This Washington Capitals team is a testament to people taking things for granted.
Think of all of the the achievements that were met, ridiculously, with a shoulder shrug:
- Yet another Maurice Richard Trophy for Alex Ovechkin thanks to 49 goals. It will be his seventh such title.
- Yawn: another division title, marking the eighth of the Ovechkin era.
- Sheesh, they didn’t even win the Presidents’ Trophy this time around.
Hockey fans and pundits are probably also guilty of far-too-easily dismissing the brilliant work of Barry Trotz. Such things tend to happen for a bench boss who, much like the Capitals, never advanced beyond the second round before this magical run to 3-1 series lead in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Maybe it’s too easy to forget the uncertainty Washington faced before Trotz took over.
Consider that, during the three seasons pre-Trotz, the Capitals missed the postseason once (in 2013-14) and failed to win a single playoff series. Perhaps it was easy to get lost in the “Pittsburgh Penguins curse” narrative and forget just how seamlessly they shot back up the ranks of the NHL. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy during Trotz’s first two seasons – only to fall to the eventual champions – and owned the Metropolitan Division crown during his reign.
With the benefit of hindsight, this playoff run might honestly be the perfect way for Trotz to receive at least some of the credit he so richly deserves.
There might have been temptation to dismiss Trotz’s achievements because of all the talent on hand. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as the Washington’s two-year championship window, or at least its biggest window for breakthrough success, only to face heartbreak and a hangover.
But maybe those letdowns and fewer roster riches allowed for some focus, and the release of some of the tension of “Oh, but you have to win with this team.”
Despite losing Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals maintained a high level of postseason success. While this postseason run has been about Alex Ovechkin turning back the clock, Evgeny Kuznetsov finding another gear, and Braden Holtby rekindling his Vezina form, it’s also spotlighted the structural genius of Trotz’s system.
- The Capitals stood toe-to-toe with a strong possession team in Columbus to win that series.
- Clearly outplayed the Penguins during that redemptive meeting in the semifinal round. Considering how lucky Pittsburgh’s Game 1 win felt, it’s fair to say that the right team – not just the fortunate one – advanced and justified it being called a “rivalry.”
- Washington proved to be a riddle the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to solve, too. Andrei Vasilevskiy was able to help Tampa Bay steal some games, yet the Bolts failed to score against Holtby during the final two games of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning’s top line of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov generally lived off of the power play, as the Bolts had few answers for the Caps at five-on-five.
While the Vegas Golden Knights justifiably carry a “Cinderella” narrative with them, they also presented a fascinating stylistic challenge for the Capitals.
Through three rounds of the postseason, the Golden Knights have been able to create unyielding pressure on the opposition thanks to a ferocious forecheck and impressive team speed. Even the tight four-game sweep of the Kings was misleading, as Los Angeles was often hanging on for dear life, asking Jonathan Quick to carry a huge burden just to stay in games.
An experienced San Jose Sharks team was rattled early in their series via a 7-0 loss in Game 1, and Vegas kept rolling along. With all their waves of talent, the Winnipeg Jets never really found an answer for the Golden Knights’ gauntlet, falling in just five games.
Jonathan Marchessault and the rest of the Golden Knights’ top line made a strong argument that it was “for real” during the postseason.
The Capitals, in turn, made them feel a lot like Tampa’s top combo of Kucherov and Stamkos. Vegas had to feel a bit shackled and negated, not to mention frustrated. Some of that comes down to Washington’s talent, depth, and versatility. Still, it’s the Trotz blueprint that stands as the primary explanation for why the Golden Knights’ freight train approach screeched to a halt.
And, again, that unyielding structure is something people just came to expect from Trotz.
Beautiful hockey mind
Maybe we merely needed to see the game evolve to truly appreciate his work? The NHL is clearly (and from an entertainment standpoint, delightfully) turning to a more attacking, “modern” style. To some, it seems like coaches’ ability to kill all fun and offense hit a critical mass in recent years, and now it’s time for offenses to take over.
Trotz’s work stands as a counterpoint to that thought.
On the other hand, much of his genius is finding the right combination of offense and responsibility. Washington has shown an ability to be able to trade punches with the best of them when needed -Game 4 saw the adrenaline go through the roof, and the Caps were just fine, thank you – yet they’ve also thrived in the kind of grinding games people expect from the postseason.
Through some combination of design and necessity, Trotz has helped the Capitals transform into a hockey chameleon, and that versatility leaves them one win from the franchise’s – and coach’s – first Stanley Cup victory.
The beauty of it all is that Trotz is so widely loved and respected. His acumen and love of the sport can be seen in how he’d hold court with Nashville media, not unlike Herb Brooks going out of his way to teach sports reporters the finer points of hockey.
As you may remember, reporters including Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wondered if Trotz said that he was on his way out of Washington during a handshake line chat with Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.
That moment came as the Capitals were heading into the uncertainty that was another second-round series with the Penguins. There have been denials about that statement being made, but if there was a kernel of truth to such scuttlebutt, maybe the drive behind such feelings was that Trotz didn’t feel appreciated. Maybe he felt taken for granted.
(And, sure, there also might be a succession plan involving assistant Todd Reirden.)
Maybe such feelings leave the door open ever so slightly that, even if the Capitals win it all, Trotz might be somewhere else. It’s tough to imagine that actually happening, but stranger things have happened in sports.
Whatever the case may be, Barry Trotz has now earned the right to call his shot, and reminded us all of how brilliant he truly is along the way.
Now he just needs to make sure the Capitals don’t take that next win for granted.
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.