TORONTO — The Washington Capitals did that thing that’s nearly impossible not to do — but is almost always a bad idea — after they lifted the Stanley Cup two summers ago. No, this has nothing to do with a fountain outside a major league ballpark.
Committing $64 million to John Carlson and a smidge over $31 million for Tom Wilson, while also pledging $10 million to Michal Kempny among a handful of other contracts signed, Washington paid out premiums to take care of those who played integral roles for a franchise coming off its first Stanley Cup.
You tend to make these sort of decisions because there’s always next season, because nothing can top This Feeling Right Here, and because it’s clearly more palatable than the alternative, which would be to detonate a successful team. But at this point, you know what you sign up for when you meet any and all demands. You understand that it will cost you — both in the immediate term and down the road — because the NHL wants no part of no dynasty.
Where that cause-and-effect relationship isn’t associated with spending in the NHL is, well, at every other layer of the organization. From coaches, management and the executive brass down on to the ticketers, everyone can get fat on success, because the dollar-in, dollar-out considerations that punish just about every great team constructed in the salary cap era need not apply.
So while champions are almost always forced to accept certain concessions to keep on-ice talent in the fold, there are normally no such issues when rewarding the talent that doesn’t factor out on the ice, at least directly.
What almost never happens did, though, after the Capitals won that Cup. Sips from Stanley would not soothe the eroded relationship between head coach Barry Trotz and the Caps management team. And when the title clause in his contract triggered a two-year extension way below market value, the still-disgruntled head coach issued the sort of contract demands that would allow both sides to arrive at their preferred option.
Less than two weeks after winning it all with Washington, Trotz agreed to a big-money deal to coach the New York Islanders.
Invariably, with less and less money to go around, things have been harder on Washington. Those sacrifices associated, in part, with stomaching the heavy price tags on Carlson, Wilson and others signed before and after the club’s title pursuit, have been made, and it appears the club has suffered for it.
But the biggest reason why the Capitals are without a series victory since their championship run might have more to do with the fact they opted against paying that one “free” premium on Trotz.
This was certainly the case in their most recent failure, at least.
Trotz’s Islanders completed a dominant five-games series victory over the Capitals with a 4-0 victory on Thursday night, sending the recent champions packing from the NHL’s Toronto bubble. It was a series won with less high-end talent — or at least fewer brand names — but mostly through an attention to the detailed design organized by arguably the top coach in the league today.
In its diligence, New York skated one of the higher-event, higher-output teams through the balance of the regular season into submission, running what was a masterclass in team defense and opportunistic offense. The Islanders finished with a 17-8 scoring advantage in the series, and conceded only three goals in 225 minutes at five-on-five.
While the scoring margin was somewhat favorable in the end, it wasn’t because the Islanders rode a lights-out goaltending performance to the series victory. Instead they suffocated the Capitals, preventing them from reaching 30 shots in all five games and holding them below 1.66 expected goals in three of the five meetings.
This was one system humming beautifully, coldly feasting on flaws. And that’s the work of Trotz, who clearly outperformed his counterpart, his successor-in-waiting, and the preferred option for the franchise, even while he was helping win it a championship.
With not one answer for the Islanders in the series, Reirden also provided an underwhelming response in his media debrief, attributing the defeat to an accumulation of lost puck battles.
“They won those more often than we did — and now we’re going home because of it. We need to learn hard lessons on the worth ethic and compete that takes place with every player on the team.”
While it could all be a referendum on Reirden’s ability to coach when it matters most at the highest level after a second-consecutive first-round exit, the focus right now should be on Trotz and the Islanders.
Lumping in the qualification series victory over the Florida Panthers which preceded the Washington series, Trotz has now solved three different postseason opponents in two seasons in New York following its sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round last season.
That incredibly tidy upset win was met by an equally sound defeat at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, and like last season there will be an increase in the quality of competition to test the Trotz way. But there is more reason to believe in the Islanders this summer when compared to last, because his players have grown within themselves, and within their roles.
Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech have taken ownership of what’s become a stifling back line for New York. Anthony Beauviller is blossoming into a legitimate attacking force and currently owns a share of the postseason goal-scoring lead. Mat Barzal is still a creative genius, but is now giving up nothing defensively. Semyon Varlamov has been brilliant within the confines of a lock-tight system.
There’s so much to like about the Islanders, if you’re willing to look hard enough.
But you couldn’t blame the Capitals if all they could do now is look away.
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