Getty Images

Trotz, Capitals begin working toward contract extension

Leave a comment

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Barry Trotz started dancing as soon as he walked into the locker room mid-celebration.

Within seconds, players doused him with beer and champagne, jumped around him and hugged their beloved coach. Trotz couldn’t see but still had plenty of clarity in that moment.

”I could feel the love,” he said.

Veteran Brooks Orpik believes that moment showed the admiration and respect Washington Capitals players have for Trotz, a pending free agent at the peak of his career after winning the Stanley Cup. Trotz’s contract status is the biggest question facing Washington as the offseason begins.

Trotz wants to be back, and general manager Brian MacLellan wants to sign the 55-year-old to an extension. Now it’s a matter of them getting a deal done.

Trotz and MacLellan met Wednesday to begin discussing a new contract. It’s uncommon for an established coach of a contending team to go through a lame-duck season and even rarer for a Cup-winner to not be back the next season.

”We’ve got lots of good things going,” Trotz said. ”We’ll work through what we need to do. If that’s what they want, then something will get done. If not, we’ll deal with that.”

MacLellan and the Capitals opted not to extend Trotz last summer following a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy-winning season that ended with a second-round exit at the hands of the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins. After winning the Cup at Vegas, MacLellan said Trotz would be back if he wants to be.

At the championship rally Tuesday, Trotz dropped hints of wanting to return by saying, ”We’ll do it again” and noting afterward, ”We’ll get something done.” He reiterated Wednesday he likes the area for his family and enjoys coaching this team.

MacLellan said he’ll meet with ownership over the next week and that he doesn’t believe either side feels pressure to get a deal done given Trotz’s contract expires June 30. Asked how confident he feels about being able to re-sign Trotz, MacLellan said: ”I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

It’s up to owner Ted Leonsis, team President Dick Patrick and MacLellan to come to Trotz with an offer that makes sense for him to return. The New York Islanders currently have an opening, and other teams around the NHL might even fire their coaches to hire Trotz, whose relaxed attitude during the playoffs contributed to the Capitals’ run.

”Barry was the right coach for this group,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”The things that he preaches turns out to be really important. It works for our group.”

Based on the salaries of other Cup-winning coaches like Toronto’s Mike Babcock, Chicago’s Joel Quenneville and Montreal’s Claude Julien, it’s reasonable to think Trotz could make $4 million-plus annually with the Capitals or another team.

Over the past 40 years, only four Stanley Cup-winning coaches didn’t return to that team the next season. Scotty Bowman left Montreal to become Buffalo’s GM in 1979, retired after winning with Detroit in 2002 and replaced Bob Johnson in Pittsburgh in 1991 when Johnson became ill. The other instance was when Mike Keenan left the Rangers after winning in 1994 because of a disagreement with GM Neil Smith and New York’s management.

That’s the most similar situation to Trotz, a proud veteran of 19 NHL seasons who went through a lame-duck season with prospective coach-in-waiting Todd Reirden on his staff. If Trotz returns, Reirden would likely be given the chance to catch on elsewhere.

Players widely want to see Trotz back in charge next season, in part because he pushed the right buttons on the way to the franchise’s first title and lived the pain and success with them on the way to the Cup.

”He’s been through adversity like the rest of us,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. ”He’s a huge part -him and the rest of the coaching staff. They gave us a good game plan and we executed it. I think his best quality this year probably was letting us kind of take care of ourselves. Showing us that if we’re going to have success we need to find it in our locker room ourselves and he did that.”

Theodore’s struggles have Golden Knights in Cup Final hole

Getty Images
7 Comments

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Gerard Gallant made Shea Theodore skip a shift. He’s not making him walk the plank for two rough games.

Theodore’s struggles are a major reason the Golden Knights trail the Capitals 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final going into Game 4 on Monday night in Washington. The talented, young defenseman has been on the ice for four of the Capitals’ past six goals in the series and was primarily responsible for two in Vegas’ Game 3 loss Saturday night.

”Did Shea do something real bad? He plays the game like everybody else,” Gallant said Sunday in a passionate defense of Theodore. ”He made a couple mistakes, they ended up in the back of our net. A lot of guys make mistakes in hockey games and they don’t end up in the back of the net. Shea’s a 22-year-old kid who I love. He’s a great player. He’s going to be a star in this league.”

