Once in a while, two NHL teams will pull off the exceedingly rare “player-for-player” trade. Each team gets what it needs, neither teams parts with something it couldn’t afford to lose and everyone goes home happy.
You can’t trade coaches in the NHL and Peter Laviolette and Barry Trotz didn’t begin the season having taken each other’s jobs. However, both hit the offseason as unlikely free agents, though neither figured to be out of a job for too long. They weren’t, and now Trotz’s move to the Eastern Conference (with Washington) and Laviolette’s new post with the Nashville Predators have seen the longtime head coaches find new success in new cities.
Both coaches revitalizing franchises that had fallen on hard times despite having what looked like plenty of talent to work with, and those teams are making pushes at the top of their respective divisions.
Laviolette was hardly a bad coach when the Flyers let him go early last season, and the same goes for Trotz, whose players perhaps needed a new voice in the room after 15 seasons with the same head coach — and only head coach — in franchise history. In new roles, both coaches have shined. Laviolette’s Predators are atop the Central Division (and tied atop the league standings) despite jockeying with two of hockey’s best teams in Chicago and St. Louis.
The Capitals, after a so-so start, have taken to Trotz’s defensive sensibilities and have collected points in 18 of 20 games since December 1 (14-2-4 over that span) while moving into the top-ten in the NHL in goal prevention.
Trotz is working with offensive talent like he’s never had (Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom) and putting his defensive trademark to work on John Carlson (5-26-31, plus-15) and goaltender Braden Holtby (22-8-7, 2.17 / .924). Both are on pace for career-best seasons as part of a defense that has gone from one of the league’s most inconsistent in recent years to one of its best (7th in goals allowed).
That should come as little surprise to those in Nashville, even if Trotz’s final years there won’t inspire nostalgia.
In his last season with the Predators, injuries and a lack of offensive depth were too much to overcome. Pekka Rinne, the team’s Vezina Trophy candidate goaltender, didn’t play a single game from November through February. The team finished 38-32-12, sixth in the seven-team Central Division and out of the playoffs for a second-straight year. A lack of offense killed them, as had the departures of defensive fixtures in Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter (not to mention Rinne’s four-month long absence).
For the first time Friday, Trotz will face the only NHL team he has yet to coach against in Laviolette’s Predators. Although his 15 years there didn’t produce a Stanley Cup, he and longtime GM David Poile helped establish a reputation for consistency and competitiveness, even if the money wasn’t always there.
That legacy hasn’t been lost on those in Nashville.
“His honesty, his loyalty, the way he treats people. He gives everybody the time of day … everybody,” current Predators radio color analyst and former longtime Trotz assistant Brent Peterson said. “Not too many people will give you the time of day. Barry Trotz gives you the time of day.”
Trotz’s success in Nashville wasn’t always apparent on the ice. Aforementioned internal roster budgets helped to keep the team out of the postseason in their first five seasons and in eight of Trotz’s 15 years behind the bench, even given the team’s adept drafting and development.
(It should be mentioned that the Predators reached the playoffs in six of nine seasons with an NHL salary cap in place.)
The Predators weren’t always competitive, and they were rarely ever contenders. But the franchise was built up in what many would agree is “the right way” — smart drafting, smart spending and excellent internal development of prospects. It’s the recipe for small market success, especially in a non-traditional market like Tennessee.
Trotz, as much as Poile or anyone else, was part of that.
From Josh Cooper of Puck Daddy (and former Predators beat writer for The Tennessean),
There’s a strange separation between coach and player. Everyone is vested in success, but not exactly together.
The coaches coach and the players play. It’s the coach’s job to get the most out of the player but there are many layers that end up being involved – between management, agents, a union and even teammates.
Trotz basically blew through those barriers.
Following their playoff miss a year ago, it seemed to be harder to address Nashville’s roster woes than to change the longtime voice in the room. After a decade and a half, Poile did both, parting ways with Trotz before undertaking an offseason makeover that saw the team part with one of their leading scorers in Patric Hornqvist while adding James Neal and a host of low-cost reclamation projects.
Short the massive money needed to keep up with the biggest spenders in free agency and having been spurned by Jason Spezza, that, and the hiring of Laviolette, was what passed for a modest rebuild in Nashville.
Nashville’s turnaround has been dramatic as any in hockey. If their success was a bit of a surprise, Trotz’s success with the Capitals has not been. Washington is still a talented team, even as a few years of struggles stilted their offense-first identity. They rank again among the league’s best offenses (10th in goals and 4th on the power play), and they still have the star power that Trotz never enjoyed in Nashville.
What they’ve lacked, perhaps throughout Ovechkin’s entire career, is a no-questions-asked leader at the head of the whole operation.
Trotz’s time and success in Nashville gives him that clout, and his work has slowly turned Washington back into a contender. The Caps have won 14 of their last 20 and six of seven this month. The Caps are playing defense like a Barry Trotz team. They’re playing with an uncharacteristic sandpaper that wasn’t there until Trotz arrived. For the first time since 2010, things seem to be working the way they should be.
Nashville’s success in their first year without Trotz isn’t a condemnation of his work, but a testament to it. That franchise, even under Laviolette, has Trotz’s fingerprints all over it.
Now, the same goes for the Washington Capitals. And contender status has come along with him.
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