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Contract request led to breakup between Barry Trotz, Capitals

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Barry Trotz’s desire for a big salary raise and five-year extension was the beginning of the end of his tenure with the Washington Capitals.

Trotz, who resigned on Monday after earning a two-year extension that was triggered by the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, wanted to be paid as one of the NHL’s top coaches, but the team was hesitant to make that kind of commitment. It was reported that Trotz was earning $1.5 million per season and the new deal would have only increased his salary by $300,000 a year.

The money and the term requested was a little too much for the Capitals.

“There are probably three, four guys that are making that money, so it’s the upper echelon. It’s the big-revenue teams,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said, referring to the salaries of coaches like Mike Babcock, Claude Julien and Joel Quenneville.

“I don’t think all teams pay that type of money and years. Certain teams are open to it and the rest of the league isn’t,” he added.

MacLellan described the five-year contract ask as a “sticking point.”

“You have a coach that’s been here four years, you do another five, that nine years,” he said. “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 a coach.”

[Barry Trotz steps down as Capitals head coach]

If you look at the Capitals’ head coaching history over the last 16 years, they haven’t gone out of their way to open up the checkbook to pay for a big-name, high-priced coach. Before Trotz arrived in 2014, you had Adam Oates, Dale Hunter, Bruce Boudreau, Glen Hanlon and Bruce Cassidy all getting their first NHL head coaching gigs in D.C.

MacLellan said he was hopeful that both sides could work out a short-term deal, but Trotz clearly wanted security and to rightly use the leverage of a Cup victory to cash in. The GM did note that he accepted Trotz’s resignation so he’s free to pursue offers from other teams to coach next season.

As for where the Capitals go next, Todd Reirden is the front-runner to replace Trotz. Bumped up to “associate coach” in 2016, the organization values him and has been grooming him to become a head coach, either with the franchise or elsewhere. MacLellan said Reirden will get a formal interview.

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and then we’ll make a decision based on that,” he said. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. If it doesn’t, then we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MORE:Where does NHL’s coaching carousel stop after Trotz resignation?

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly once again embraces the big stage

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WASHINGTON — Why does Devante Smith-Pelly play some of his best hockey in the playoffs? If you ask him, there’s nothing different; it’s just that the spotlight is bigger.

“The things that make my game successful are magnified at this time of year. All season I try and play physical, try and block shots and do those kind of things,” he said. “Obviously, this time of year it matters a whole lot more. It’s the most fun time to play. This is what you dream of. This is the Stanley Cup Playoffs and making it to the Final and scoring that goal in the big game — I think I just really enjoy the big stage in games that matter and games that are fun.”

Smith-Pelly has scored a couple of big goals for the Washington Capitals during their run to the Cup Final, like the insurance tally in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final that forced a Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. His most recent one, his fifth of the playoffs, was during Game 3 Saturday night that served as the dagger to the Vegas Golden Knights’ comeback hopes in the third period.

This isn’t the first time he’s been a big scorer beyond the regular season. As a member of the Anaheim Ducks four years ago, he scored five times during the 2014 playoffs. He has 40 career regular season goals in 341 games. Through Game 3, he now has 11 goals in 46 career playoff games.

“I love playing in the playoffs. It’s fun,” he said. “It just so happens maybe I’m scoring goals at the right time. I don’t know. I love playing in the playoffs. That’s really the only way I can kind of explain it.”

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Last June 30 Smith-Pelly was informed his time with the New Jersey Devils was over. He would be waived for buyout purposes and the first few days of free agency would be spent finding a fourth NHL team in four seasons. He would sign a one-year deal with the Capitals in early July and have to prove himself to make the team out of training camp. Initially, head coach Barry Trotz had low expectations about the move.

“I wasn’t sure on him, to be honest with you,” Trotz said in January via the Washington Post. “Just because of not seeing him enough and not knowing him, I knew there was something there, but to be honest with you, I wasn’t a big fan.”

After arriving in D.C., Smith-Pelly and Trotz sat down for a conversation where the head coach gave his opinion of the forward’s game from an outsider’s perspective. Trotz obviously wanted the signing to work and the two discussed areas of Smith-Pelly’s game that were strong and what areas could be built upon. 

That was the start of Smith-Pelly finally feeling at ease. As a player who thrives with confidence, with Trotz being forgiving about certain mistakes, the 25-year-old forward’s comfort level with his new environment continued to grow.

“Roller coaster,” said Smith-Pelly, describing his season. “Starting from the summer and signing here, having to make the team out of camp, it’s been a roller coaster but at the same time I’ve had a lot of fun too.”

One of Smith-Pelly’s strengths is his versatility. He plays a physical game, can block shots, play on the penalty kill and chip in offensively. And when needed, he can move up and down the lineup, as shown when he played along the Capitals’ top line during Tom Wilson’s suspension earlier in the playoffs (even if it didn’t work out that great.)

Smith-Pelly is part of a Capitals’ secondary scoring group whose contributions have helped them to this point: two wins away from the franchise’s first championship.

