Of the teams in the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) Metropolitan Division, no team, besides the reigning division champions Pittsburgh Penguins, has had the seismic changes in their organizational brass (management) as have the Washington Capitals. Like the Penguins, the Capitals have been a disappointment although, in the case of the Capitals, their disappointments have been in either getting past the 1st round of the Stanley Cup playoffs or qualifying for the playoffs, whereas the Penguins shortcomings have rested in being eliminated by lower-seeded playoff opponents for five consecutive playoffs.
There are also similarities in the underachievement, albeit for different types of generational players: the Pens have arguably the greatest overall offensive player in hockey in Sidney Crosby as well as Evgeni Malkin, often mentioned as one of the Top 5 offensive players in hockey whereas the Caps possess the greatest sniper in the game and one of the NHL’s greatest of all time in Alexander Ovechkin who has won the Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard trophy as the NHL’s leading goal-scorer on four occasions: 2008, 2009, 2013 and 2014.
Whereas the Penguins’ shortcomings have usually rested with the lack of quality goaltending during the Stanley Cup playoffs, although during the last two playoffs, it has rested in being stifled and frustrated by more physical, defensive-oriented playoff opponents, the Capitals’ struggles have been on the defensive end as well as finding a system of play that is conducive to playoff success.
Oh, there have been several iterations, styles of play, coaching approaches and coaches, but the result is always the same: falling fall short of the expectations allotted to a team with such offensive talent. About the only continuity that the Capitals had was in the General Manager (GM) position where George McPhee held the post for 17 seasons.
This continued underachieving and retooling attempts ultimately cost McPhee his job and that’s where the Capitals began to make front-office changes – sort of. The Capitals owner, Ted Leonsis, surprised several pundits in the NHL by staying in-house and promoting former Assistant GM Brian MacLellan to the position of General Manager.
But it was MacLellan’s decision to hire recently dismissed head coach of the Nashville Predators, Barry Trotz, the only head coach in the history of the Preds, as their new head coach. Trotz, considered one of the best coaches in the NHL although bafflingly never selected to receive the Jack Adams award as the NHL’s best head coach, garnered a reputation as one of the best defensive-oriented coaches in the NHL as well as a coach that always had the Preds overachieve in spite of being a small market team and having endless years of defections of its best players to bigger market teams with greater financial resources.
The luxury for Trotz will be to coach a team in a large market with greater financial resources than he had ever been afforded in Nashville; however, the challenges for Trotz will be to instill an effective defense-first system that will result in playoff success. This is not to say that this approach was not attempted, previously – Dale Hunter was brought in to instill a defense-first approach. However, that approach didn’t work as it frustrated Ovechkin and his more offensively-slanted teammates, particularly Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom, and defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson who appeared to have lost their confidence and way even after Hunter was replaced with the more offensively-minded Adam Oates as its head coach.
The result in the playoffs was the same during the Hunter regime and under Oates as the Capitals narrowly missed qualifying for the playoffs this past season, although many believe a lot of this may be attributed to the NHL realignment and the Caps moving out of the NHL’s Southeastern Division, where the Capitals feasted on playing in what was considered the weakest division.
Although Trotz’s proven defensive approach and system should play both immediate and playoff-sustaining dividends for the Caps, his decision to bring along goaltending guru and wunderkind Mitch Korn may be the decision that could reap the greatest impact, particularly in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where great goaltending is often the greatest factor in Stanley Cup championship success. Korn’s legacy of developing and working with goalies is quite impressive: Pekka Rinne, Steve Mason, Thomas Vokoun and Anders Lindback are some of the NHL’s elite goalies that have flourished under Korn’s tutelage.
On the offensive side, in addition to the elite Ovechkin and the overall firepower, the Caps were able to finally obtain the services of Evgeny Kuznetsov, long considered to be one of the greatest young prospects in the world never to have played in the NHL after playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for four and a half seasons. Kuznetsov impressed in his short 17-game stint with the Capitals, netting 3 goals and 6 assists in 17 games played.
The Capitals also made one other major personnel move in the off-season, acquiring via free agency former Penguins defensive tandem Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, the latter of which enjoying a breakout season, particularly offensively while often on the same power play unit as scoring machines Crosby and Malkin. However, the twosome will bring improved defensively responsibility as well as toughness, a factor which has been lacking with the Caps blueline for several years.
If elite offensive players like Ovechkin, Backstrom can adapt to Trotz’s system, if Green can find his confidence in his offensive game again and goaltender Braden Holtby can flourish as expected under Korn, expect the Capitals to be a playoff-contending and hopefully a playoff-impacting team during the Stanley Cup playoffs.