Respectfully, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan shares a different point of view than coach Barry Trotz when it comes to the team’s past failures.
“I’ve had conversations with him,” MacLellan said recently. “He philosophically disagrees. We just have a different way of looking at it.”
When asked about the Capitals’ history of failing to advance past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era, MacLellan indicated the tension hangs over the franchise and said “you could feel it” in last season’s Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Trotz, meanwhile, said players are past it and it’s become more of a bad question by the media at this point.
But the Penguins’ loss marked the third time the Capitals were eliminated in the second round under Trotz and MacLellan.
“It’s there and it’s going to be there next year,” MacLellan said of the history. “And now we own part of it. So it is part of us.”
There’s a sharp contrast between the Capitals’ situation, and that of the Penguins and the Nashville Predators, who are in the Stanley Cup Finals. Pittsburgh and Nashville both reinvented themselves in order to overcome their history.
For the Predators, long-time general manager David Poile gambled by trading stars Patric Hornqvist and Shea Weber for James Neal and P.K. Subban. The Predators weren’t afraid to shake up their core and relied on the emergence of players like Filip Forsberg and Colton Sissons to get them to the top.
Even after winning a Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins have had to adapt to get back to championship form. The Penguins embraced a youth movement around star Sidney Crosby with Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and goaltender Matt Murray. The major acquisitions of Malkin and Phil Kessel have paid off, too. The Penguins won the Cup in 2016 and could be the first back-to-back winners since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
The Capitals have tried this approach to a lesser degree. They also made moves that were seen as trying to maximize their chances at a championship. They traded a first-round pick and prospect Zach Sanford for Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline and traded two draft picks for Lars Eller in the summer of 2016.
“For me, we spent three years building up to that Game 7 (against the Penguins) and you lose it and you don’t put your best foot forward in that game so it is frustrating,” MacLellan said. “… We did everything we can do to get our team to the point where we think we should win that game and it’s disappointing when you don’t.”
The Capitals’ playoff connection to the Penguins is apparent. They are also connected to Nashville. Poile served as the Capitals’ general manager for 15 years from 1982-1997. Forsberg was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2012. There’s also Trotz, who was the coach in Nashville for 15 seasons before being fired in 2014 for missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
Trotz was hired by the Capitals that same offseason and like Ovechkin, has never advanced past the second round. At his final media availability of the season, Trotz said the team had to embrace its past, but move forward.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Trotz said. “I can’t go back two days right now. I can only go forward. That’s how the players have to look at it. We can only go forward. We’ve got to find a way to get to that next level again.”
Trotz and MacLellan are entering their fourth season as coach and general manager, but both are reportedly in the last year of their contracts. Trotz is only being paid $1.5 million for next season, according to Cap Friendly.
MacLellan said he hasn’t had any contract extension discussions with Trotz, but once there is evidence of improvements for a team that has won consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, they may address it. MacLellan added he doesn’t think a coach having only one year remaining on his deal is a distraction.
The Capitals, in general, could have their coaching staff in flux with assistant Todd Reirden being considered for open coaching positions with the Florida Panthers and the Buffalo Sabres. Goaltending coach Mitch Korn is pondering retirement as well.
But rather than focus on contract uncertainty, MacLellan said the Capitals’ situation matters more.
“We just had a period where everybody is disappointed and we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish,” MacLellan said. “Whether you have one year left or two years left, it’s the same situation. The contract is a result of where we’re at as an organization.”