James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Dose: Trotz and the Caps

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


I like Barry Trotz.

 

OK, to be fair, I’ve barely ever spoke to him. He wouldn’t have a prayer of remembering who I am and I don’t even recall the questions I posed to him years ago.

 

Still, Trotz is a hockey yarn-spinner on a Ken Hitchcockian scale. He can go off on a 20,000-word tangent while fielding a softball question that a reporter threw out for a simple, cliche-riddled quote. He seems like a good human being and (at worst) an above-average coach. From that perspective, it’s easy to see why he’s well-liked.

 

Even so, I find myself a bit mystified by the adulation for Trotz. Hearing people glow about his accomplishments makes me wonder how far a narrative can stretch before you finally drop the “low-budget” excuse and realize that it’s odd to be that excited for a guy with a pretty average resume. Ultimately, this could go down as another time Ted Leonsis seems to be reading the wrong newspapers when it comes to steering his Washington Capitals.

 

Then again, neither Trotz nor Alex Ovechkin have been to a conference final round, so maybe they’ll take that big, scary step together?

 

LOWERED EXPECTATIONS

 

It’s amusing how much the framing of a story affects expectations and guides criticism.

 

Todd McLellan’s been to two conference finals in his career as an NHL head coach. Dan Bylsma won one Stanley Cup and steered his teams through injuries to deep playoff runs and regular season success almost every year (it’s easy to forget that most of their “meltdowns” come in round two or three). Bruce Boudreau keeps winning division titles with teams that are often pretty thin beyond their marquee players. All of these guys accomplished things Trotz never has in significantly shorter spans of time, yet they’ve been scapegoats while Trotz is often heralded as some sort of genius.

 

Those coaches inherited more talent, no doubt, but it’s strange to see one guy get the benefit of the doubt over and over again while others get zero rope.

 

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I don’t mean to dismiss Trotz’s triumphs, but has he truly been special or merely just steady in helping the Predators get off the ground? I’d lean toward the latter.

 

Trotz never guided his team to more than one series win in any postseason and has only seen the second round twice. He has zero division titles on his resume. Since the 2007-08 season, the Predators have allowed nine more goals than they’ve scored. The Predators missed the postseason two years in a row and disastrously so. This includes the past campaign when GM David Poile foolishly paid outlandish amounts of money to unspectacular free agents shaped in the mold of Guys Trotz Would Like and saw that experiment crash and burn.

 

It’s true that Trotz has never had the chance to unleash a wealth of talent in Nashville, but it’s also a nature vs. nurture argument that could spotlight his shortcomings. How sure can we be that Trotz’s system and philosophies don’t actually hamper the growth and progress of talented offensive players? Are we sure people aren’t in love with the idea of what Trotz could be rather than what he’s actually capable of?

 

OFFENSIVE

 

Blame this on Poile or any number of other people, but it’s astounding that the Predators haven’t developed many/any noteworthy forwards since coming into existence in the 1998-99 season. That’s a ridiculous amount of chances to land a winning lottery ticket, and it’s not like only the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins of the world land talented players in the draft. Players like Claude Giroux and Corey Perry came deeper in drafts, so you’d think Nashville could pull off a steal at least once or twice.

 

With all due respect to the likes of Steve Sullivan, I’d argue that Alex Radulov could be that guy, yet they let him walk away for nothing. That’s not to say it’s all the Predators’ fault, but sometimes a little patience goes a long way; Chicago is glad it kept Patrick Kane while Philly is starting a tradition of watching Jeff Carter play deeper in the playoffs than their Flyers. Trotz hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since he scolded Radulov back to the KHL.

 

Even if you give the Predators a mulligan for the Radulov situation (there’s a lot we probably don’t know, after all), how should we feel about Ryan Suter escaping to Minnesota and Shea Weber signing an offer sheet with the Flyers? Could it be that it wasn’t just about the Predators’ chances of winning a Cup but rather that they weren’t exactly loving life as Trotz’s pupils?

