- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015

Barry Trotz couldn’t fathom sitting down and watching the Eastern Conference Final last May. He knew his disappointment would gnaw at him.

The Washington Capitals’ playoff pursuit had ended one round earlier, with plenty of anguish and heartbreak following elimination, yet again, at the hands of the New York Rangers. In previous weeks, Trotz, the Capitals’ first-year coach, had finally start to see his team unite as the physical force he had crafted, and its dismissal, at the same stage as in previous years, felt premature.

Trotz had done the calculations. The Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers’ next-round opponent, had seemed to wear down in series against the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens — neither of which played the same bruising style as the Capitals. The Chicago Blackhawks, the eventual champions, would have posed a threat, but even they were flummoxed by the Lightning in the opening games of the Stanley Cup Final.

Thus, his sorrow was palpable. Since accepting the job the previous spring, Trotz had spent a year sculpting the franchise to his specifications, believing he had set it up for that elusive postseason success. Regardless of the strides the Capitals had made, an inability to capture the ultimate prize made them a failure.

“I think you get to a level where ‘champion,’ you can see the C and the H and, and you can just feel it,” Trotz said. “I think that was the first time in a while we said, ‘We were that close.’ I think when it was all over, we recognized how close we actually were — and we didn’t get to where we wanted to go — but how close we were coming to where we wanted to go.”

It is through that lens that Trotz begins his second season in Washington, once again with a heavy focus on the details. Unlike last year, when the coach turned the entire organization upside-down shortly after his hiring, there are different facets to reconstruct. The stench of individualism and indifference has been purged, giving way to acceptance and achievement. Roles have been delineated. Success is tangible.

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For the Capitals, this season is not about going backward in order to go forward. It’s full speed ahead.

“It feels better to have that one year with you,” left wing Marcus Johansson said. “Everybody knows how we’re playing and everybody knows what we’re doing out there and what the thought is of why we’re doing everything. We can just focus more on getting ready … and we have a better clue of what’s going on.”

Trotz’s arrival followed a period of discord for the Capitals. In 2013-14, their second season under first-time coach Adam Oates, Washington failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Upper management recognizing the championship window was closing and sought out Trotz, whose hiring marked the first time since 1997 the team turned to someone with previous head coaching experience.

Almost immediately, Trotz began contacting his new players, understanding that a working relationship would be crucial to all parties’ success. When training camp ended in early October, he took them to Annapolis to tour the Naval Academy, and later in the month, he took them curling during an off-day in Calgary — a pair of early-season excursions meant to bring players together.

“It’s so hard, because it’s a fine line [for coaches],” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You want to have the guys feel comfortable around you, but you don’t want them to take advantage of you, and I think he’s found a good balance because he’s not afraid to say something good to you or something bad to you.”

Last season didn’t start well. The Capitals won just four of their first 12 games, but Trotz figured it was merely a hiccup as the team adapted to his heavy style of play.

Indeed, Washington won 14 of 19 games from December into January, including the Winter Classic, and thrust its way into the postseason by losing just three games in regulation over the final month.

“Once we realized as a group that we were doing the right things and that we could be one of the top teams in the league if we just trust each other and trust our plan, it showed,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It showed in our locker room and it showed in our communication between teammates. Everything got better.”

For things to get better, habits had to be broken. Several players, unaccustomed to rigorous practices, learned the tone had changed on the opening day of training camp, when they were subjected to a demanding series of fitness tests. There was an increased emphasis on results: Throughout the season, Trotz was unafraid to scratch players when they were underperforming, making moves that could — but didn’t — turn them against him.

“It was, I’m sure at times, a challenge,” said goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who has been coaching with Trotz since 1998. “He spent an enormous amount of time talking to guys in advance of the season one-on-one, and it’s unbelievable the time that he put in. You can’t just say, ‘Do it because I said so,’ you know? There has to be an understanding and a reason and a salesmanship and a belief, and it’s amazing.”

In July, with the free-agent signing period underway, Trotz’s relatability manifested itself with one simple phone call. He made a personal pitch to Justin Williams, the 33-year-old right wing who played parts of the previous seven seasons with the Los Angeles Kings.

Trotz pitched Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, with an outline of his role on the team, his chances of winning another championship and how his wife and children would be comfortable living in the area. At the end of their conversation, Trotz implored Williams to vet his reputation, asking him to “believe everything that they say.” Hours later, Williams had agreed to a two-year contract.

“He’s obviously accomplished a lot, and I don’t want to say [he’s] such a player’s coach, but certainly, he’s very well-liked within our dressing room, and everyone that I’ve talked to as well,” Williamss said earlier this week. “When it’s time to put the hammer down, he’s got that fun but firm attitude that you need from a coach. There’s a time to be messing around and there’s a time to be serious, and certainly, his priorities are on point.”

Upon arriving in Washington, Trotz often felt uneasy. The comforts of 15 seasons in one location had been stripped away. A year later, the coach found a different degree of isolation — one that, in his third spring, he hopes not to experience.

“Last year, we were focused on the culture, and we got a lot of that changed,” Trotz said. “A lot of those things were starting to be ingrained, and they’re there, so this year, we’re now trying to focus on, ‘Hey, how do we get to the next level?’ Last year was, there was a lot going on and a lot getting done, and this year, we’ve got most of that in order. Now, we’re just trying to define who we are again.”

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