No contract, no problem: Trotz guides Caps into Cup final

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) One of the lasting images from the Capitals’ playoff run came the morning of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final.

Usually Alex Ovechkin hustles around the rink in a hot lap prior to the morning skate. Only this time it was 55-year-old coach Barry Trotz, who answered the call from his players to do the lap.

“I was worried about the turns,” Trotz said. “The rudders haven’t been sharpened all year. … I almost bit it at the end there trying to imitate Ovi.”

The Capitals beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 that night to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, but they might’ve won Game 7 at that moment. Rarely in previous postseasons had Trotz been that relaxed, the result of an unusual situation.

Trotz went into the season without – and still doesn’t have – a contract for next season, a circumstance that almost never happens to an experienced coach of a team with legitimate postseason hopes. But in a strange way, being a lame-duck coach might’ve helped Trotz not feel the pressure of past early exits and played a positive role in getting this far.

“I think it could be the same effect on a player, too, that’s becoming a free agent,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday. “He’s basically becoming a free agent as a coach, and what effect does that have? Do you have your best year when you’re a free agent?”

Trotz has. Even with the fifth-most victories of any coach in NHL history, until this spring he hadn’t made it past the second round in 18 previous seasons with the Nashville Predators and Capitals. He called it “luck of the draw,” running into championship-bound teams from Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

This improbable Capitals run that continues with Game 1 of the Cup Final on Monday in Las Vegas is not luck. It’s parts Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby, and also the right moves by Trotz. He called on Philipp Grubauer to start the first round in goal before switching to Holtby in Game 2 against Columbus and watching him get on a roll. He put Jakub Vrana on the top line not long before the rookie scored the winner in Game 5 against the Penguins and pushed all the right buttons on rest and preparation.

Teams tend to read cues from a head coach, and those have been positive.

“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure, maybe a little more freedom in terms of how he goes about things.”

Despite back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, MacLellan and Capitals management didn’t offer Trotz an extension.

Before the playoffs, Trotz said he hadn’t lost any sleep over his status and referred questions to MacLellan and owner Ted Leonsis. In March, Leonsis said he doesn’t talk about contracts, and MacLellan has repeatedly stated that any talks would wait until after the playoffs. There are currently no vacancies in the NHL.

Toronto’s Mike Babcock is the highest-paid coach at $6.25 million, Chicago’s Joel Quenneville is next at $6 million and Montreal’s Claude Julien comes in at $5 million. Those three have combined to win the Cup five times.

Trotz’s price tag has gone up however the Final goes against the Golden Knights.

“He’s probably going to benefit from this, too,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s done a good job managing it. To come in this year with so many questions – not from my point of view the lineup questions were that a big deal – but just the emotional state of our team coming in to start the year and how to handle that, I think he’s done an outstanding job.”

Trotz survived a 10-9-1 start that culminated with 6-3 and 6-2 losses at Nashville and Colorado, and the Capitals winning 12 of their next 14 games might have saved his job. Players’ response to Trotz reading them the riot act showed he certainly hadn’t lost the room.

But a journey of self-discovery last summer went beyond not having a contract.

“It gave me just some clarity on what defines me, what defines us, what defines you,” Trotz said. “If you don’t win any awards or anything, I’m not going to look at you any different. If you’re a good person and you treat people right and you live your life right, then I’m going to think really highly of you. If you don’t, I’m not going to think so much of you. And I started getting that clarity that everybody looks for the wrong in people rather than the right and it gave me a lot of clarity. And some things happened in my life that allowed me to see that and it’s been good.”

Happy, relaxed Trotz has made more appearances in these playoffs than buttoned-down, terse Trotz. He hasn’t soured amid the road bumps this postseason.

The Capitals have followed Trotz’s even-keeled approach and even been upbeat following losses. Like his players, he’s enjoying the ride.

“Playoffs are fun,” Trotz said. “They are a grind. But they’re fun. And they should be treated as fun. They’re sort of all the hard that you have to put in just to get there and it takes even more hard work to go farther, but it is fun. I’m finding I’m having a blast during the games.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

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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.

Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most

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WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals weren’t ready for their season to come to an end.

By playing what might have been their most complete game of the playoffs, they were able to force a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in the Eastern Conference final with a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night, picking up their first home win of the series.

While the Capitals were playing a relentlessly physical game and getting big performances from T.J. Oshie (two goals) and Devante Smith-Pelly, it was goaltender Braden Holtby playing what might have been his best and biggest game of the season to help drive the win and extend their season to a winner-take-all game in Tampa.

After the game Capitals coach Barry Trotz called Holtby “the backbone” of their team, and there were times in Game 6 where they needed him to be exactly that.