 

I’m not saying it’s all Trotz’s fault with any certainty, yet I wonder why these questions never get asked. Is it just because Trotz is such a good guy? Do people kind of forget about the Predators except when they’re in “Little Engine That Could” mode, allowing significant failures to slip under the radar? (The same situation seems to be happening in Phoenix, right down to a defense-first-second-and-third system finally collapsing under its own rigid weight.)

 

It’s hard to say, and to be fair, Trotz could be a breath of fresh air in DC. I’m just a little confused that many of the same types who condemn more successful coaches treat Trotz like The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread: Coaching Edition.

 

SOME OPTIMISM

 

I’ll say this, though: it’s a relief to hear that Trotz at least recognizes that he should stay out of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom’s way. I’m not so sure he knows how to do that, but he’s at least aware that he should.

 

Frankly, for all the wondrous things that Adam Oates accomplished with the Capitals power play, I thought that his quirks and stubbornness got the best of him. It’s funny that people bury Alex Ovechkin for his plus/minus and treat the guy who wedged him in a potentially uncomfortable right wing spot as a martyr. Maybe Oates’ obsession with handedness and micromanaging nature made him lose sight of the big picture with Ovechkin and/or the team as a whole?

 

My feeling is that Ovechkin might just make a jump by the mere fact that a nightmare season is behind him. Granted, it will still be the year 2014, which has just been a disaster for Ovechkin … but there’s a chance to clean the slate, if nothing else.

 

Yet, more than how this affects Ovechkin, the hope is that the Capitals can improve what really needs improvement: the guys around him. The drop-off from Ovechkin and Backstrom was resounding last season, but if Trotz can help improve this team at even-strength while not losing too much of that power-play proficiency, it could be quite the gain.

 

(And, frankly, the East is so squalid that Trotz could look like a genius by merely being competent.)

 

The Predators have a few pieces that Trotz will probably be quite fond of. Defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner may end up being favorites of his while Brooks Laich carries that “Who Doesn’t Like That Guy?” factor. Perhaps the Capitals could even throw Trotz a bone by reuniting him with free agent David Legwand, too.

 

AN OBJECTIVE GLANCE AT HIS CAREER

 

By playing the devil’s advocate in my own column, the Trotz hiring sounds more desirable. Really, if he can merely give the Capitals a consistent direction after the team allowed media and fan scrutiny to throw them around like a ship being tossed around by waves, it could be a victory in itself. Even if Trotz is just OK.

 

Let’s throw out all the opinions both positive and negative and let the numbers speak for a while, though.

 

We’ve already reviewed the lack of regular season dominance (no division titles) and deep playoff runs (Trotz never won more than six playoff games in any single postseason), but was his team stuck in a state of being good yet not good enough?

 

To be reasonably fair to the Predators, I decided to note the seasons in which Nashville a) ranked in the top 10 in goals against and b) scored more goals than the league average. I think this is a reasonably fair way to assess his teams, but we can agree to disagree:

 

2000-01: seventh in goals against

2002-03: ninth in goals against

2005-06: seventh in goals against

2006-07: eighth in goals against

2010-11: second in goals against

2011-12: ninth in goals against

 

Goals for above league average: 2003-04 (by five); 05-06 (by six), 06-07 (by 30!), 07-08 (by 2); 11-12 (by 13),

 

All things considered, I’d venture that the best Trotz teams were the 2005-06, 06-07 and 2011-12 bunches. One must hope that his last two seasons were aberrations (2012-13 was just a 48-game season that produced some flukes, after all) and the “real” Trotz is closer to the guy who guided strong teams in 2005-06/06-07 and 2010-11/11-12.

 

MIXED REVIEW

 

Granted, it’s not just about Trotz. Brian MacLellan is the new GM, who may look a lot like the old GM (who was know as GMGM).

 

If the well-established concerns about MacLellan end up being justified, Trotz might just have to make the best out of that situation. On the bright side, conventional wisdom would argue that he’s elite when it comes to making lemons into lemonade. Even if he helps this team out, I’m not so sure his recipe will be all that sweet for fantasy owners.

 

(Although it could be refreshing for whoever ends up being Washington’s top goalie.)

 

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James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than two years. Follow him on Twitter.
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