NASHVILLE – When Barry Trotz was hired to coach the Washington Capitals in the summer of 2014, young forward Evgeny Kuznetsov heard his new bench boss had trouble mining offense out of forwards – specifically young Russians.
The stigma came from Trotz’s time coaching Alexander Radulov with the Nashville Predators. The two famously clashed multiple times. Radulov left for Russia in 2008, returned in 2012 and then was suspended in the playoffs by Nashville. He eventually left again and from that point on a dark cloud followed Trotz – that his inability to work with Radulov and force defense on him, cost Nashville their best scorer in team history.
This did worry the 23-year-old Kuznetsov initially, until he got to know Trotz as a person and quickly found out the coach didn’t care about age or nationality.
“I don’t know the whole situation but before Barry came I know some guys told me ‘it’s not good for Russians’ but it’s not (like that) right now,” Kuznetsov said. “He doesn’t watch your passport. He doesn’t really care, if you’re Russian or Swedish. He’s a nice person.”
When he was fired by the Nashville Predators in April of 2014 it was intimated Trotz couldn’t coach offense and couldn’t coach Russians, and couldn’t develop younger scorers.
With the Capitals Trotz has busted all those stereotypes about him as a head coach.
“When he came the first year, I thought he was the typical defensive coach, but no he’s not,” Kuznetsov said. He gives you space and time to create offense and he wants you to do the right things in the defensive zone and neutral zone and not make stupid mistakes. They give you a lot of opportunity to make offensive plays. If you’re going to do the right things every day, not even gameday, you’re going to feel comfortable and he will give you more time and he will trust you too.”
When Trotz first got to the Capitals in place of the fired Adam Oates, a lot was made of his relationship with Ovechkin, a native of Moscow. But making Kuznetsov a dominant offensive player was almost as much of a key for Trotz.
Kuznetsov was a center and the Capitals were heavily reliant on Nicklas Backstrom as the team’s No. 1 middleman. Being able to make Kuznetsov a viable player would give the Caps the 1-2 punch at center that contending teams need in today’s NHL.
Trotz got Ovechkin to quickly buy in last year, but Kuznetsov took more work. He had played in the KHL and Trotz needed the young pivot to know that the North American game involved more grit and effort per-shift.
“He was an elite player in the KHL and then came to the NHL and it’s a lot different game. There’s tighter spaces, you have to stay in the battle a little longer,” Trotz said. “I think European games you find, and I’ve done some Hockey Canada stuff with the World Championships or what have you – the game is one and done over there, you get one chance and here it’s almost like a machine gun. You get 1-2-3 shots and you sort of either score or survive that onslaught. Just got him to stay in the battle a little bit longer."
Last postseason, Kuznetsov started to show his prodigious talent with five goals and seven points in 14 games. This season, he’s taken his game to a new level, leading the Capitals with 49 points in 47 games.
Ovechkin, who recently scored his 500th NHL goal, gets a lot of the attention with the Caps, but Kuznetsov’s play this year has turned Washington into the NHL’s top team.
“The thing that’s separated our teams from teams in the past this year is basically Evgeny Kuznetsov,” Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We all knew what Nick (Backstrom) could do and there was a ton of weight on his shoulders at all times because of how he plays in all three zones and he had to do more work and every game.
“Kuzy has come into his own as a ‘number one’ center. So we have two ‘number one’ centers with great support on the wings.”
Kuznetsov isn’t the only young forward Trotz has brought along. Andre Burakovsky, a 2013 first-round draft pick has 19 points in 44 games this year, and at times has looked like a star in the making playing with Kuznetsov. The only real mark for Trotz is Tom Wilson, a 2012 first-round pick, who has turned into more of a bruiser than a goal scorer. But he still plays a valuable role for Washington, giving them some offensive skill on lower lines.
“When he first got here, he pretty much told us that defensively we’re going to be good, but at the same time you have to have a good balance of offense and defense,” Backstrom said. “He didn’t want us to lose anything on the offense.”
With the Predators, Trotz’s reputation as a defensive-minded coach more had to do with his personnel than his systems. In Nashville, most years the Predators had strong defensemen and a stout goaltender. So Trotz kept the leash on his team short and tight.
But when he had the personnel, like in 2006-07 with Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont all in their primes, he pushed for more offense. That group finished fourth in the NHL in scoring with 3.24 goals per-game. The year before Nashville scored 3.09 goals per-game.
In the summer of 2007 the team was almost sold and had to trade away, or not re-sign, their offensive stars.
Since then, none of the players the Predators drafted turned into offensive dynamos with the team.
Radulov left for Russia. Colin Wilson’s best year with Trotz as coach was when he had 35 points in 68 games in 2011-12. Wilson was a 2008 first-round draft choice who was scratched, benched and moved between center and wing at points during Trotz’s tenure.
Trotz had a tough love relationship with winger Craig Smith before Smith blossomed into the team’s leading goal scorer with 24 in 2013-14. But that was his gold standard.
Even though the Caps have turned into the league’s best offense under Trotz, there are still questions as to whether this has to do with the players or the coach. It’s unclear, but a good coach knows not to stifle talent and Trotz’s players see him as someone who pushes guys to accentuate their strengths, not hamper them.
“I think his theory was always coaching to his team’s strengths,” said Nashville’s Shea Weber, who used to play for Trotz. “If your team is stronger on defense you try to play more defensively, if you have better forwards or an all-around team you coach to what you think is going to be successful.”
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