Caps return to ice under new leadership

WASHINGTON — After six straight trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, five of which concluded with first-round exits, the Washington Capitals missed the postseason last year. As a result, they hired a new coach, a move that marked a clear departure from past organizational philosophy — this time, they went with a veteran leader.

For the first time since Ron Wilson’s tenure, which ended in 2002, the Caps hired a head coach who already has NHL experience on the bench. Five times in a row — from Bruce Cassidy to Glen Hanlon to Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter to Adam Oates — the Caps hired coaches who had never piloted an NHL team.

At long last, they hired Barry Trotz.

Trotz won an AHL title and became the Nashville Predators’ first and only head coach through last season. His 15 years at the helm of the Preds made him the second longest-tenured head coach in major North American sports, behind only the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich. When Trotz and the Predators parted ways, the Capitals pounced on the opportunity.

The early results aren’t even results yet, with Thursday’s season opener against Montreal providing the first real-world test, but feedback from the players seem to be overwhelmingly positive. Defenseman Mike Green has been with the Caps since the 2005-06 season and has seen it all, and he has noticed a difference with Trotz at the helm.

“A lot more detailed, structured and team-oriented,” Green said at Media Day of his new coach’s approach. “It’s been great. It’s very important to gel before the short preseason, and we’ve done that.”

Capitals radio play-by-play broadcaster John Walton has felt the difference from the very beginning of camp as well.

“The biggest thing is the gravitas that he brings to the position,” Walton said of Trotz in a phone conversation Thursday. “Barry brings a ton of experience. It translates in the room to an enormous amount of respect even before you know him, and only grows from there.”

The Caps are coming off a season that saw them win just 38 times, finish fifth in their division and miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season. While one could look at the team’s aging core and declare their window closed, it can be easy to forget that while they’ve been around a long time, Alex Ovechkin is still just 29 and Nicklas Backstrom still a month-and-a-half shy of 27.

“As far as windows and closing, Ovechkin isn’t even 30,” said Walton. “Neither is Backstrom, one of the best and most underrated centers in the game.”

The Caps have shored up their defense with a couple acquisitions, particularly Matt Niskenen. Walton doesn’t believe the Eastern Conference is nearly as strong as its western counterpart, creating a more wide open field. If Washington can just find a way into the playoffs, he thinks, they could be primed for a run.

“The New York Rangers were pretty ordinary during the regular season last year,” said Walton. “Then they went all the way to the Conference Finals. Could Washington do something like that? Absolutely.”

However, not everyone on the outside is nearly as optimistic about the team’s season.


Ovechkin (AP)

The Caps know they’ll get production from Ovechkin; the question remains how they will control possession. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Hockey has reached an interesting crossroads — one that baseball began to bridge nearly 15 years ago now, and basketball in the last five — where analytics have gone from the fringes of the game’s fan analysis to a front-and -center focus of many organizations. One of the primary focuses of the statistical crowd is on puck possession, something that the Capitals didn’t manage well last year (26th in the NHL). The Caps also lost one of their top possession players in Mikhail Grabovski, and coach Trotz’s Nashville squads never rated as elite possession teams.

Less possession means more pressure on goaltender Braden Holtby. While Holtby has shown flashes of being an elite netminder — and Walton believes his best is yet to come — the style of play puts a lot of weight on one man.

“There’s almost no way this is a playoff team,” Ryan Lambert wrote in a preview for Deadspin. “And even if they do make it — Trotz is a good coach but not a miracle worker — they’re going to get steamrolled.”

Over at, the Caps are projected sixth in the Metro Division — not a playoff team, again largely because of possession statistics. While they expect the defense to be better under Trotz, they finish their preview with the following declarative statement.

“This team is clearly better than the Flyers and Canes, but it’s clearly a solid step below the other 5 teams in the division.”

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is just fine with others doubting his team. After years of high expectations, the Capitals are flying somewhat under the radar this year. At least, as much as one can fly under the radar with arguably the best scorer in the NHL on your roster, coming off a 51-goal season.

“I think everybody’s come in with a little chip on their shoulder,” Leonsis said at Media Day. “We have a good team. And people don’t think we have a good team again.”

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