I want to start by saying I genuinely like Barry Trotz. I think he’s a good man and a good coach. He’s brought with him to Washington some of the brightest minds in hockey, he’s reversed a decline in the organization, and he’s helped Alex Ovechkin become a more complete player. I don’t think Trotz has gotten enough credit for that. He is exactly what fans wanted last summer: an experienced head coach.
But now that we’re more than halfway through the season, I see some worrying trends in this organization that reach all the way down to the AHL level.
You know that good feeling you have about Trotz? How he’s turned this into a better team? You’re right. He has.
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) January 31, 2015
Through 54 games the Caps have are miles better than last season with more standings points (66 to 56) and four more wins. Washington’s adjusted possession was a mediocre 49.6 percent after 54 games last season. Now it’s 52.5 percent. That’s the difference between early tee time at the links and an actual contender.
But if the Capitals are going to succeed in the playoffs this year and beyond, they will need their youth to make some noise, but Trotz has made that difficult. So has Brian MacLellan.
Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan had their first test before training camp even began. 2012 first-round pick Tom Wilson fractured his fibula over the summer while on vacation with his friends. Wilson called it a “freak injury”; The team did not elaborate beyond calling it a fall.
To his credit, Wilson, a hard worker, worked his tush off to get back in the game. He missed all of training camp and the first eight games of the regular season. Once healthy, the Capitals re-assigned Wilson to Hershey for a weekend. The team could have made it an injury reassignment, but instead the Capitals put Wilson on an AHL salary for a weekend. That seemed like a punishment– a pretty weak one.
I don’t know the circumstances of Wilson’s injury. If it was reckless and deserving of punishment, I’m not sure that three days of docked pay sent the message Trotz intended.
After three games on the fourth line, Trotz gave Wilson a dream promotion to the first line. Wilson, who wore an Ovechkin jersey as a teenager, played on the same line as a future hall of famer despite — unlike the rest of his teammates — missing all of training camp.
Wilson initially showed a lot of promise during his 21 game audition. The first line owned 54.2 percent of the shot attempts during 5v5 and scored 61.1 percent of the goals. Wilson drew a league-high 16 penalties before December leaving the top line on November 27.
Earlier this season, head coach Barry Trotz told WNST that he’s “not a big believer in playing young guys on the fourth line,” but that’s exactly where Tom Wilson has been ever since.
After getting between 13 to 18 minutes per night in November, Wilson has been buried on the fourth line, getting single-digit ice time. On Sunday, Wilson took an unnecessary double minor to put the Capitals a man down late in the third period.
Last season, Wilson looked like one of the best pure skaters on the team, despite his limited minutes and role as an enforcer. This year, his position has not improved. When he’s not with Alex Ovechkin, he’s the least productive forward on the team. And while he’s a league leader in penalties drawn, Wilson’s offensive ability has not evolved since juniors. He needs direction and more minutes. Instead of challenging Wilson, Trotz has treated him like a liability– either propped up on the top line or hidden on the fourth. Trotz does this despite Wilson being one of the more talented players on the team. Empirical data says that he plays better with more skilled players.
While Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera have a hall pass to travel up and down the lineup, Wilson has not started a single game in the middle six.
He’s not the only young player to suffer that fate.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is a world-class talent. Prospect buzz pegged him as the best player not in the NHL up until he finally crossed the Atlantic in March of 2014. Under Adam Oates, Kuznetsov played wing, the position he’s played his entire career in the KHL to much success.
After Brian MacLellan spent $12.25 million on defense in free agency, Barry Trotz had few options up front. He opted to try two young wingers, Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, as centers.
That move made some sense. The Capitals have been without a permanent solution at second-line center forever. Conventional wisdom says a Stanley Cup-winning team must be strong up the middle.
But the decision seemed to set Kuznetsov back. The young Russian struggled with defensive-zone coverage in the preseason. During the opening weeks of the season, he centered the fourth line, playing primarily with checking-line forwards who did not share his finesse. He struggled with face-offs. His ice time was limited to 7 to 10 minutes a night. One of the best prospects in the world looked lost and unconfident. Trotz and MacLellan had saddled their promising star with a different kind of game: playing dump and chase on a defensive-minded energy line.
The only times Kuzy looked himself was on the second-unit power play.
