Fair or not, every Capitals coach over the last several years has ultimately been judged by what he has been able to get out of Alex Ovechkin. Next up: Barry Trotz.
Ovechkin is the second-best-known hockey player on earth, and a dominant force whenever he's on the ice. There are those who would deride him for any number of reasons, whether it's for flashiness or, far more often, a perceived lack of defense. The fact that the Capitals missed the playoffs this year, for the first time since 2006-07, has largely been hung on Ovechkin and his minus-35 rating. This is nothing new: Ovechkin is, after all, the face of the franchise, and when failure comes all gazes turn to him.
But the problem with that is it ignores Ovechkin's 51 goals (a total which gave him the league lead for the fourth time in his nine-year career, and second season in a row), that the Capitals defense was garbage, and that their now-fired coach Adam Oates had few answers for how things should be handled.
The high-wire act of keeping Ovechkin as a perennial Rocket Richard candidate while simultaneously shoring up the team's defense, which was flat-out awful (2.79 goals against per night, in the bottom third of the league), now goes to Trotz. And there might not be a better man for the job.
The last three certainly couldn't have been worse at it. Oates, for all his playmaking ability on the ice in his hall-of-fame career, had a profound lack of vision behind most everything he did when coaching the Capitals, but he knew how to handle Ovechkin. When Oates was hired, he moved his star player to the opposite wing, and in doing so may have revitalized his career. In the previous two seasons — the dying days of Bruce Boudreau and a brief cup of coffee with Dale Hunter — he'd failed to break 40 goals for the first time in his NHL career, but under Oates he scored 32 in 48 (a 55-goal pace), and then put up 51 in 78 this year.
That seems to be what Washington wants from its coaches in general: An ability to get the best out of Ovechkin while still putting together cogent defensive performances. If the two can be married, then all the better, but it hardly ever happens. Oates couldn't cobble a decent team defensive strategy, and when things went wrong it was like he stepped into quicksand. If the team was giving up a lot of goals — and it really was — he tried to reconfigure everything so that it would stop. That's a reasonable approach, but the way he went about it was wrong. All wrong.
Jay Beagle, who entered this season with a career high of eight points in 48 games, spent a shocking amount of time on Ovechkin's line because there was a belief that his defensive responsibility would somehow draw something similar out of Ovechkin as well. All it did, predictably, was create a drag on his effectiveness in attack; the number of 5-on-5 points Ovechkin tallied in March was zero, and that's mostly because Beagle spent about half the month with him as Oates turned desperate. The Caps missed the playoffs, as anyone could have guessed, and Oates got canned for a lot of good reasons.
Long-time observers of the Capitals will recall that they often flamed out of the playoffs nice and early under Boudreau, but at least they didn't miss them altogether. Maybe they'd make it to the second round, but eventually get routed, even though they were regularly finishing atop their conference, and even won a Presidents' Trophy one year with 121 points. But the perception was always that they were scoring their way to those 100-point seasons, a strategy that's considered unsustainable in the postseason.
That's not why Boudreau got fired, though. For much the same reason that Dan Bylsma isn't likely to keep his job once the Penguins hire their new general manager (i.e. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are reportedly not interested in what he has to say any more), Bruce Boudreau was fired 22 games into the 2011-12 season despite a 12-9-1 record. Ovechkin famously may or may not have called Boudreau a "fat fuck" over a late-game benching early in that season, but three weeks later he was gone.
Between the F-bomb incident and the fact that the Caps conceded 45 goals over the next 12 games (going 4-7-1), Boudreau apparently had to go. Ovechkin may well have "tuned him out," because he scored only 40 goals across Boudreau's final 94 games in Washington, by far the most fallow stretch of his career.
(Boudreau, though, was scooped up immediately by the Anaheim Ducks, who have now won consecutive division titles with an Anaheim team that's probably not that much better than his Caps teams ever were. The Caps have won 10 playoff games in three years without him.)
In came Hunter, who peddled defensive responsibility in a town that desperately wanted to hear all about it. Under his control, Ovechkin scored 30 times in 56 games, a pace for just 44 goals, but obviously a step up from Boudreau's last stand. More importantly, the Caps advanced out of the first round, sneaking by the 102-point Boston Bruins thanks to a marvelous goaltending performance from Braden Holtby and little else besides. But when your goalie plays his ass off for seven games against a heavily-favored team, you can point and say, "Look at all the good defense we're playing." And that's especially true when Ovechkin is blocking shots. Sure, it was only 14 in as many playoff games that year, but that was one more than he'd blocked in the team's previous four postseason runs combined. Ovechkin, it could be said, "bought in" to defense under Hunter, but the coach went back to his junior team at the end of the season, and in came Oates.
