the next level? Or are they already at that level? There are no easy or correct answers here, just guesses and faith, and the latter is in exceedingly short supply.

To answer the question, I give Trotz a B-minus for his 2016-17 season… and have a strong suspicion that he’s headed for an “incomplete” in 2017-18.

Pepper: I give him a B. He followed through with a carefully conceived plan for ultimate playoff success, but stumbled at a few key moments and couldn’t break through to that “Next Level.”