[Related: PHT Three Stars]

While he didn’t have to face a ton of shots (Tampa managed just 24 shots) he was still tested by a powerful Lightning attack and needed to be called upon to make some massive saves to record his first shutout of the season, a rather stunning stat considering he led the league in shutouts a year ago with nine.

“The only reason is it is good is you know you won,” said Holtby when asked about not recording a shutout this season until Monday. “Aside from that it’s just another statistic for you guys to write about. For us it is just that ‘W’ that matters.”

Well, they got that ‘W’ in large part because of Holtby’s play. Even though they ended up with a three-goal edge on the scoreboard at the end of the night, it could have easily shifted in another direction numerous times.

With the game was still scoreless in the second period, for example, he made a huge pad save on Anthony Cirelli when he broke in all alone on an odd-man rush.

In the third period, he helped preserve what was at the time a one-goal lead when he made an incredible glove save on a wide open Nikita Kucherov as he flew down the middle of the ice after coming off the bench on a perfectly timed line change.

Holtby downplayed that save after the game.

“I think that save probably looks better than it actually is,” Holtby said.” There are some that are more difficult than that. I think it was just the positioning and where the puck was. I was just trying to stay in the moment, focus on the puck, and make the save.”

It turned out to be a massive save because just a few minutes later Smith-Pelly delivered what was probably the knockout punch of the game when he scored his fourth goal of the playoffs to give the Capitals a two-goal lead.

Until that second goal was scored the Capitals had spent most of the period leaning on Holtby to stand tall and he was more than up to the task.

Overall this has been a bizarre season for Holtby.

In terms of his overall statistics it was probably his worst one since he became the Capitals’ starting goalie. After a so-so start, he struggling mightily over the last two months and then ended up on the bench for Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in place of Philipp Grubauer.

But after Grubauer struggled and the Capitals were facing a two-game deficit, Holtby reclaimed his starting spot and has done what he has done throughout his career in the playoffs — give his team a chance just about every single night.

Given how well Holtby has played in his career in the postseason it is downright staggering that his team hasn’t had more success in the playoffs. His career save percentage in the playoffs is the second best all-time and he’s rarely, if ever, had a poor showing over an entire series. It has just always come down to there at times being a goalie at the other end of the ice that has been just a little bit better.

Goaltending has been the big story of this series and even if it’s oversimplifying things to say, the team with the best goalie has won every game.

After dropping three games in a row and sending their season to the brink of what could have been another soul-crushing end, the Capitals needed their goalie to be the better one on Monday night.

He was.

Now they need him to do it one more time on Wednesday.

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights

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When it comes to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights the lion’s share of the praise is being thrown in the direction of starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the top-line of Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. All of it, of course, is richly deserved. All four of them have been incredible all season and have arguably been even better in the playoffs. Other than the emergence of Karlsson — which is still kind of baffling — there was reason to believe that the quartet could make a positive impact immediately.

Fleury has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for more than a decade. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. Everybody knew he was going to give them a chance to at least be competitive on most nights. Maybe we didn’t think he would be quite this dominant, but he has been good, is good, and will continue to be good. Likewise, pretty much everyone knew right away that the Jon Marchessault/Reilly Smith move had a chance to backfire on the Florida Panthers. Marchessault scored 30 goals last year! Smith has been a 50-point player in the NHL! It is not like their success this year is totally out of nowhere.

But perhaps the biggest actual surprise with this team has been the fact that the defense has been really, really good.

[Related: Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights]

Leading the way on that front has been former Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt who has finally had an opportunity to shine as a top-pairing defender.

It’s not that Schmidt wasn’t a useful player in Washington, because he was. He probably deserved more playing time than he was getting. He showed some offensive ability, he was consistently a positive possession player, and he always seemed to make an impact when he was in the lineup and on the ice. The problem was that he was playing for a team that was winning the Presidents’ Trophy every year, had a really good defense in place, and had invested a ton of assets in the players ahead of him on the depth chart, most of whom were really productive. The argument could be made that he maybe could have (should have?) been used a little more and players like Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner a little less, but those were great Capitals teams and there’s only so much ice-time to go around.

He was a good young player that was blocked on a good team. It happens.

When it came time for the expansion draft this past June the Capitals were one of the teams that was stuck between a rock and a hard place and was going to became a victim of their own success.

While some teams (*cough* … Florida … Minnesota … St. Louis … *cough*) either paid through the nose to protect certain players, or just flat out made bizarre choices on their protected lists, there truly were some teams that were just going to lose somebody really good and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to change that.

The Capitals were one of those teams as they had no choice but to leave players like Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer unprotected, either of which would have been an excellent selection for Vegas. It is not like the players they did protect were controversial, either. Of course Braden Holtby was going to be their protected goalie. You can’t blame them for protecting John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov as their three defenders. They could not have gone with the eight skaters route and protected an additional defender because that would have left a top forward exposed.

