- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Barry Trotz came to the realization early in his coaching career that, essentially, he’s a contractor.

If you want a house built, Trotz said, he’ll build you a house. Once that’s done, need him to build a garage? That can be done, too.

For 19 straight seasons, Trotz has been at the helm of projects, building team by team, win by win. He’s spent the last four with the Washington Capitals, piling up victories in the process. The 55-year-old already has the second-most wins in franchise history, and the highest winning percentage.

But part of being a contractor also involves realizing the job isn’t permanent. Sometimes, when the house is done, you pack your tools and move on.

In the final year of his contract, Trotz‘ status with the Capitals has never seemed murkier. Management and ownership haven’t approached him about extending his deal, nor have they given strong endorsements about his future. Adding to the uncertainty, the Capitals quietly extended general manager Brian MacLellan in March to prevent his contract from expiring.

As the playoffs for the Capitals begin Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Trotz said he doesn’t know how much of his future will be tied to Washington’s postseason success.

Frankly, he doesn’t care, he says.

“I’ve been doing this too [expletive] long to worry about it,” Trotz said.

‘We were either going to go one way or another’

Despite the situation, the Capitals have managed to win a third consecutive division title, rack up another 100-point season and get back to the playoffs. Trotz is quick to credit his players, but the group required a navigator to help overcome the sting of playoff pain and the losses of six key contributors last summer.

The result of last year’s second round exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins — capped off by failing to score in Game 7 — left wounds that needed to heal. Trotz tried to adjust accordingly. He scheduled fewer meetings. He gave players space.

Still, the residual effects from last year’s playoffs were there to start the season. Combined with having to incorporate new players into the lineup, Washington got off to a 10-9-1 start over the first 20 games. Particularly, they were blown out in Nashville and Colorado at the end of a November road trip — giving up six goals in each game.

At that point, Trotz pulled in the reins. He chewed out his team after the loss to the Avalanche.

“We stunk on that trip and sort of changed everything,” Trotz said. “That was a little bit of a tipping point for us. We were either going to go one way or another.”

What followed was a 10-2-2 December, and the Capitals got in a groove. They’ve had minor hiccups since then, but nothing to the point where they were in danger of falling to .500.

Barry’s done a good job getting us through that first part of the season,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’s handled the psyche of the team well. He’s backed off and probably pushed buttons at the right time, so I think he’s done a good job this year.”

Is Trotz any different this year than in the past? His players didn’t necessarily think so. Defenseman Matt Niskanen made sure to clarify the scolding after Colorado was not “the last time he’s yelled at us.”

“It’s not like it’s happy fun-time around here every day since then,” Niskanen said.

“I’m sure, just like players, (the coaching staff) is trying to learn things from they thought they could do better and trying to apply it,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

Trotz cites his experience as being helpful in making changes. He said in coaching, “We overcoach.” There can be too much film, too much detail.”

There’s the danger a player can tune a coach out.

The Capitals coach hasn’t been above criticism. He took heat last year in the playoffs for electing to use seven defensemen against the Pittsburgh Penguins. (“The seven-D had mixed results,” MacLellan said last May.)

But Trotz defended himself, saying he didn’t overcoach during the playoffs last year. He said he has a good read on the group, and that’s helped in allowing them to be “themselves.”

“We’re in a partnership, [expletive],” Trotz said. “At the end of the day, I’m trying to build their brand. They know their brand has to fit into what we’re doing. If their brand fits into what we’re doing, then it should work. You get all the pieces to build a good product. We have that.”

Preaching consistency

Lars Eller found himself on the bench last month after committing a careless turnover that led to a Dallas Stars goal in the second period. The Capitals‘ third-line center didn’t see a shift until midway through the third.

Trotz was sending a message.

“His system is pretty strict defensively, but a lot of freedom offensively,” Eller said.

If this is Trotz‘ last year with the Capitals, he’s used his time trying to instill consistency: from preparation to the way they reacted to wins and losses.

The Capitals needed it. Following the 2013-14 season, Washington made wholesale changes, firing then-general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates. The Capitals had failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

“Our structure changed on the ice,” defenseman John Carlson said. “A lot more detail oriented. He challenged a lot of guys to be more consistent and be more involved.”

Carlson said as the years have passed, Trotz hasn’t needed to be as hands-on with certain players because they know the expectations. With two rookie defensemen in the lineup to start the season, for instance, Carlson knew he needed to be a mentor without Trotz telling him.

Trotz, though, has had to walk a fine-line with other players. While Trotz aims for consistency, the Capitals had a number of players whose production dried up for large stretches during the season.

At times, Trotz benched forward Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. T.J. Oshie, who had a 19-game goal drought, was briefly moved to the third-line. Trotz needed to balance sending a message against losing a player entirely.

Trotz said the moves were never personal.

“The players understand how I operate,” Trotz said. “I will come down on them when I’m not happy, but I will allow them to be themselves a little bit. I’ll allow them to make some mistakes and know that they’re going to get another opportunity.”

Eller said having a positive environment “goes a long way in the long run.”

“That’s one of the reasons he’s been able to stay with organizations for a long time,” Eller said.

Taking the long view

If these playoffs will determine Trotz‘ fate with the franchise, MacLellan isn’t saying. He acknowledged the Capitals will wait until the end of the season to address the situation.

Like star Alex Ovechkin, Trotz has never advanced past the second round.

“Our focus now is just to win a first series,” MacLellan said. “I think that’s what everybody’s thinking about.”

Asked two weeks ago about Trotz, owner Ted Leonsis said he doesn’t talk about contracts and it would be “inappropriate” to do so. Those comments came during the same session where Leonsis discussed the success of Ovechkin’s 13-year deal.

Last June, Trotz admitted, if he was younger, his contract status would likely bother him. He faced similar times with the Nashville Predators, unsure if he would be brought back.

Still, Trotz spent over 15 years in Nashville, a rarity in a league that cycles through coaches every few years. He appreciated the opportunity to “build something from the ground up,” taking a bare-bones expansion team to seven playoff appearances. He was closely mentored by general manager David Polie, who often gave advice.

The experience shaped his viewpoint, as well.

“When I look at things, I look at it in more of a big picture than I do small picture,” Trotz said. “I don’t worry about myself a whole lot.”

So, Trotz will begin this postseason campaign — contract thoughts aside — chasing his first Stanley Cup. This, after all, is ultimately the job the Capitals hired him to do. And it could be his last chance, at least in the District.

“If I’m not (here next season), then I’ll move on,” Trotz said. “So be it.”

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