One has to wonder why, exactly, anyone would want to pay Alex friggin' Ovechkin to block more shots and not, say, score 50-plus a year. Given the size of his contract and the unique way in which he plays the game — pummeling goaltenders to the tune of leading the league in shots on goal in all but one season since 2005-06 — this is a foolish calculus. The inherent value of a blocked shot in terms of win expectancy is vastly exceeded, many times over, by that of a single goal, regardless of whether it's at even strength or a power play. Ovechkin scores goals, and that's all he should be asked to do. Oates understood this, to an extent. But when things got bad, Oates predictably blamed losses on Ovechkin failing to backcheck.
Coaches, in short, have tried to make Ovechkin play against type, even when his natural instincts make for an objectively more valuable player. It's no coincidence that the Capitals' 121-point season came in the year Ovechkin posted his highest points-per-game number (1.51) and scored 50 goals in 72 games. But when they flamed out early, defensive ineptitude was cited (not inaccurately), so Boudreau tried to put a yoke on Ovechkin. That continued until Ovechkin had enough of him, then Hunter tried to do more of the same. Oates finally removed that backchecking burden, to some extent, but also any and all defensive structure for the entire team, and everything collapsed.
So now it's Barry Trotz's turn to try to strike that balance. As the only coach in the history of the Nashville Predators franchise, he has regularly worked magic to get a team that spent very little money into the playoffs despite largely being bereft of offensive talent: Only 12 times in the Predators' 15-year history has a player broken 60 points. And yet, from 2003-04, when it could be fairly be said that the Predators were really no longer a "new" expansion team, until 2011-12, the Preds missed the playoffs just once.
Trotz — and goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who might likewise be on his way to Washington — had a hell of a lot to do with that; Nashville's goals-against numbers were regularly in the top half of the league (seventh, eighth, 16th, 11th, 15th, second, and 10th between the most recent lockouts), despite spending being very close to the bottom. The offense wasn't so shining.
However, it's important to note that the Predators just haven't had many offensive stars on the roster. David Legwand has been a fine pro for a very long time, but he's been with the Predators for 15 years and his 210 goals, 356 assists, and 566 points are all team team records. Jason Arnott, meanwhile, scored an team-high 33 goals in 65 games in 2008-09, when his career was decidedly winding down. This is the general quality of the Predators offense, in almost any given season.
There are, however, a pair notable exceptions to this: The only two seasons in which Trotz ever coached a truly elite offensive talent. Paul Kariya was on his third team in as many years when he came to the Predators, perhaps out of desperation after a disastrous attempt at making things work with Colorado (36 points in 51 games). In those two seasons, Kariya put up 85 and 76 points, the two highest single-season totals in Nashville's history. For those two years, the Predators' offense was 10th and fourth in the league, all while their defense remained nearly elite, at seventh and eighth.
Trotz was given an offensive weapon, and he used it to great effect, dragging the whole team forward in a way he hadn't before and hasn't since. And a broken-down Kariya — who was on the wrong side of 30 and had just three years left before he called it a career — is nothing compared to Ovechkin is at 29. That all-time single-season Predators high of 33, set by a creaky Arnott? That's just one more than Ovechkin's all-time low, tallied when he was miserable under Boudreau. Kariya's franchise-record 85 points? It'd be the third-lowest points-per-game of Ovechkin's career.
Trotz is probably the only coach short of an elite fantasy hire (Mike Babcock, etc.) that could logically claim to be able to do for the Capitals what everyone has always wanted. He has the demonstrated ability to emphasize defense, and he brings evidence that he can safely facilitate Ovechkin's goalscoring abilities without allowing him to rack up a minus-30 rating in the process.
At his introductory press conference today, Trotz talked about how his task was to make sure Ovechkin was "successful within the group," while noting that he didn't want to take anything away from the offense. It's a balancing act that he's managed before.
Of course, there are 17 other skaters on the roster besides Ovechkin, and they're all going to have to pull in the right direction as well. The quality of that roster will have to be improved as well, and that's outside Trotz's control. But if anyone can get them to do it while letting that dynamic, jaw-dropping talent at the top of the lineup be precisely what he was born to be, it's almost certainly the guy they hired. The team can't ask for more than that.