Photo: Chris Gordon
Alex Ovechkin is the most important person under contract with the Washington Capitals, more pivotal than either the general manager or the head coach. Signed to a 13-year, $124 million dollar deal in 2008, Ovechkin has become the Caps. His jersey sales sustain the team off the ice while his goal scoring provides the plurality of their offense. The preeminent task for his coach, then, is to manage him effectively. Barry Trotz, hired Monday by Washington, will now have to do that.
“It starts with a relationship,” Trotz told reporters from the Verizon Center club level yesterday. “I know I’m going to work at that but it can’t happen until I have a relationship with him because there’s no trust. For me Alex has to trust that I’m giving him the best advice for the team, for him, to grow his game. I don’t know Alex as well. Going against him, I know what he does well, but I need to know Alex the person. Coaching’s not just about Xs and Os, it’s about people.”
Trotz is a defense-first coach, which could create some problems with Ovechkin. The last defensive coach the team had, Dale Hunter, reined in Ovi in pursuit of fewer goals allowed. Bruce Boudreau tried to do the same thing at the end of his tenure. What resulted was a disgruntled captain and the two worst seasons of the Russian’s career. Instead, Trotz will need to institute a careful balancing act with Ovechkin and rest of the team.
“One of the things people think is defense is just backing up,” Trotz said. “That’s not it at all.”
“You can’t play uptempo if you can’t break out of your own zone effectively,” he continued. “You can’t play uptempo if you don’t have the puck. To me uptempo means that you want be able to break out of your own zone effectively, make good decisions through the neutral zone, and get it to the other end you can create some offense.”
Having a good dynamic with Ovechkin isn’t everything. While Adam Oates was an Ovechkin-whisperer, texting the captain late at night sometimes and getting him to change his position, the rest of the team struggled. So, too, did Ovi at everything that didn’t involve scoring power play goals. While Oates and Ovi got along, Ovechkin never focused on defense, which led to some consternation at the end. Trotz is now in a position to change that.
“A team is a group of guys that have the same vision and understand that everybody has a seat in the bus,” Trotz said. “Someone asked me about coaching, ‘Do you treat everybody equal?’ Absolutely not. Coaching’s about inequality. No one gets the same ice time. If you’re a 13th forward or you’re the star player, you should get the same respect from the coach. Your roles are going to be different and that’s the inequality that there is in coach. You’ve gotta have your role on the team and understand that if you’re not preforming your role then someone else gets an opportunity to do that.”
Trotz and new GM Brian MacLellan talked a lot about team play and responsibility during their introductory press conference. Some of those comments were likely tacit references to Ovechkin. One of MacLellan’s first moves, supported by Trotz, will be to institute a rigorous training camp. Normally Ovi loafs a bit into September, starting his training later in the summer after an offseason of vacations.
“I’ve always had a hard training camp,” said Trotz. “That’s perfect. I love that. I think I have a little method to my madness in terms of building a culture and demanding certain things.”
“It’s a process,” he added. “There’s players that have played a certain way or done certain things there that maybe I don’t want to do and it’s going to be an adjustment for them. We just gotta get comfortable with each other.”
Still, Ovechkin will undoubtedly get special treatment under Trotz. He deserves it too. The question is how long of a leash to give him and when to yank it.
“I need to know what these guys are about,” Trotz concluded. “They gotta know I’m about winning.”