Republished from The Sports Capitol with permission.
AT TSC HEADQUARTERS — The business never stops.
Less than two weeks ago, the Capitals began a Stanley Cup celebration that lasted five days, a generation’s worth of emotion pouring out in one of the great parties this city has ever seen. But while the players drank and sang and paraded through the District, the machine continued to grind.
Now the Stanley Cup champions need a new head coach. Barry Trotz is gone, a victim of his own success, but also a business decision by a franchise not known for paying high prices for the position.
The seeds of Trotz’s departure were planted last summer. He had led a talented roster to back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and three times to the second round of the playoffs. He validated his 15 seasons in Nashville, where the Predators also never made it past the second round, but were usually competitive with far less talent and resources available than in Washington.
The Capitals were excellent. It didn’t work out for them in the postseason. Trotz bore the brunt of those slings and arrows and it hurt. It hurt like hell. Listen to how he answered awkward questions about his status throughout the spring during Washington’s memorable playoff run and it’s there: All the anguish and frustration that his team had to work through last fall after falling short, Trotz himself endured last summer. He lost a close friend. He reevaluated how he viewed himself in light of those devastating playoff failures in 2016 and 2017. But perspective didn’t mean total absence of pain, either. In that respect, Trotz could identify with Alex Ovechkin, his captain, who has faced similar barbs throughout his 13-year career.
“Yes, absolutely, because I’ve been at this for a while and it’s so hard to move forward sometimes,” Trotz said May 7 after his team eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. “It’s always thrown in your face everywhere your turn.”
There was no contract extension coming. The playoffs were all that mattered. He would have to coach as a lame duck in the final year of his deal. He would have to earn another one with a lesser roster, shredded by free agency and the salary cap, and that seemed an unfair ask for anyone. Yes, the Capitals believed they still had a good team. No, even in their wildest dreams they didn’t think it was a Stanley Cup season. After all those talented groups fell short? Are you kidding?
Trotz had done good work and deserved to finish the thing out. But the guillotine always hung above his head ready to drop. Todd Reirden, his top assistant, had been promoted, kept at times from interviewing for other head coaching jobs and was under contract for 2018-19.
Reirden came from Pittsburgh, where he joined the organization in 2008 and was an assistant coach for the Penguins from 2010 to 2014. He played college hockey at Bowling Green – as did Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. He had no previous professional ties to Trotz the way Washington assistant coach Lane Lambert did in Nashville. The writing was on the wall for Trotz.
“Our situation, we were struggling at the time to get over the hump,” MacLellan said Monday. “We couldn’t get out of the second round and Barry hadn’t been able to coach out of the second round yet, either. I think from the organization’s perspective, some changes would’ve had to be made if we lost in the second round again.”
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That’s an awkward situation to put your coaching staff in. And there were times this season when it appeared Trotz could be fired at any moment. The Capitals were 10-9-1 after an ugly November road trip to Nashville and Colorado. The vibes around the team were ominous. A bad homestand just before Thanksgiving could have ended it. Instead, after getting lambasted by Trotz, who told them to stop feeling sorry for themselves, the players responded. They found the peace and clarity he’d searched for so hard months earlier and finally found.
There was another rough patch in February and early March and if that had continued maybe Trotz was in trouble again. But the Capitals responded even after they briefly fell out of first place in the Metropolitan Division and in retrospect their 12-3 finish to the regular season was a precursor to their Cup run. The postseason didn’t start that way, though.
What looked like an easy, obvious coaching change with Washington down 0-2 in the first round to the Columbus Blue Jackets and fans and media ready to call it a season didn’t look that way a few weeks later. The Capitals rallied to win four in a row in part because the players never panicked. They believed they could come back.
Trotz then led his team past the Penguins in the second round – finally – and they won the Eastern Conference Final by rallying from 3-2 down in the series to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Suddenly in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career, the leverage swung to Trotz. When he won it, that became even more true.
Trotz’s representatives made clear to the Capitals that he expected to be compensated like one of the best coaches in the NHL. That meant a salary north of $4 million and five years. But the business side of pro sports doesn’t care much for how good a person is or what he’s earned.
The Capitals have always valued coaches a certain way under owner Ted Leonsis. It’s why former general manager George McPhee was constantly hiring untested coaches (Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates). Not a single one of those men had coached an NHL team before McPhee hired him – though obviously Oates and Hunter had long, distinguished playing careers.
Trotz was the outlier. Trotz was the one coach long on experience, if short on playoff results. He started his NHL career as a scout in Washington and he returned to change the culture of an organization that had never once broken through.
MacLellan saw that in him when he hired Trotz shortly after taking over for McPhee, his longtime friend and boss, in 2014. It worked, they won a title together and that still wasn’t enough. Trotz earned a raise and some security and he will get it at some point even if he has to take a year off. The Capitals long ago decided that wasn’t something they give to any coach – even one who led them to that elusive Stanley Cup.
They will raise a banner and host another celebration in the fall. Trotz will always be a part of that legacy. In a way, it’s a minor miracle he kept his team together in the face of all that lingering heartache and his own uncertain fate. If this was a fairy tale, both sides figure it out and come back to defend a championship together. Even after the party we’ve seen in this city the past two weeks, we should have known: They don’t take the title or the memories away. Those are yours to keep. But the relentless machine goes about its work well before the revelry fades.
“In the end, I think sports is a business,” MacLellan said. “You want it to work out. You want it to be a game. You want it to be all fun. But 10 days after you win a Cup, we have to come here and do this. It’s not fun.”
Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multimedia journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.