Theodore doesn’t need to be a star, but he needs to be better for the Golden Knights to have a realistic chance of coming back in the Cup Final. In Game 3 alone, he made an ill-advised decision that sparked an odd-man rush on Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s goal, and committed a brutal turnover that led to Devante Smith-Pelly‘s goal that sealed it for Washington.

Trailing by two in the third period, Gallant sat the offensively gifted Theodore for more than three minutes after that giveaway. Gallant expects his whole team to be better with the puck, and Theodore knows that certainly includes him.

”Personally, not a good game,” Theodore said. ”I’ve got to be better all over the ice and definitely recharge tomorrow and get back at it. You have to have a short memory on these type of things, and it’s a seven-game series.”

The series won’t get to seven games if Theodore’s mistakes continue to haunt the Golden Knights. In addition to the blunders that cost them two goals, arguably Theodore’s worst play Saturday night came when he lollygagged down the ice on the power play and got outraced by Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen so badly goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had to come out of his net and wound up taking a tripping penalty.

That cost Vegas a big opportunity to score on the power play and cut the deficit in half.

”We all make mistakes,” Fleury said in French. ”He must forget it.”

That’s the message from veteran defense partner Deryk Engelland, who teammates notice has been a calming and positive influence on Theodore. Engelland talked to Theodore after the loss and again the morning after to reassure him and reinforce some positive thinking.

”He’s young, you’re going to have mistakes,” Engelland said ”It’s a new day. We’ve got to get ready for Game 4 and you’ve just got to tell him to simplify, make the simple, easy play that he’s done all year for us, and just get back to our games.”

Teammates have been just as quick as Gallant to praise Theodore for his strong play this season, and there’s no doubt he’s a factor in the expansion team getting this far. But at the most critical stage of the Golden Knights’ journey, he has been close to his worst and knows it.

”I just have to be much better than I was,” Theodore said.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Capitals’ suffocating pressure is frustrating Golden Knights

Getty Images
2 Comments

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Of all the ways the Washington Capitals have tried to win in the playoffs, none has been as effective as this.

They pushed the pace with speed and skill when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were part of the ”Young Guns.” They made every game a coin flip with tight, Dale Hunter hockey. Each time, an early exit followed.

This year is different. Suddenly, the Capitals are a suffocating defensive team that clogs the middle of the ice and makes even the fastest of opponents look slow.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the latest to get frustrated by Washington’s neutral-zone pressure that took a toll on Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, paving the way for this run to the Stanley Cup Final. After cruising through three rounds with ease, nothing looks easy right now for Vegas because the Capitals have mastered the art of frustration, and are two wins away from hoisting the Cup for the first time.

”Offensive teams have certain tendencies, certain routes that they take through the neutral zone, plays they like to make, so if you can be on top of them and turn over some pucks, stifle them, make it hard for them to gain entry with possession, that frustrates skilled players,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said Sunday. ”If you can be in their face, just standing in the way, it’s amazing what that does.”

It’s amazing the transformation the Capitals have made since coach Barry Trotz challenged players late in the regular season to embrace this approach. It was clear as early as Game 4 of the first round that the 1-1-3 trap in the neutral zone had the ability to essentially shut down the opposing attack, and since the first two playoff games Washington is 10-2 when scoring first.

The Golden Knights have found how difficult it is to try to come back against the Capitals and need to adjust quickly down 2-1 in the Cup Final going into Game 4 Monday night. They have to make some adjustments before it’s too late.

”Our guys who have a lot of speed can go back deeper, gather some speed,” winger David Perron said. ”Then the defensemen can try to freeze the first forechecker, kick it wide. These guys coming with speed, if they’re confronted, which they will be most times at the blue line, you can put it in and go on the forecheck. You can have guys hang close to the right wing or up top, and as the puck is coming your way, win the one-on-one battle with support. … We also have to try to not let them set up, so if there’s a turnover, a quick one, we can punt it up, go back on offense.”

The Penguins and Lightning tried that and couldn’t crack the Capitals well enough to advance.

”They’re really good at slowing you down,” Lightning forward J.T. Miller said during the Eastern Conference final. ”Right when you want to just chip it and go, there’s a guy, there’s a wall there, and guys are ready to go back and get it on the other side. … It’s just their ability to stand up and make you force plays because it looks like there’s more ice than there is, and then all of a sudden they do a good job of staying in front and retrieving pucks.”