It’s not like they protected Orpik or Taylor Chorney over Schmidt, or traded Andre Burakovsky and a first-round pick to keep Vegas from taking him.

They didn’t do anything stupid. They just accepted one player was leaving and let him go.

That player turned out to be Schmidt.

Joining a Vegas team that was starting from scratch the 26-year-old finally had a chance to do something he never could in Washington — get a real, honest look as a top-pairing defender.

He has excelled in that role.

[Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case]

During the regular season no skater played more minutes during the regular season than Schmidt. He played close to 19 minutes per night in even-strength situations (nearly two more minutes than any other player on the team). He played on the power play. He played on the penalty kill. He recorded a very respectable 36 points from the back end (25 of them coming at even-strength, most among the team’s defenders) and was once again a positive possession player despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other player on the team. He played big minutes and did a ton of the heavy lifting on the blue line.

In the playoffs, his game seems to have reached yet another level.

He is taking on an even bigger workload, already has six points in the first 13 games (most among Vegas defenders), has helped Vegas to a 12-5 goal differential when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, and despite playing 24 minutes a night against the oppositions best players has taken just a single minor penalty.

He is doing everything in what is one of the most critical roles for a team.

Given what is going on around him with the play of Fleury and Marchessault it is understandable that his impact is taking a bit of a backseat and is getting overlooked.

Goaltending is a difference-maker, especially in the playoffs, and Fleury is playing out of his mind right now. Goal-scoring and points will always get noticed over a quiet, steady impact from a defender.

None of that should take away from just how important Schmidt has been for Vegas and how big of a role he is going to continue to play for them as one of the building blocks on their defense.

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lars Eller emerging as unexpected playoff star for Capitals

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This is not the start to the Eastern Conference Final that anybody expected when the series began.

The Washington Capitals now seem to be in complete control of the series and will take a 2-0 lead back home to Washington on Tuesday night after routing the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, on Sunday night.

In the two games the Capitals have completely dictated the pace and style of the game, outscoring the the Lightning by a 10-4 margin so far. They have been especially dominant during 5-on-5 play, with the Lightning’s only two goals on Sunday coming on the power play after they capitalized on a couple of breaks in the first period.

On Sunday night it was a lot of the usual suspects for the Capitals doing the damage.

Alex Ovechkin scored his 10th goal of the playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov had three points, including a buzzer-beating power play goal late in the second period to help take over the game.

Braden Holtby continued to be great in net and ran his record to 10-2 in these playoffs since replacing Philipp Grubauer in the first-round.

But a big part of what makes the Capitals’ lead in this series so impressive is they have done it without the services of Nicklas Backstrom as he sat out his third consecutive game with a hand injury. The Capitals have won all three of those games, and also came-from-behind in the third period of the game he was injured in.

A big reason for that success has been the emergence of Lars Eller as he has slid into Backstrom’s spot on the second line and been nothing short of brilliant for the Capitals.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Eller leads the way for Capitals]

He scored another goal on Sunday night, breaking a 2-2 tie with a minute to play in the third period, to give him his fifth goal of the playoffs. He added two assists after that to finish with three points and now has six points in the past four games. His three-point game on Sunday was also his second of the postseason as he now sits with 12 total points (five goals, seven assists) in the Capitals’ first 14 playoff games.

This is probably an unexpected development for the Capitals.

It’s not that Eller hasn’t been a good player for them. He has been. He has been a quality depth player in the NHL for a few years now, can play a bit of a two-way game, and can chip in 25-30 points in any given season. All of that was enough to get him a five-year contract extension during the season, a season in which he set career highs in goals (18) and total points (38) for the Capitals.

But for him to emerge as a difference-maker offensively in these playoffs has been a decisive development for the Capitals, especially since they spent so much of the playoffs without several of their top forwards (Andre Burakovsky missed a large chunk of the playoffs, Tom Wilson missed three games due to a suspension, Backstrom has not played since early in the third period of Game 5 of the second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins).

Teams that end up winning the Stanley Cup always need some unexpected performances like this. They still need the superstars to make an impact and score, but those players are not going to score every single night. Sometimes it comes down the depth players finding a way to make an impact. The Capitals’ big problem in recent playoff runs has been that they would get goals and offense from Ovechkin, but would always have something else fall apart, whether it was their own goaltending or the depth scoring. Now they are getting all of it.

The Capitals now return home with a chance to actually clinch the series if they can take Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday of this week. Is it likely to happen that way? No, probably not likely. Despite the way they have played the first two games the Lightning were still the top-seed in the Eastern Conference for a reason and they still have some players that can change a game or a series at any moment. But that possibility is on the table, and the Capitals are now just two wins away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.