It was supposed to be different.
When Barry Trotz was hired as head coach of the Washington Capitals in 2014, he was seen as one of the missing pieces that could finally push this team past the second round and live up to its potential. He was an experienced NHL head coach, one of the top available candidates and he was headed to Washington.
And yet, the end of Trotz’s second season behind the bench has a depressingly familiar feel to it.
A different coach, another year, another second round exit.
In Trotz’s second season as head coach all the progress the team made seemed to come in the regular season. For a franchise that is starved for postseason success, however, a team that has not made it past the second round since 1998, another great regular season just isn’t good enough.
Trotz knows that and he feels that frustration.
“Shelf life in the National Hockey League, if you're a top player, is 10, 12 years and so when you don't go that far, the window sort of seems like it closes and if you haven't got past that it gets frustrating,” Trotz said. “It does, there's no question. I think the sense of mortality sets in.”
But as frustrating as it may be to have to think about another early postseason exit, about another year of the Alex Ovechkin era closing with nothing to show for it, Trotz insisted that he saw progress from his team over the course of the season.
“You look at our resiliency,” Trotz said. “You look at the heart of the team. That's your progress. I wish we could have a victory in this round and we put that to bed, but we didn’t.”
Resiliency to battle back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 6? Sure. Other than that though, this isn’t a team that faced much adversity over the course of the season and that sort of talk will likely fall on deaf ears when it comes to the fans.
Trotz, however, seemed to be talking more about the mentality of the team and the locker room.
“The last two years the groups have been really close in terms of a close knit team so that's really a positive for us going forward,” Trotz said. “Organizationally, it's huge. That probably wasn't a strong point for us when I came in.”
But that progress didn’t translate to a victory over the Penguins.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the team strictly based on what round they make it to. The Penguins got hot at the right time and entered the playoffs with a lot of momentum. It’s also a matchup that, under the NHL’s old playoff format, shouldn’t have happened. At least not yet.
“I think No. 1 and 2 in the eastern conference went head to head, we just met in the second round,” Trotz said. “Maybe if we went a different route or the standings were a little bit different in terms of how the format was, maybe we meet in the next round, but I think who knows?”
And you know what? He has a point.
The Capitals finished the regular season with the top record in the conference. The Penguins finished second. Under the old format, the Caps and Penguins would not have met in the playoffs until the conference finals. Instead, because of the divisional format, the two conference juggernauts met in the second round while Tampa Bay was allowed to cruise past Detroit and the New York Islanders.
But there’s a problem to this line of reasoning: the aspirations of this team are to win a Stanley Cup, not just make it out of the second round. If the Caps are Cup contenders, they would have to beat a team like Pittsburgh anyway. Whether they do it in the second or third round is actually fairly irrelevant. Would it make some people feel better if the Caps made it to the conference finals and then lost to the Penguins? Perhaps, but that wouldn’t really be a sign. It would have been a sign of an easy draw.
So for the fans who hear Trotz talk about progress after watching their team fall in the second round yet again, this time to Sidney Crosby, it’s easy to understand their frustration.
As much as Trotz wanted to talk about progress, however, he ultimately walked away feeling the same way everyone who has followed this team feels: progress or no, this result just wasn’t good enough.
“We've made some progress but obviously not enough,” Trotz said. “We need to get through this round. That's part of the deal. I think that’ll always be thrown at us until we get through it so we need to do it.”
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