- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Joel Ward was half a world away when he received word that back home, the Washington Capitals had hired Barry Trotz as their next coach. Trotz would be Ward’s fourth coach in four seasons — extreme turnover, even in the National Hockey League — yet Ward couldn’t help but smile.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2011, Ward played three seasons for Trotz with the Nashville Predators, and he formed a close relationship with a coach who he knew could strike a balance between caring for his players and pushing their buttons. Though Ward couldn’t pass up Washington’s contract offer, he felt a tinge of remorse in leaving such a nurturing environment.

Ward also knew, though, that such an approach isn’t for everyone. When his Capitals teammates asked him about his experiences playing for Trotz, Ward generally demurred.

“I wanted them to base their own opinions before [I told them], so I kind of gave them a few small parts,” Ward said. “I just wanted them to base it on themselves as opposed to them leaning on me to kind of give them their answers. Let them judge it on their own.”

For the better part of the past month, Capitals players have had time to form their judgments. Casual conversations before training camp built them up. A grueling testing day and a strenuous first practice tore them down. And, over the next three weeks, nine preseason games gradually warmed their spirits.

On Thursday night, the Capitals will begin their 40th season and their first under Trotz. When he was hired in May to replace Adam Oates as part of Washington’s house cleaning after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years, it marked the first time the organization had hired a coach with previous NHL experience since Ron Wilson arrived in 1997.

“[I’m] very anxious, really excited,” Trotz said. “It’s going on a journey with a group of guys that I’m becoming familiar with, and a new organization that I had been used to. Coming home, in some ways.”

Trotz, 52, began his career in professional hockey as a part-time scout for the Capitals in 1987, then was promoted to a full-time scouting role a year later and became the chief western scout a year after that. In 1991, he was named an assistant coach for the team’s AHL affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks, and took over as its coach the next season, leading it through relocation to Portland, Maine and winning the Calder Cup in 1995.

That success led Trotz to Nashville, when, in 1997, he was named the expansion team’s first coach. Over 15 seasons, he oversaw the establishment and development of a perennial playoff team, frequently finding himself in contention for the Jack Adams Award, given to the league’s top head coach.

He was also lauded for advancing the game in a non-traditional market with a team that was frequently one of the lowest-spending in the league. The Predators gained a reputation as a defensive-oriented team behind Ryan Suter and Shea Weber — yet also were a disciplined team that, for five consecutive seasons, ranked among the top five in fewest penalty minutes.

Still, that only carried Trotz so far. With the Predators failing to advance to the playoffs the past two years, and unable to move past the second round in seven postseason appearances, general manager David Poile declined to renew Trotz’s contract in April.

A month later, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and president Dick Patrick hired general manager Brian MacLellan, who, in turn, rubber-stamped the hiring of Trotz to be the team’s 17th coach.

Barry has exceeded my expectations in how well he’s managed the hockey analytics Xs and Os part, but I’ve been equally as impressed with how he’s handled each and every player as an individual and as a human being,” Leonsis said. “That, I didn’t know what to expect. He’s a very self-aware, very mature, emotionally high, intelligent person, so I think that combination has really upped the confidence level of the team because everything has been laid out meticulously.”

It didn’t take Trotz long to settle into his new role. On the first day of training camp, he installed rigid testing standards that required players to cross the rink twice and make it to center ice three times — the first time in 38 seconds and the next two in 41 seconds.

He also tried to instill a sense of respect for the game and the team in his players, roping off the logo weaved into the carpet in the Verizon Center locker room and painting a motivational phrase, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” in capital letters over the doorway of the locker room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

“Because he was coaching … an NHL team [before coming to Washington], he knows exactly what we can do and he knows the players and he knows the style of the game and what we’re going to do,” said Alex Ovechkin, who Trotz has moved back to his more natural role as the top-line left wing. “It’s always interesting when you see a difference between one coach and another coach. It’s basically like almost like a new team, because we’re going to play a different style — a different style of game, a different intensity, and it’s going to be interesting.”

Leonsis shied away from outlining any lofty expectations for the Capitals this season, saying merely that he wants the team to be able to return to the playoffs.

Trotz’s track record hints that such a goal can be achieved. And, when Trotz was hired, Ward also knew that the structure and discipline Trotz would provide could make it a distinct possibility.

“I always thought that if I was a coach, I would use that philosophy as well,” Ward said. “I think a lot of guys will respect that more, knowing that [he’s] a good guy, obviously, with a good heart and a family guy.

“I think a lot of guys want it to be like that, so I think it’s a great approach, and I think a lot of guys are going to adapt to it. When [that type of coach is hired], somebody that you really respect and you want to go to war for — which is always very key — I think the group in here is looking to do that this year.”

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