It can be argued, quite successfully, that Barry Trotz is the biggest free agent acquisition in recent memory for the Washington Capitals.
It can also be argued, quite successfully, that Trotz is more important to this franchise than any player on the roster than Alex Ovechkin. And that’s not usually the case for the Capitals coaches during Ovechkin’s time in this League, as the Capitals have gone through more coaches (4) than they’ve won playoff rounds (1) in the last three seasons.
Trotz was formally announced as the new coach of the Capitals on Tuesday along with new GM Brian MacLellan, returning to the franchise where he got his start as a scout and then as the head coach of their AHL affiliate in 1992.
We caught up with the former Nashville Predators coach on Tuesday to talk about his new gig, his “defensive coach” label and the superstar he’s about to coach.
Q. It’s amazing how things came full circle for you, getting your start with this franchise. Did you think you’d ever come back to the Capitals?
TROTZ: I didn’t. I had been in Nashville so long, that I didn’t know what the next thing would be. Would I retire in Nashville? I had no idea. So when [this job] did become available they expressed interest, thought I’d be a good fit. They showed a lot of interest in me.
In the general managers search, a lot of them thought I would be the right candidate for the job. I was taking my time, hoping they could get things in place. And they did.
Are you going to make them wear the old school Capitals sweaters more often, so you’ll feel more comfortable?
[Laughs] Then we’d have to wear the blue pants too!
In your presser, you talked about geography being a factor in your decision, specifically when it involved the Vancouver Canucks’ opening. Was that the determining factor in taking one job over another?
It played into it. I actually have a place in British Columbia, so the Vancouver thing was appealing. But I looked at it from a family standpoint, and felt at this time that if I get the opportunity with some of the teams [with openings] in the East, I would weigh them more, being in the East.
The Capitals have had four coaches in three years. Did that give you any pause about joining the franchise?
None whatsoever. I looked at the team, I looked at the people involved, and I thought it was a great fit. It actually never crossed my mind.
I’ve been coaching in the league for 13 years. For other coaches, who are in their first or second jobs, maybe they’re in a different place. But I’ve very confident in taking this job and that it’s the right place for me.
It’s gotta be nice to have someone you trust like former Predator Joel Ward in the room? Is there anything he said to you that piqued your interest about the job?
I did my homework, and talked to a lot of people connected with the team. When people focus on one or two things, you miss out on the other 20 or 30 things that are good about the room. So I wanted to make sure that everyone was saying the same thing, and they were.
There are some terrific people in that room: Nick Backstrom and Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer and John Carlson, I’ve heard nothing but great things about him. Braden Holtby has a really good personality and is a good goaltender. I’ve heard so many positives, that it was an easy decision for me.
How involved do you expect to be on the player personnel side, working with new GM Brian MacLellan?
Brian is my boss, but in the short time we’ve had together, it’s like two hockey guys just talkin’ hockey. I think I’m going to have a voice, telling him how I feel or think, but it’s going to be Brian’s decisions.
I think, just like anything, he’ll take in all the input, like David Poile did, and then make his decisions accordingly.
Are you tired of being called a “defensive coach?”
[Laughs] To me that’s a part of the game. An important part of the game.
You get labels sometimes. When I had Paul Kariya, I think we were No. 5 in the League in total offense. Two years ago, without any big game stars up front, only Chicago and Vancouver scored more goals than the Nashville Predators. But that’s never talked about.
You take on the identity of your stars. My stars in Nashville were Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter, those people. They’re known for the defensive side of the game.
If the tables were turned, and for 17 years my stars were Ovechkin and Backstrom, I’d be known as a pure offensive coach.
Let’s talk about Alex Ovechkin. It’s no secret he’s been happier now that his numbers have trended back up, thanks in part to the points he scored on Adam Oates’ power play. Is there any way to teach a player like that to be more well-rounded defensively without negatively impacting his offense?
I think so. People say that defense is about no wanting the puck. Well, I want our players to have the puck. The thing about defense is that it’s a 5-man accountability. If you can do that, and get the puck back quickly, then you can transition to offense.
So it may actually help his stats, for an offensive player.
There are games when you have to commit to playing both sides. I played in the West a long time, with LA and Chicago. These teams play offense and then won’t let you score.
I wasn’t here last year, so I can’t comment. But I know they had a great power play and their 5-on-5 stats weren’t great. It affected their wins and losses. Anyone can take a picture from 20,000 feet and make a judgment, but I need to dig in there and get the people in the right [roles].
Finally, a couple of Predators through the years told me that your philosophy is to have the fourth line feel as vital to the team’s success as the first line. Can you pull that off on a team where the first line has a 50-goal scorer?
Coaching is about inequality. You don’t give the players the same ice time. To me, what they’re really saying is that I treat the fourth line player with the same respect as the superstars. That’s what they respect. There’s an accountability factor throughout the lineup.
I treat people fair. I treat them like men. And I think that’s important to a professional athlete.