Back at the end of February, over three long months ago now, we asserted that Brian MacLellan should give Barry Trotz a late-season pink slip. Now, with the Capitals a single victory away from hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, and with the benefit of hindsight, this particular opinion is one that’s ripe for a dragging.
It should be noted that our advocacy for this position was based less on Barry Trotz’s coaching tendencies (though we certainly criticized those as well), and more on the state of the team in conjunction with where Alex Ovechkin is in his career and in his contract. Basically, that it would have been a sensible gambit to move on from Trotz at that point, rather than three months down the line, after a presumed playoff flame-out. Here’s a germane snippet from that piece:
So here’s a situation staring the Caps in the face: the squad fizzles out in this year’s playoffs, the FO ditches Barry for Todd, and a 33 year-old Alex Ovechkin and 31 year-old Nicklas Backstrom are each looking at burning another year of their franchise-backbone contracts under the supervision of an untested rookie head coach.
So why not avoid that and do the trial run now? There’s no guarantee you’re ever going to see Alex Ovechkin perform at this year’s level again (though surely we’ve learned to bet against the man), and at this point the Capitals window is largely defined by Ovi’s ability to produce. So get your next bet on the table while the dice are still hot.
But against all odds (though if you ask Micah Blake McCurdy, those odds weren’t quite as long as conventional wisdom may have presumed), Barry Trotz has led his team on the finest postseason run the city of Washington has ever seen take place on ice. And it wasn’t exactly easy sledding.
In Round One he outcoached the reigning (and two-time) Jack Adams winner in John Tortorella (after which, in the handshake line, he almost definitely told Torts “I’m not coming back”). In Round Two it was the two-time reigning Cup-winning coach, Mike Sullivan, who fell to an undermanned Caps team in six games. In Round Three it was Jon Cooper, widely accepted as one of the best young coaches in the League, whose top-ranked offense was kept off the board in back-to-back games in which the Caps faced elimination. And now, on the sport’s greatest stage, Trotz is doing it again to Gerard Gallant, who’s the prohibitive favorite to win the Jack Adams this year, having engineered arguably the most unlikely season the League has seen in the modern era.
And all that having lost Andre Burakovsky to injury for 10 games, Nicklas Backstrom to injury for four games, and Tom Wilson to suspension for three games. That’s a lot of top-of-lineup talent out the window. But Barry made do.
So, what changed? Because things definitely changed.
Here we take a look at a few 5v5 metrics, on the basis that we used a similar method to illustrate back in February why this year’s Caps’ team didn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to make a long playoff run. The Vegas series, visualized by the black bars, is a bit of a stain here, but that’s partially due to the Caps’ playing a large chunk of the series to date with a lead. In general, the team’s 5v5 play improved across the board. But we can drill a bit deeper by checking out the individual components of shot share, generation and suppression.
Again, ignoring the Vegas series for a moment, we see that the Caps are generating shots at 5v5 a higher rate than they did during the regular season, and holding opponents to a lower rate than during the regular season. That’s a pretty good recipe for improvement.
But still, that’s the outcome. What were the inputs? What has Barry Trotz done differently in the playoffs than what he was doing in the regular season? For one, his attitude towards his young players seems to have changed.
Jakub Vrana, who saw his ice time dwindle all year long, is now a fixture on a high-flying second line with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom, and was one of the Caps’ best players and big-moment-guys in the Pittsburgh series.
Chandler Stephenson, who has played most of his career to this point as an AHL tweener before finding a little bit of traction this season, had cemented his role in the lineup, and has made contributions regardless of where he’s slotted in the bottom six.
Christian Djoos played well all year, before suddenly finding himself riding the pine in favor of deadline acquisition Jakub Jerabek. Djoos slotted back in with Orpik after a poor showing from Jerabek during the first two games in the Columbus series.
Given the tendencies Trotz has exhibited during his tenure in Washington up until these playoffs, it would have been easy to see him knocking Vrana back down the lineup after he cooled off. It would have been easy to see him take Chandler Stephenson out of the lineup in favor of the veteran Alex Chiasson. It would have been easy to see him put Jakub Jerabek back in the lineup, once he’d determined the message had been received, as it were. Instead, he kept Djoos with Orpik, and modified their minutes, which has largely addressed the persistent problem presented by Brooks Orpik through the regular season.
It also bears mentioning that Michal Kempny’s infusion to the lineup has had a material impact on overall team play.
I mentioned this in my article last month, but the Kempny addition— Good Tweet Pete (@peterhassett) June 2, 2018
(like @Japersrink and @RFCapsMoustache noted today) had a huge impact. WSH rank among 31 teams during regular season before/after Kempny's first game on Feb 22. pic.twitter.com/pHTeEE028t
It can be difficult to pinpoint which changes in performance are attributable to a coach and which are attributable to a player, and there’s surely a lot of overlap there. But accountabilities always role up to the head coach one way or another, and that goes for when things are going well just the same as when they’re not. Credit to Barry, he’s found something that works, and despite the fact that it seems to go against the grain of much of what we know about his coaching philosophy, he’s stuck to it. Now he’s one win away from hockey immortality… and he’s brought everyone in the organization along for the ride.
So we’re glad that that February post fell on deaf ears (or blind eyes) - it’s hard to imagine the Caps being where they are today without Trotz at the helm. Then again, the extent to which this run can be attributed to Barry Trotz versus “Barry Trotz” is impossible for those of us on the outside to tease out, which brings us to the big question: what should the Caps and Trotz do about next season and beyond? Does it depend on the result of the next one-to-three games? Should it?
The bottom line here is that we can’t possibly answer that question - because, unlike in February, it’s no longer simply a short-term strategic decision. It’s now about the man who was at the helm when this team went further than it ever had before, the team he guided there, and where they all go from here.
And it’s a much different decision today than it was three months ago.