Over the course of more than two decades on this job and this beat, I’ve endured a handful of days involving a coaching change or a coaching hire, and some have involved both at the same time. Some I saw coming, and with a couple of them, I was even given a heads up the night before the change took place.
I wouldn’t characterize Barry Trotz’s sudden departure from the District via resignation on Monday as a surprise, but I certainly didn’t show up at work expecting a coaching change.
Everyone knew Barry was in the final year of his four-year contract, which is unique in itself. I can remember when terms of coach’s and general managers’ contracts here in the District were closely guarded state secrets, and none of us on the beat knew the term or dollar amount of a coach or a GM’s contract. I also remember one fellow beat writer swearing that he would ferret out the info for both the coach and the GM by the end of that season.
We all knew that Trotz was in the final year of his pact, but what many did not know about was a clause in that original four-year deal that automatically extended the term by two years and called for a raise of 16-20% (I’ve seen a couple of different figures for the dollar amount on the raise) to the original $1.5 million salary on that four-year deal.
“Barry had a contract clause that stated if he won a Stanley Cup his contract would be extended two years at an increased rate,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan stated at a media conference on Monday. “Our discussions with his representative centered around that, and what he was looking to accomplish through negotiations. So we had several discussions on what they were looking for, and about the existing contract. And we weren’t able to come to an agreement.”
In 2014, the deal Trotz and the Capitals reached was an eminently fair deal on both sides. But a year later, Mike Babcock signed an eight-year deal worth $50 million to leave Detroit to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the middle of the 2015-16 season, Joel Quenneville signed a contract extension with Chicago that reportedly pays him in the neighborhood of $6 million a season. And just last month, the New York Rangers handed out a five-year contract to first-time NHL head coach David Quinn. That deal reportedly pays Quinn upwards of $2 million a year, which is more than Trotz would have been paid under the terms of the extension clause.
Clearly, the landscape has changed a fair bit on the coaching salary front in the last four years, largely because of those aforementioned deals. In the wake of winning a Stanley Cup, Trotz likely believed he was worth more than two years and more than $1.8 million per season on the open market. He is almost certainly correct.
“His representative wants to take advantage of his experience and Barry’s Stanley Cup win,” says MacLellan, “and is trying to negotiate a deal that compensates him as one of the better coaches in the league, the top four or five coaches. So he is looking for that type of contract.”
Ironically, if the Caps had lost in the Cup Final to Vegas, perhaps Trotz would have remained in D.C. The clause wouldn’t have kicked in, and he wouldn’t have a Cup championship on his résumé. On the other side of the coin, Washington obviously could have extended Trotz’s contract last summer or during the season, but chose not to do so.
“I could have,” admits MacLellan, “but I think our situation was we were struggling at the time to get over the hump. We couldn’t get out of the second round and Barry hadn’t been able to coach out of the second round yet, either. I think from the organization’s perspective, some changes would have had to be made if we lost in the second round again.”
Over the 10 days since the Caps won the Stanley Cup, Trotz and MacLellan tried to work out a fair and equitable renegotiation of what suddenly and instantly became a two-year contract extension. Trotz sought more money and more term, and it was apparently the latter that led to hesitation on the Caps’ side.
“Probably term was a big issue, and maybe a little bit of the financial part of it, too,” says MacLellan.
“I think the five-year term is probably a sticking point. You have a coach that has been here four years, you do another five [years] – that’s nine years. There are not that many coaches that have that lasting ability. It’s a long time and it’s a lot of money to be committing to that coach.”
Trotz was at his only previous NHL stop for 15 years, but he is a rare exception in that regard. Of the 368 men who have served as head coaches in the NHL, only 17 of them – including Trotz with Nashville – have put in as many as nine complete and consecutive seasons with the same team, and the lion’s share of those 17 coached decades ago, in a much different era.
The Caps obviously realized, too, that Trotz’s extension left him well south of his actual worth on the coaching market, and they were willing to enter into discussions, but the two sides weren’t able to find any common ground on which to stand. With the coach and the team unable to reach an agreement, Trotz opted to resign on Monday, and the Caps and their former coach each made separate mid-afternoon announcements to that effect.
With the two-year extension having already kicked in, the Caps would have been within their rights to deny Trotz the ability to get out of his deal and move on to coach elsewhere in the league, but that’s not the case.
“He resigned, and we accepted the resignation,” says MacLellan. “I think we came to an agreement that it wasn’t going to work, and we don’t want to hold him back from coaching.
“Once we accept the resignation, he can work wherever he wants.”
Having won the Stanley Cup, the Capitals are already facing a compressed summer. MacLellan’s already full managerial plate – teeming with the draft this week, development camp, qualifying offers and free agency all coming next week – just got even heavier with a coaching search on the immediate horizon. There will also be the matter of the new coach’s staff, and with this news coming so late in the coaching hiring cycle, Washington may need to get creative in order to fill out its staff.
“We’re just basically digesting this,” says MacLellan, “and we’ll make decisions as we go forward, as we find a new head coach, and then make a decision on the assistants after that.”
In the time since Washington won the Cup in Vegas on June 7, both sides talked as if they believed a deal would get done, and MacLellan confessed to being taken a bit aback by Monday’s development.
