Two things can be simultaneously true: 1) the Washington Capitals were right to part ways with Barry Trotz after the 2018 season, and 2) they were wrong about Todd Reirden being the right man to succeed him.
Since the latter point seems to be more or less universally accepted at this point, let’s talk about the former, an assertion that goes against the prevailing narrative wisdom, particularly in the wake of the team’s embarrassing showing in this year’s playoffs.
Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz were announced as the Caps’ new general manager and head, respectively, on the same day back in May of 2014. Both men got right to work, MacLellan in addressing a blueline that had long been neglected, Trotz in assembling an impressive cadre of assistant coaches.
One of those assistants, of course, was Todd Reirden, a rising star in the coaching ranks who had been part of a purge in Pittsburgh literally hours earlier. Working primarily with the defense, Trotz and Reirden took the Caps from a team that allowed the fourth-most shots on goal in 2013-14 to one that allowed the fourth-fewest in 2016-17.
That summer, after another disappointing second-round exit at the hands of the rival Penguins (more on that in a bit), Trotz was set to enter the last year of the contract he’d signed with the Caps back in 2014 and Reirden was a highly sought-after commodity:
It was also reported that he was on Arizona’s short list. Indeed, Reirden had been a finalist for the head coaching gig in Calgary a summer earlier.
Opportunity was indeed knocking and the Caps wanted to make sure that Todd Reirden didn’t answer the door. The Caps saw Reirden as an important part of not only what they were currently doing, but, perhaps more importantly, as a successor to Trotz (to be promoted from within, just as MacLellan had been, interestingly enough). And so the team promoted him to associate coach (whatever that is) in the summer of 2016 and “prohibited from interviewing for head-coaching jobs [in the summer of 2017] as part of the agreement for that promotion.”
Todd Reirden was the heir apparent; the Caps had their next head coach in waiting.
Meanwhile, Barry Trotz’s Caps had just been beaten in the second round by the Penguins. Again. That made successive years losing to Pittsburgh, despite having home ice after winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the League’s best team (and that on the heels of blowing a 3-1 lead to the Rangers in 2015’s second round). As Mac put it, “We were struggling at the time to get over the hump. We couldn’t get over the second round and Barry hadn’t been able to coach out of the second round yet either.”
At the trade deadline a season earlier, MacLellan had talked about the team he’d constructed and their near-term prospects:
“I view it as a two-year window,” MacLellan said. “We’re going for it this year, we’re going for it next year, and then after that we’re evaluating where we’re at. “
That two-year window was slammed shut. Twice. By the organization’s arch nemesis. What’s that they say about the definition of insanity?
The 2017-18 season was more of the same: a first-place Metro Division finish, but one that seemed to overstate how good the team actually was - their 48.6 Corsi-for percentage ranked 21st in the League and presaged another disappointingly quick exit from the postseason. And Trotz himself was perhaps 60 hockey minutes away from not making it to Thanksgiving:
It’s rumoured that, after ugly losses in Nashville and Colorado on Nov. 14-16, he was facing the coaching guillotine with a home defeat Nov. 18 against Minnesota, but the Capitals won 3-1, taking 11 of the next 14.
Then, after dropping the first two games of their opening series with Columbus on home ice, the Caps found the luck that had eluded the franchise for more than 40 years in overtime of Game 3. You know the rest.
When the celebrations (sorta) died down, the Caps and Barry Trotz still had business to conduct. Both sides were saying the right things, initially - that they hoped something could be worked out - but the reality was that Trotz had a below-market value contract extension on the table and the Caps had a plan (one that included that coach-in-waiting).
Barry Trotz had a clause in his contract where if he won the Stanley Cup he could accept a two-year extension with a $300k bump in salary. Obviously since he was only making $1.5M, low by today's NHL coach's standards, a $1.8-million salary doesn't cut it. So Trotz stepped down.— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) June 18, 2018
Trotz wasn’t going to exercise that option (why would he?) and so he proposed new terms for an extension... terms that didn’t work for the Caps because of, well, term:
“I think the five-year term is probably a sticking point,” he said. “We have a coach that’s been here four years. You do another five, that’s nine years. There’s not many coaches that have that lasting ability. It’s a long time and it’s a lot of money to be committing to that, to a coach.”
(As a point of reference, the longest-tenured coach in the League, currently, is Jon Cooper in Tampa at just over seven years.)
The writing was on the wall... as it had been all year.
We shouldn't be surprised about Trotz's resignation...indications all season that this would happen, one way or the other. Was told in January "Barry thinks he can get a job in 3 minutes" if he leaves.— John Shannon (@JShannonhl) June 18, 2018
FWIW, I had heard from several people who knew Trotz that he likely would be leaving Caps after this season. I don’t think it’s related to a specific opening, but he will get a chance to become coach, front office staff or broadcaster elsewhere.— Ted Starkey (@TedStarkey) June 18, 2018
In essence, it sure seems as if Barry Trotz made the Caps an offer they couldn’t accept and reportedly didn’t budge (that’s a 25% higher salary, incidentally, than he ended up taking from the Islanders). Brian MacLellan (who definitely listens to input from his players) wasn’t going to let the greatest hot streak in franchise history sway him from his plan - if he was the sentimental type, Jay Beagle would’ve been centering the fourth line last night and making $3 million per year.
Regardless, flags fly forever. 2018 is never going away, and to suggest that Caps fans might harbor any anger towards Trotz is... misguided.
Put another way, I think you’d be real hard-presses to find a Caps fan with any real ill will towards Trotz, even through this ass-whopping. Just not a thing.— Japers' Brink (@JapersRink) August 19, 2020
Nor should those fans be upset with the organization for letting Trotz go. It’s unfortunate because it feels wrong for things to have ended the way they did, made all the worse by the apparent misjudgment the club made on Reirden and the Vader-actually-kills-Luke way this season wrapped up.
But you judge moves based on the information that was available at the time and, at the time, walking away from Barry Trotz was the right move for the Caps. Who they walked to, however...