The Caps’ recent losing streak and the unexpected success of the New York Islanders have spawned a curious revisionism about how the Washington Capitals and Barry Trotz parted company in the summer of 2018. A sample from our comments:
Only one is to blame. The one whole decided not to give Barry Trotz a worthy contract.
I think a lot of people here didn’t appreciate what a huge gamble the Caps were taking by letting Trotz go.
I wish they had just given Trotz the money and the term and fired him if they needed to.
There are too many myths and mistakes about what actually went down between the Stanley Cup Champions and their coach last summer. Lots of people seem to have the wrong idea about who the villain was here.
Barry Trotz was hired as head coach of the Caps on the same day that Brian MacLellan was hired as general manager: May 26, 2014. (Trotz was not hired by MacLellan. They were both hired by the team’s president, Dick Patrick.)
Trotz’s contract with Washington paid him $1.5 million per year for four years, among the leaner coaching salaries in the league but not an uncommon one for the Caps, who have a reputation for being frugal with coaches.
The Capitals won more than 100 points in all four of Trotz’s seasons. They won the division three times, the President’s Trophy twice, and the Stanley Cup once.
But after defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, Barry Trotz reportedly told John Tortorella, “I’m gone, I’m gone, I’m not coming back.” The writing had been on the wall since the previous summer, when the Caps declined to let other teams interview assistant coach Todd Reirden as Trotz entered his lame-duck year. The Caps had long been grooming Reirden to take over as head coach after Trotz’s contract expired.
The handoff was fait accompli – until the Caps won the Stanley Cup. It was only then that we learned Trotz’s contract carried a clause that allowed for a raise to $1.8 million for two additional years if the team won the Cup.
Trotz had agreed to that clause in 2014, but between then and the Cup win the ceiling for coaching contracts had changed. In 2015, one year after Trotz joined Washington, Mike Babcock signed a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs that pays him $6.25 million a year for eight years – four times more money than Trotz’s deal and for a longer term. And by the summer of 2018, Trotz’s pedigree looked a bit more like Babcock’s.
Speaking with the media and as reported by Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan, Caps general manager Brian MacLellan characterized the negotiations that followed the Cup win. “His representative wants to take advantage of Barry’s experience and Stanley Cup win,” MacLellan said, “and was trying to negotiate a deal that compensates him as one of the better coaches in the league — a top-four or five coach — so he’s looking for that type of contract.”
Trotz ultimately got that type of contract, but he got it elsewhere. The Capitals chose not to renegotiate the existing contract, and Trotz chose to resign as head coach, leaving $3.6 million on the table.
Trotz instead signed a four-year contract with the New York Islanders for $5 million a year. Trotz’s hiring was the centerpiece of a package designed by general manager Lou Lamoriello to entice free-agent John Tavares to stay with the club. Tavares did not, but the hiring appears to have worked out favorably for the Islanders anyway: as of January 30, they lead the Metropolitan Division.
It is wholly incorrect to say that the Caps fired Barry Trotz, or that they let Barry Trotz go, or any other idiom that would imply the team initiated the end of the relationship with Barry Trotz. The team would have honored their contract with Barry Trotz for the additional two years on the pre-negotiated terms, and Barry Trotz would have stayed for the additional years if the pay had been increased.
But the team did not wish to renegotiate the contract, and they would not fire Trotz, so Trotz chose to resign his position.
This was absolutely the right decision for Barry Trotz. This was also absolutely the right decision for the Washington Capitals.
There is no villain here.
There were at least two moments in the 2017-18 season in which the Caps were very close to dismissing Barry Trotz. The first was on November 20, after the team lost 4-1 to the Calgary Flames. The Caps then won 11 of their next 13 games, and Trotz’s job was saved. The second moment is harder to pin down, but it either happened in late January, the middle of February, or both. In any case, the Capitals improved their defense at the trade deadline and cruised to the end of the regular season with an easy schedule. The team kept Trotz in place for a legendary playoff run.
The point is this: The Capitals did not want to commit a guaranteed $20 million over four years to a coach that they had nearly fired in the prior year. If the Caps had renegotiated the contract, and Trotz had signed it, there was a high likelihood that the team would eventually fire him. Then they would be out whatever portion of the $20 million remained, and they would have the ignominy of having fired their only championship-winning coach. It would have been a poor investment and worse PR.
For his part, Trotz wisely used his leverage when his value was at its highest. His record with Washington was impeccable (205 wins in 328 games) and his championship was undeniable. While the failed negotiations made his exit less amicable, Trotz still parted on good terms with players and fans. His legacy in Washington can never be tarnished now, and his new deal with the Islanders will change the lives of his family forever.
Very soon we will discuss the causes of the Caps’ recent downturn, but for now I’ll say this: it wasn’t Trotz’s departure. The breakup between him and the Capitals was not a mistake for either party. There are no bad guys here, just two parties making the best of a tough situation.
Headline photo: Bruce Bennett
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