“His career’s gone up and down a little bit like a lot of guys in both series,” said Capitals forward Brett Connolly. “He’s stepped up huge for us and we’re going to need him to keep doing what he’s been doing for sure.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Alex Ovechkin ready for first Stanley Cup Final home game

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I want to win the Stanley Cup. I want to be the best, just the best. I must work. I must learn. Help my team. Play hockey, that’s all. Hockey is my life, you know. If I do not play hockey, I do not know what I do.” – Alex Ovechkin, October, 2005, via the Washington Post.

When Alex Ovechkin stepped on to the T-Mobile Arena ice ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, he could feel how much of an atmosphere change it was compared to the previous three rounds of the playoffs. There was a different energy in the air and the stage was even bigger than he had ever experienced.

On Saturday night, Ovechkin will hit the Capital One Arena ice for his first home game ever in a Cup Final. It’s been 20 years since the Capitals have played host to one, which means more of that different atmosphere and energy the Washington captain talked about, but unlike the scene in Vegas, the support will be behind him and his teammates.

“I’m excited. I think everybody’s excited in Washington,” Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be interesting, it’s going to be hard — but that’s why we work so hard to be in this spot and be in this moment.”

Even through the numerous playoff disappointments, Ovechkin has always kept a loose mentality. No matter the situation, he’s tried to keep his teammates upbeat, even when times have been bad. He’s taken the losses hard, but that’s because he wants to win so badly.

Jay Beagle is one of the longer-tenured Capitals and has seen that regular season success turn into playoff disappointment. Through it all, he says, Ovechkin has remained the same.

“He’s always had a calming presence because he always keeps it loose and is a lot of fun to be around,” said Beagle, who’s neighbors with Ovechkin in the team’s dressing room. “He’s steps up in the big moments, says things when he needs to, but also keeps it loose when the time is right, too.”

Ovechkin has done his part in helping the Capitals reach the Cup Final. He’s second in the NHL in playoff scoring with 13 goals and 24 points, his most in the postseason since 2009. There’s growth in all players year-to-year, but Beagle says that this year is different.

“All of us grow every year — you grow as a player, you grow as a person,” said Beagle. “He’s been outstanding. Every time we’ve gone into the playoffs, he’s been our best player. But I really think he’s taken over the team. He’s really taken this as his team and he’s stepped his game up even more than he has in the past, which is very hard to do. He’s our leader. We follow him. He’s been unreal. He’s been unreal ever since I’ve been here, but he’s also growing like everyone else is growing, as a player and a person. He’s stepped up huge this playoffs.”

Since Ovechkin was drafted in 2004, he’s wanted to deliver a Stanley Cup to D.C. This is the closest he’s ever been to it, and the Capitals are three more wins away from delivering.

“He’s made a promise to himself to get his game to the next level and bring our team with him. I think he’s done that,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “I think he’s delivering on a lot of aspects. I think he’s grown as a player and our captain.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals confident in ability to continue road advantage vs. Lightning

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The Washington Capitals may have dropped two games at home to allow the Tampa Bay Lightning to even the Eastern Conference Final at two games apiece, but a 7-1 road record this postseason will allow for some confidence as the series becomes a best-of-three.

“There’s nothing we can do. We’re not going to look back, we’re just going to look forward,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. “This group of guys have been in different situations all year and we fight through it. It’s a huge test. We’re still going to have fun, we’re still going to enjoy it. We’ll see what happens. We’re going to Tampa to play our game, try to get a victory and come back home.”

Head coach Barry Trotz used the word “resilient” several times in his post-Game 4 press conference to describe his team, and it’s appropriate They dropped the first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round only to reel off four straight wins. They dropped Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins after blowing a third period lead, then allowed their opponent to tie the series at two before winning Games 5 and 6 to advance. Now they wasted a strong start to the conference final and have given the Lightning a lifeline, even as they dominated at even strength through four games.

“We know how we have to play,” Trotz said afterward. “We’ve played well in three of four games; we played one stinker. We’re comfortable going on the road. We would have loved to have gotten this one tonight. We didn’t. We’re going to go to Tampa, and our intention is to go win a game in Tampa. We’ve already done it twice.”

[Lightning survive barrage to even series with Capitals]

Two dominant road victories already in this series won’t allow the Capitals’ confidence to wane or for old memories of previous playoff choke jobs to creep into their heads just yet. It’s about replicating their success in Games 1 and 2 while trying to be smarter about discipline (Hey, Lars Eller!) and not allow a Tampa power play that’s capitalized 42.9 percent in this series to continue winning that battle.

A lot of the credit for Tampa’s two wins in D.C. can go to goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 36 shots in both victories and allowed only four goals. Some of those chances were of the high-danger variety, but the Capitals couldn’t find the back of the net.

“He didn’t play great in the first two. He played well in the second two,” said Tom Wilson about Vasilevskiy’s play. “It’s our job to make him look more like the goalie the first couple of games. We’ll keep going to the net. We’ll make it hard on him. Hopefully the bounces will go in.”

“We had pretty good chances. We just [didn’t] execute,” added Ovechkin.

The old saying goes it’s not a series until a team loses at home. Well, the home team hasn’t had any luck in this conference final, but you have to imagine at some point over the course of these final three games a breakthrough will occur. In the meantime, the Capitals will look to continue to the home-ice non-advantage trend Saturday night in Game 5 (7:15 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream) at AMALIE Arena.

“Nothing’s come easy for this team,” said Trotz.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.