Vegas is built on speed, but it’s hard to harness it if players can’t get blue line to blue line with the puck to create any offense. When the Capitals took a lead in Game 3, they went into their now-patented scheme.

”It’s just kind of a group mentality to make life difficult on them,” winger Tom Wilson said. ”I think that’s when we’re at our best as a team is when we’re playing physical, we’re taking away time and space, making it difficult on their top guys.”

That difficulty wears on a team, and Trotz said it’s noticeable when an opponent tries to change its game and manage the puck differently to counterbalance the trap. When it works effectively, not only does it limit changes against, but it creates the kind of odd-man rushes that have paced Washington’s offense this postseason.

”It’s important to recognize moments when you can pressure, and we don’t want to get away from that, where we can send two guys and try to force teams into mistakes,” Niskanen said. ”If you can hold either the red line or the blue line with layers of support, you can force teams into turnovers, and we’ve done a good job of that.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

4 Comments

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

If trades were bad hair metal singles, then the Filip Forsberg – Martin Erat trade was to George McPhee’s time with Washington as “Cherry Pie” was for Warrant.

(Click here for the relevant VH1 moment, but don’t play it out loud if you’re at work.)

Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.

It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.

Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)

The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.

Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.

Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.

Genuine drafts

Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.

From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.

  • Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
  • Nicklas Backstrom (4th in 2006). That draft also included two attempts at finding a goalie solution in Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault as the 177th pick.
  • The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
  • While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
  • They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
  • The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
  • McPhee’s last draft yielded Andre Burakovsky at pick 23, while Madison Bowey (53) is also notable.

Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.

As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.

MacLellan brings it to the next level

As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.

One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.

MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.

While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.

While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.

In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.

T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.

Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.

Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.

Now that the hangover passed

Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:

  • A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
  • Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
  • A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
  • The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
  • Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
  • That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.

Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.

***

It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.

MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.

Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.

If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.

Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better defense?

10 Comments

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Caps will go into the Stanley Cup Final with the best defenseman on either side. John Carlson has been one of the better defenders in the league throughout the 2017-18 season. He managed to pick up an impressive 68 points in 82 games during the season and he’s added 16 points in 19 games during the playoffs. Not only is he capable of leading the charge offensively, he’s also relied upon to play significant minutes (averages almost 26 minutes during the playoffs). The Golden Knights don’t have anyone like him on their roster. That’s a fact.

Michal Kempny, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline, has been serving as Carlson’s partner during the playoffs. Kempny hasn’t looked out of place, but playing with Carlson has helped make him look good (his overall CF% is 48.04 percent. When Carlson isn’t on the ice with him it drops to 43.84).

Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov round out the top four for the Capitals. Both players have been relatively solid for the Capitals during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. Orlov has eight points in 19 games and he averages 24:32 of ice time, while Niskanen has eight points in 19 contests and he averages 25:31 per game.

Things get a lot more interesting on the third pairing, which is made up of veteran Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos. The pairing has been a liability for the Caps throughout the playoffs. There’s a decent chance that they’ll be exposed by Vegas’ speed a few times during the series.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

As we mentioned before, Vegas doesn’t have a clear number one blue liner like Carlson, but they have a group of six players that seem to play well as a unit.

The Golden Knights defense is made up of Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Luca Sbisa and Jon Merrill. None of those names really jump off the page when you look at them individually, but they’ve been good enough to help get the Golden Knights to this point.

No hockey fan considers Schmidt and McNabb as a top pairing and most people thought Deryk Engelland’s days in the NHL were done, but all three of those players have played significant roles for their team.

Before you sell the Vegas defense short, keep in mind that they have Marc-Andre Fleury behind them, which will cover up a lot of their shortcomings. Braden Holtby has been good for Washington, but Fleury has been dominant from the start of the playoffs and he hasn’t gone through a prolonged slump at any point.

Advantage: Capitals. 

The Capitals are at a disadvantage when you compare the bottom pairings of both teams, but the fact that they have the best blue liner in the series really helps shift this discussion their way. Even though Kempny is far from being a top-pairing defenseman, the fact that he plays with Carlson helps make him better. Also, the second pairing of Niskanen and Orlov plays a factor in this decision.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.