They are, on the surface of things, the NHL's newest odd couple: Barry Trotz, the defensive-minded first-year coach of the Washington Capitals, and Alex Ovechkin, the mercurial face of the franchise, known mostly for his uncanny goal-scoring skills.
Trotz spent the past 15 years moulding the small-market, low-budget Nashville Predators into an overachieving, defensively sound team.
By contrast, Ovechkin managed a neat statistical trick last season: He led the NHL in goals scored, with 51, while at the same time producing a dismal minus-35 defensive rating. Only two NHL regulars, Alex Edler of the Vancouver Canucks and Steve Ott, who split time between the Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues, had worse defensive numbers.
Ovechkin did a lot of his scoring on the Capitals' league-leading power play (24 goals, 39 points), while his defensive failures mostly occurred during the team's even-strength play. So that is where the focus will be when Caps' training camp opens later this week.
Trotz – thoughtful, even-keeled and a good communicator – seems like the perfect choice to coach Ovechkin. The Winnipeg native has that rare ability to make demands of his players in a reasonable way. Among other things, Trotz will be asking them to be tougher. He saw enough of the Capitals last season to know that, if you pushed them, they didn't always push back hard enough.
Though a taskmaster, Trotz is a people person, and in his first conversation with Trotz, Ovechkin said, the conversation was less about hockey and more about life, attitudes, and belief systems. "An honest, open man," assessed Ovechkin. "I'm pretty sure we're going to have a good relationship – like I always have with the coaches. He's the head coach. He's going to tell us what to do to have success."
According to Trotz, there is a misconception about his plans for Ovechkin that he would like to correct right away.
"Everybody thinks I'm going to turn him into a Selke-winner," said Trotz, referring to the annual award given to the league's top defensive forward. That would be counterproductive, he said, adding: "People say he had a rotten year last year, but he still scored eight more goals than the nearest guy in the Rocket Richard race. I don't want to disrespect his gift – the gift of scoring goals, which is one of the hardest things to do.
"I'm not going to get him to be that super-detailed Doug Jarvis type. I just need him to work defensively and have some pride in getting the puck back. That's the way I've talked to him. Get the puck and score, but if we don't have the puck, I want a plan to get it back quickly so we can go score again."
Seems like a reasonable request.
Washington missed the playoffs last season for the first time in six years, but the Caps had 90 points, the most of any non-playoff team. Organizationally, the hope is it was simply a one-year blip, and that with better defence and improved goaltending, they can get back in the post-season mix in the wide-open Eastern Conference.
To that end, new general manager Brian MacLellan waded into the free-agent market to sign a pair of ex-Pittsburgh Penguins' defencemen, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. With the holdovers on the blue line, including Mike Green, John Carlsson and Karl Alzner, the Capitals should have a nice blend of mobility and defensive awareness to play the go-go style Trotz hopes to employ with the personnel at his disposal. This is the opposite of Nashville – the Caps are a higher-payroll team, with offensive strength all the way through the lineup.
As for Ovechkin, people may forget that, as recently as the 2009-10 season, he recorded a plus-45 rating. Something has fundamentally gone off the rails with him defensively in the intervening years. Trotz's job is to help him get that part of his game back, and he doesn't expect that to happen overnight.
"I don't need a 360-degree turn," said Trotz. "Just give me 20 degrees to get it started, and I know I can get it from 20 to 30 and then from 30 to 40. Give me that much – and then we're headed in the right direction."