For the past few days, it's seemed only a matter of time before Barry Trotz was named the next head coach of the Washington Capitals. And Monday evening, that was finally made official. It had also been suspected the Capitals would hire either Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton or former Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero to take the head chair in the front office to do the off-ice roster-shaping for Trotz.
But instead, we got a little bit of a surprise.
Above Trotz, the Capitals announced the internal promotion of Brian MacLellan from assistant GM to GM. MacLellan, who played 606 games in the NHL as a forward, has worked the past 13 seasons in Washington, first as a pro scout and then as George McPhee’s assistant.
On one hand, it’s a surprise to see the Capitals choose an internal candidate, rather than to make a complete move away from the McPhee era and into a fresh one under someone new - especially with Shero available after he was let go by the rival Penguins. On the other, there were signs pointing towards the MacLellan hiring, as the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman noted in his 30 Thoughts column this week:
4. Trotz has a lengthy history with Fenton and Shero, but do not ignore MacLellan. According to several sources, the current assistant GM was involved in the Trotz interviews and helped show him around the U.S. capital. It is unlikely someone on the way out would be so heavily involved. When this process started, his hiring would be a surprise. Not anymore.
What’s next for the Capitals is uncertain. Will these hires fit with the team's needs, or will it turn sideways the way it did in Vancouver when they stuck by Mike Gillis and added oil to water with the John Tortorella hiring.
Trotz was the hot coach on the market this summer, the guy who would have lots of interest and his pick of jobs. It’s blasphemy to suggest he wouldn’t fit in somewhere, right? Well, it’s possible in Washington.
The former Predators coach has done a lot with thin rosters in Nashville, mostly on strong defensive systems. But he’s never dealt with a scoring superstar like Ovechkin – how those two get along once the tough games start being played will be the single biggest factor in how long Trotz lasts in his second NHL head coaching job.
The best shot the Washington Capitals had to make a Stanley Cup final appearance in the Ovechkin era was probably 2009 when they were beaten by Pittsburgh in an exciting seven-game series. The second closest? That was 2012 under Dale Hunter’s suffocating system, when the Caps lost a much slower seven-game series to New York. You could even make the case the 2012 team was closer than the 2009 team because of its defense.
Is that the kind of tactic Trotz will play with – similar to his style in Nashville? Or should we expect something a little more uncharacteristic and an attempt to go back to the more free-wheeling version of the Ovechkin era, when the Caps were at their height?
Odds are in favor of going with defense, since that’s where the Cups seem to be going and where the Caps have been trying to build.
How well will Trotz and Ovechkin work together? If the answer to that isn’t a positive one, would the new GM consider trading his star at a later date? You can only go through so many coaches before considering it, especially with Trotz’s record with superstar-less teams. Food for thought.
The surprising news out of Washington today, though, was naming MacLellan as GM. There was no doubt the Capitals needed a new set of eyes running and judging this team, but it was widely agreed those eyes needed to come from the outside to bring a detached view of the roster. Perhaps that was too much change for the Capitals right now. But it is worth noting that from the 2004 draft to the 2008 draft, players picked by Washington after Round 1 who have played at least 100 NHL games are limited to Sami Lepisto, Mathieu Perreault, Tim Kennedy, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. In 2009, the Caps did well in picking up Dmitri Orlov and Cody Eakin after Round 1 – who they’ve since traded away anyway.
Can Trotz mesh with Ovechkin and bring in a style and culture the team can find its legs under? Is MacLellan the right guy to bring the proper change needed to the roster to get this once-promising contender back on track?
Stay tuned. This isn’t over yet.