Hockey teams in search of it blame their lack of it for their struggles. Hockey teams blessed with it point to it as one of their greatest attributes – an effective if boring ingredient to their success.
Head coach Barry Trotz – this writer’s mid-season vote for the 2015 Jack Adams Trophy – embodies consistency. Consistently so.
When the 52-year-old failed to have his contract renewed by Predators general manager David Poile last summer, he left his home in Nashville with a full-page thank-you letter to fans and ended the longest active service as an NHL coach for a single team. Fifteen years of consistency.
So when the affable family man was scooped up by a Washington Capitals club that had just cleaned house, Trotz packed up his wife and youngest son, Nolan, stuffed his consistency in a carry-on and brought it with him to D.C.
What’s different about the Capitals, who floundered under the run-and-gun system of first-time bench boss Adam Oates and whiffed on the playoffs in 2013-14?
“If I had to put it on one thing, we’re more consistent throughout everything. Consistent with what is expected of us, with what is going on in the morning at practice,” No. 1 goaltender Braden Holtby says. “He makes everything very simple, so we know what is expected and how we’re going to prepare in order to win. We get to the rink and we know how we’re going to work and going to have a game plan to make us successful. Our whole coaching staff is extremely prepared in every aspect, and that makes it easier for us as players. We just have to execute.”
Execute they have, to the tune of a 24-11-8 record and a four-alarm mid-season bout with consistency they can’t seem to shake. The Caps have earned at least one standings point in 18 of their past 19 outings, including an all-eyes-on-us victory over the mighty Chicago Blackhawks at the Winter Classic.
“We’re not satisfied at all,” says first-line centre Nicklas Backstrom. “We’ve got to keep pushing.”
That push has come from the off-season additions on the blue line (Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik), a relatively healthy roster and Holtby’s stranglehold of the crease. But, perhaps even more so, from the buy-in Trotz and his staff have been able to summon from a roster that had been labelled (at best) one-dimensional or (at worst) lazy.
Since October, the Capitals have lost just two games by more than a one-goal margin. This season they’ve held their opponent to 25 or fewer shots on 12 occasions, the same amount they did in the previous two seasons combined.
“We can win different ways. We can be really resilient and we play to the end. That's been sort of our MO,” Trotz says. “The thing that we have been really good at this year is, when we get off what I call the rails a little bit and we lose our focus, we're able to get back and find ways to win.”
Possession is the sport’s buzz word, but Niskanen explains that Trotz has guided the team on how to play smarter when they don’t have possession. The trick is to use opponents’ aggression against them, to force them into errors that allow the Caps to, uh, capitalize.
“Without the puck, we’ve changed. He demands more. That’s been a big improvement. Defending so we can get the puck back faster,” Niskanen says. “Every coach is a little bit different, their style, the language they use. Parts of what [Trotz] does is a bit like Dan Bylsma, and there’s parts of his philosophy that’s a bit like Dave Tippett. Those are two drastically different approaches in the game, so hopefully it’s the best of both worlds.”
And for the first time in a long time, Washington has been able to find the balance of both worlds: flash and function, offence and defence. The Caps rank among the NHL’s top 10 in five-on-five play, average goals allowed (2.4) and average goals scored (2.91). “Rock star” (Trotz’s phrase) Alex Ovechkin already has 22 goals, but perhaps more impressive, he’s a plus-10. Even fans who deride the statistic must admit it tells you something about a guy who was a minus-35 last season.
In fact, not one of the 22 players who have skated for the Capitals this season is a minus player. Read that sentence again.
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Franson gushes when we ask about his two formative NHL years under Trotz.
“When we got on the ice, it was all business. He wanted things done hard and efficiently. He was a coach that rewarded you if you were doing so. If your practices were clean, your passes were crisp, you were playing high-energy, high tempo, you weren’t out there long. Guys appreciate that,” Franson says. “When practice was done or before practice, he’d come and ask you about your family. He wasn’t a guy you had to tiptoe around or be nervous around. Everybody was a tight group, and a lot of that had to do with how Trotzie handled himself.”
Then comes the word, like clockwork.
“I’m always known as an offensive guy that lacked defensively,” Franson adds. “He pushed me to be more consistent.”
On Friday, Trotz returns to Nashville, goes head-to-head with another Jack Adams front-runner in Peter Laviolette, and -- for the first time -- will assume position behind the visitors’ bench. That part won’t appear consistent.
Everything else will.