“A little bit by surprise, yes,” says the GM. “I thought we would be able to work out a shorter term deal to make both sides happy.
“It was just my perception – Barry never came out and said it – but I think he was pondering taking a year off in my mind. I wasn’t positive on it, but I think he ended up enjoying the final part of the season, obviously, and probably changed his mind that way.”
Trotz leaves town with a splendid regular season record of 205-89-34. His teams here averaged 51 wins and 111 points per season, and he ranks fifth on the NHL’s all-time coaching list with 1,524 games and 762 wins. The Caps are now in the market for a coach for the first time in more than four years.
“Someone that’s up to date on the modern game,” says MacLellan, queried as to the qualities he seeks in Trotz’s successor. “Someone that’s progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players, that can communicate, can teach – make players better.
“I think it’s becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products, and you need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we’re going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”
Washington’s staff is chock full of experienced assistant coaches in Blaine Forsythe, Lane Lambert and Todd Reirden, but it was Reirden who was promoted to associate coach a couple summers back, and the Caps denied him the ability to interview for NHL openings last summer. Lambert was a finalist for the Colorado job two summers ago, a post that ultimately went to Jared Bednar.
“I think we need to take a breather here, but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” says MacLellan. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, a head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual; it’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there are differences or if we’re seeing things the same, and if he is a possibility for head coach.”
It’s somewhat unique for teams to have a head coaching vacancy at this point of the offseason, but many of the signs point to Reirden.
“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan admits. “We’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or for someone else. We’ll see how the talk goes with him, and then we’ll make a decision based on that. If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd, and if it doesn’t then we will open it up a little bit.”
Given the Capitals’ success over the last four years under Trotz and his assistants, perhaps keeping it in house might make the most sense in terms of being able to hit the ground running when training camp starts in less than 90 days.
“It might,” says MacLellan. “I’ll have some discussions with Todd. He is familiar with the personalities, he is familiar with the systems that we use – the culture. It could be a natural transition. But once we sit down face-to-face about all of the little, small details in the team, I’ll have a better feel for it.”
A coach departing a Stanley Cup-winning team within days of its victory is rare to be sure, but it’s not without precedent. Scotty Bowman retired after guiding the Red Wings to a Cup title – his ninth – in 2002.
Mike Keenan managed to walk out on the New York Rangers after winning the Cup there in 1993-94, his only season behind the bench for the Blueshirts. In typical Keenan fashion, he swept others into his wake so that when all the dust settled, the St. Louis Blues ($250,000) and the Detroit Red Wings ($25,000) were both hit with tampering fines, and the Rangers themselves were fined ($25,000) for filing a lawsuit against Keenan and his agent. Keenan – though he was allowed to walk away from the last four years of his deal with the Rangers – was fined $100,000 and suspended for 60 days.
A better comparison for Trotz’s situation is that of Harry Sinden, who helped the Boston Bruins to their first Stanley Cup title in 29 years, hoisting the chalice on May 10, 1970 at the end of his fourth season on the job. Sinden was smarting from Boston’s unwillingness to give him a pay raise, and he shocked the city by announcing his resignation to take a job with a home construction company in New York.
After helping Team Canada to its stunning comeback win over Russia in the 1972 Summit Series, Sinden and the Bruins patched things up, and he was hired as the team’s general manager. Sinden kept that post for the better part of three decades, and even got back behind the bench, serving as an interim bench boss for 31 more games spread over two separate campaigns. Now 85, he still serves the team as an advisor.
Trotz will almost certainly coach in the NHL again, but the New York Islanders’ job is the lone head coaching vacancy in the league at the moment. Upon taking the job in Washington some 49 months ago, Trotz identified the team’s culture as the element most in need of a makeover, and he set about changing it during his first summer on the job. He cultivated a more family-oriented atmosphere, which was well suited to a team full of “just married” players who had started to or were about to start having families.
“He did, that was probably the best thing he did in my mind here, he changed the culture,” recalls MacLellan. “He came in and did a great job with it. I think what he and his staff and the players have established is here now, and it’s our job to find a guy that can maintain it, as a group, too. It’s not just one person that maintains that culture. I think our players have grown and adapted and are at a level now – or our room is at a level now – where we can take on some change.”
On a day in, day out basis, Trotz also set a bright and shining example of how to be a good and decent human being. No matter who you were or what you did, Barry Trotz had time for you. He would patiently answer the same questions from one town to the next, hardly ever getting irritated at the redundancy of it all while us reporters rolled our eyes at the same redundancy, yet marveled at – and aspired to – his seemingly limitless patience.
Leo Durocher once said “nice guys finish last,” but Trotz proved him wrong. He helped the Caps win the elusive Stanley Cup, and he’ll always be a legend in these parts for that alone.
“He is a good guy,” says MacLellan of Trotz. “He has done a great job here. He came in, changed the culture, we won two Presidents’ Trophies and a Stanley Cup. I enjoy working with him, we’re still friends. There is not a negative thing I could say. It’s just we didn’t get it done on the negotiations, both sides.
“It’s hard. It’s hard for me, it’s hard for guys in the organization. In the end, I think sports is a business. You want it to work out, you want it to be a game, you want it to be all fun. But 10 days after you win a Cup you have to come here and do this, it’s not fun.”
It sure isn’t.