After another of the team’s prospects was sent to the fourth line (more on him next), Kuznetsov was given a long-term look in the top-six. He’s started all but one game on the second line since November 28. Despite occasional struggles, Kuznetsov has consistently received 13-15 minutes a night. He’s regained his confidence.
Though he has room for improvement, Kuznetsov has eight points in his last eight games. He could be turning the corner in his development. How much credit Trotz deserves for that is difficult to determine. Kuznetsov might have been playing like this in October if he had been given the chance to play his game right off the bat.
While playing with the OHL’s Erie Otters last season, Andre Burakovsky set a record for scoring among Swedes. His goal over the summer was to make the Capitals squad, so he doubled down on his workout routine and did it.
Burakovsky was arguably the Caps best player in the preseason. He started out centering the team’s second line, tallying 8 points in 9 games in October. By the end of November, Trotz mysteriously and abruptly ended that. Burakovsky spent a month in the wilderness before getting an peek at the top line in January. After ten games of that, Burakovsky is back floating in space– sometimes a healthy scratch, sometimes on the left wing on the second line.
With eleven missed games and scratches since November and no discernible role on the team, it would have made sense of the Capitals to send Burakovsky to the World Junior Championship. Team Sweden head coach Rikard Gronborg said, “Andre has clearly stated to us that he wants to participate in the tournament.”
The Capitals did not allow it. Instead, they assigned Burakovsky to Hershey for a weekend in the AHL. As the tournament began, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch. Then, out of nowhere, he was on Alex Ovechkin’s opposite wing for a few weeks.
It’s a perfectly defensible decision to keep Burakovsky out of the WJC– both for the team’s and the player’s interest. But it’s not hard to think that these ongoing experiments– sometimes at center, sometimes not, sometimes on the top line, sometimes a scratch– are doing more damage than 10 days in Toronto.
Burakovsky was scratched last Sunday so that Jason Chimera could start on the second line. The Capitals have refused to send down their 2013 first round pick to Hershey to get regular minutes in the AHL.
When Dmitry Orlov broke his forearm over the summer, Nate Schmidt inherited his ice time. Schmidt beat Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy to start the season on the team’s third pairing next to Mike Green.
They were dominant. They controlled 54.3 percent of shot attempts when they were together and earned 52.2 percent of the goals for the Caps during 5v5.
And it wasn’t just Green: Schmidt and Green made each other better. Schmidt also helped eight of the ten skaters he shared ice with to improve their on-ice possession.
It seems like a single play put a stop to that. In Trotz’s words, Schmidt “had a big miscue which has cost us a goal” and was suddenly infinity-scratched for Jack Hillen. Instead of seeing the forest, Trotz was seeing a tree.
“Sometimes with a young player, the grind of the NHL season eats you up,” Trotz said to The Washington Post’s Alex Prewitt. “That’s why guys are such good pros when guys are really consistent. That’s a little bit of a learning curve. For him it’s a little bit of a reset too, just as we want to do with [Burakovsky] and a few other guys. We felt that Jack was deserving to go back in.”
Since stepping in, the veteran Hillen has definitely played worse than Schmidt, who is no longer available anyway.
The big club sent him to Hershey for one weekend. One game after nearly scoring a hat trick, Schmidt suffered a scapular fracture while taking one of those rough AHL runs behind the net.
Because he was injured in Hershey, Schmidt must rehab with the Bears. He’s receiving an AHL salary while in recovery.
A fixation on singular plays instead of a pattern of great performance has saddled the Caps with one struggling veteran defenseman instead of a promising young one.
Connor Carrick made the Capitals out of training camp as a 19-year-old last season. He was a great story. After spending three games in Washington, the Caps sent Carrick to Hershey. In December, the team let him play in the World Junior Championship. Once the tournament concluded, Carrick returned to Washington, where he stayed for the rest of the year.
At times, Carrick looked overmatched at the NHL level, especially playing with John Erskine, who was playing through with an injury. For Carrick at age 19 that’s not surprising. He is still a young player with a ton of talent and upside. He looked like he was improving the more and more he played.
When the Capitals signed Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen over the offseason, Carrick was shuffled down in the depth chart. But at least he would get a ton of minutes in Hershey to rapidly continue his development this season.
You’d be wrong.
Carrick, who is the Caps’ best healthy defensive prospect in Hershey, has spent the majority of the season playing on the team’s third pairing. Most of the time, it’s been on his off side, which puts him at a disadvantage.
