LEDUC, Alberta – Barry Trotz always had that team in Nashville that could play defence. But the Predators never seemed to score enough goals to do much damage in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, scoring has never been an issue for Alex Ovechkin. He had 51 tucks last season and already has five goals in five games this fall. Problem is, after leading the NHL in goals last season, Ovechkin finished with a minus-35 rating — third worst in a league of 886 players.
And for a player of his pedigree who is closing in on 700 NHL games, his paltry 58 playoff games tells the real story of his career in Washington. If they are ever going to win a Stanley Cup, Ovechkin and Trotz need each other — and both of them know it.
We’re still in the honeymoon of this relationship, with the Capitals unbeaten at 3-0-2 as they open their three-game Western Canadian swing against the Edmonton Oilers tonight. Yet it seemed fitting to ask Trotz, Washington’s fifth head coach since Ovechkin entered the league in 2005, how he plans to get the 51 goals out of his superstar winger, but shore up the minus-35 defensive rating.
“Dominik Hasek used to say, a star player starts each year at minus-10,” began the coach, referring to the desperate situations near the end of games, when a team goes all out to score and so often gives a goal up. Or the fact that the best players face the best competition, and thus, are bound to surrender more goals than someone playing against the other team’s fourth line.
“So star players start out at minus-10. How (Ovechkin) got the other minus-25, I’m not quite sure,” Trotz said with a laugh. “There are some things in his game that he is committed to change. Not all of (his deficiencies) were Alex’s fault. Some of the things he was asked to do, it probably took away from him defensively. The player that I know has been very good in all those areas.”
Normally in a column about Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals, it’s right around now where one points out that nothing this club does in the regular season matters anymore. That after winning their division five out of six seasons between 2008 and 2013 — but never even making it to a Conference Final — it’s all about the post-season for this club.
There is only one problem with that however: Last season the Caps missed the playoffs altogether. That has furnished the new coach with a very receptive group of players.
“It put me in a good spot when they didn’t make the playoffs,” Trotz admits, “because there is a very proud group of players in there who want to be back, who want to be relevant. And you’re not relevant unless you get back in the playoffs. So, they’ve been really receptive.”
Trotz set out to change the culture in D.C., the oft-heard cry of the new hockey exec. “I just think (it was) a little bit of the inmates were running the asylum,” he said before the season began. “I think there’s good talent, and I felt it needed some order.”
So one of the first people he sat down with was Ovechkin. To get his thoughts on how to help the captain succeed, no doubt?
“Actually, no,” said Ovechkin, standing in a rear hallway of the Leduc Recreation Complex, where the Caps bee-lined for practice after disembarking at Edmonton International around lunchtime Tuesday. “We had our meetings, and everything was fine. But we didn’t talk about what I want. We talked about what the team wants, and what the team needs.
“Everyone knows how I can play, how (Backstrom) can play, and Greener. We just have to be not individuals. We have to be a group.”
The Caps core is in its prime. Ovechkin and Mike Green are 29. Nicklas Backstrom turns 27 in a month. Like their coach, a 52-year-old with 15 NHL seasons behind him, the time has come. No more seasoning is required.
The first thing Trotz did is move Ovechkin back to left wing. (Lord helps the Professional Hockey Writers Association.)
“He’s better there. More dangerous there. He’s faster, more dynamic,” Trotz explained. “He has that 90 (degree) cut. He can throw pucks through people. He creates more speed and opportunity over there. Why do you want to take away a person’s strength? That’s the way I looked at it.”
Washington is all Ovechkin knows, and this season marks the beginning of the back half of the 13-year, $124 million deal he inked back in 2008. Trotz, however, will see the other side now. From Shea Weber and a thick defensive system in Nashville, to running with Ovi in Washington.
Which style is more fun to coach?
“Winning is fun to coach,” he decides. “That trumps everything.”