Hershey D-pairs: Moore-Oleksy, Landry-Burgdoerfer, Carrick-Kundratek.
— Tim Leone (@timleone) February 7, 2015
While Steve Oleksy is essentially a depth NHL player playing in the AHL (he was recalled to Washington Tuesday), Carrick shockingly sits behind 30-year-old Mike Moore, 31-year-old Jon Landry, and 26-year-old Erik Burgdoerfer on Hershey’s depth chart. While those players are sturdy, productive players in the AHL, none of them are considered prospects anymore.
Despite the lack of big minutes, the 20-year-old Carrick has made the most of his time on ice. He’s the team’s top scoring defenseman with 30 points in 46 games. Carrick was named to the AHL All-Star Game. During the Skills Competition, he was recorded with a 98 MPH slap shot. He’s even shown his toughness, being in three fights.
Carrick is the quarterback of the Bears’ first power play unit, but he does not get much time on the penalty kill or in big situations at the end of games.
Isn’t this what he needs to develop quickly into an NHL player?
There was a time when Stan Galiev was one of the highest rated prospects in hockey. While Galiev’s scoring ability has never been questioned, he struggled with system play and defensive coverage immediately after he signed his ELC. He split his time in ECHL Reading and AHL Hershey.
This season though has been different.
“This year I played well in the pre-season, our head coach Troy Mann, trusted me and I began to score,” Galiev said last week. “I get power play time, get some points. I stay healthy too. You put all that together and you can say I’ve now got confidence.”
The highly-skilled Galiev’s done this despite spending the opening months of the season on Hershey’s fourth line. The 23-year-old winger, who is a restricted free agent after this season, scored eight goals in eight games. Like Carrick, he’s seen a lot of time on the team’s first power-play unit. It wasn’t until after that streak began that he got a major opportunity to play on the team’s top line.
Stan scored both on Saturday and Sunday over the weekend. He was dangerous every time he had the puck.
The Capitals have no room in Washington for Galiev right now, but he appears to be NHL ready. His turnaround has been stunning. He’s done it despite a lack of consistent ice time in the top six with the Capitals’ own developmental team.
It seems to me that Brian MacLellan and especially Barry Trotz value veteran players over younger ones regardless of how well those prospects have played or how critical their development is.
This isn’t new for Trotz. From J.R. Lind of the Nashville Scene comes this description of Trotz’s handling of Filip Forsberg last year:
But then there’s Filip Forsberg. Younger than either Sissons or Jarnkrok — he’s just 19 — the Swede came to Nashville from Washington in last year’s Marty Erat trade, the deadline shocker that had Preds general manager David Poile widely praised across the NHL (and charged with grand larceny in the District of Columbia). The book on Forsberg is that he is highly skilled with the ability to be a prolific scorer, the kind of forward Nashville has never quite figured out how to find. Called up when Patric Hornqvist left the road trip on paternity leave, Forsberg was slotted into duty with Sissons and Rich Clune — who is a profoundly interesting person and a prolific pugilist, but whose hockey skills aren’t exactly complementary to Forsberg’s.
Trotz hasn’t yet warmed to the youngster, repeatedly burying him on what could generously be called “defensively minded lines,” even though such a setup doesn’t play into Forsberg’s talents. Sure, if Forsberg’s production kicked up, he’d likely be elevated on the depth chart — but it’s hard to say his production will go anywhere playing alongside two guys with 16 career points and six goals between them. Once Hornqvist returned, Forsberg returned to Milwaukee, and constant yo-yoing to Wisconsin will do even less to improve his NHL output.
No longer saddled by Trotz’s curious deployments, Forsberg has blossomed into a star on the Predators’ first line under Peter Laviolette. Forsberg’s skill set is comparable to Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky’s.
While Trotz’s decision-making with his youngsters can sometimes be bizarre, the Caps’ roster, swollen with costly veteran forwards, is also to blame. There is just not much ice time to go around.
But despite roster problems and despite his trouble with younger players, Trotz really has put a good team together.
After missing the playoffs last year, the Capitals are better. After missing the playoffs last year, the Hershey Bears are better as well. But if that improvement comes at the cost of the next generation of players, the newfound success will not be sustainable.
Barry Trotz has escaped criticism for the flagging development of his younger players. Is it because he’s so darn likable? Is it because the Capitals are good again for the first time in four years?
Or maybe it’s because he’s emerging from the shadow of one of the worst coaches in franchise history.
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