TAMPA, Fla. — It was in the handshake line following a first-round win when Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz appeared to share a secret with Columbus Blue Jackets counterpart John Tortorella.
Lip readers contend that Trotz appeared to say: “I’m gone, I’m gone. I’m not coming back.” He denied that’s what they were talking about. But after leading the Capitals past the two-time defending Penguins in the second round — something few expected — you didn’t have to be a lip reader to see him exhale.
And yet, if you think that reaching Game 7 of the conference final has provided Trotz with added job security, think again. If anything, getting this close has landed him back on the hot seat.
In 2015, Bruce Boudreau led the Anaheim Ducks to the doorstep of the Stanley Cup final, having lost just once in the first two rounds. But the Ducks couldn’t quite get over the hump and lost to the Blackhawks 5-3 in Game 7 of the Western Conference final.
Boudreau, who had led Anaheim to four consecutive division titles and a peerless 208-104-40 record, was fired two days later.
It’s not a given that the losing coach in this year’s conference final faces the same fate, but it is worth noting that Trotz is without a contract for next season and Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is believed to have one more year remaining on a multi-year extension he signed in 2015.
So there is pressure to win Game 7 on Wednesday. Unlike Vegas coach Gerard Gallant, the Jack Adams Award favourite, neither Trotz nor Cooper have really surprised nor impressed anyone by getting this far in the playoffs.
Both the Capitals and Lightning won their respective divisions in the regular season. Both have rosters filled with superstar talent. But the window of opportunity might not be as wide open as it is today.
For two coaches who have never won, it could be a defining moment.
Trotz’s playoff history mirrors that of Alex Ovechkin’s. Trotz spent his first 15 years in the NHL behind the bench of a Nashville team that never advanced past the second round. He has led the Capitals to four straight playoff appearances, three division titles and two Presidents’ Trophies as the best team in the regular season. But this is the furthest he’s made it in the post-season.
When asked about his lack of a contract past this season, Trotz told the Washington Post earlier this month: “I signed for four years, and this is the fourth year. Beyond that, who knows?”
Capitals GM Brian MacLellan told reporters at the start of the playoffs that the team “wanted to wait to see how the year finished up — the total year,” before making a decision about Trotz. That presumably means he’s still being evaluated.
Cooper has had more post-season success, but with that success comes greater expectations. Ever since the Lightning lost to the Blackhawks in the 2015 final — Cooper’s second full year as Tampa Bay’s head coach — the team has been the perennial pre-season favourites to win the Cup. The Lightning lost to the Penguins in the conference final in 2016 and missed the playoffs last season. After acquiring general manager Steve Yzerman acquired Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller from the Rangers at the deadline, the pressure is on to go all the way.
As Cooper said prior to Game 1 of the conference final, “Personally, I just look at the window as 2017-18. That’s our window … coming into this season, we wanted to raise the Stanley Cup over our heads.”
With so much on the line, both Trotz and Cooper have so far done a masterful job of rolling with the punches and turning a back-and-forth series into a chess match.
After losing at home in Games 1 and 2, Cooper juggled the forward lines, putting replacing Miller with Ondrej Palat on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. He also gained an upper hand by matching Cedric Paquette’s line, not Brayden Point’s, against Washington’s high-powered trio of Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson.
It worked as the Lightning won Games 3 and 4 on the road and then took a 3-2 lead at home in Game 5. Of course, Trotz has been just as diligent in his use of Xs and Os.
Facing elimination on Monday night, the Capitals’ strategy in Game 6 was to run the Lightning out of the building and outhit their opponents 39-19 in a punishing display that led to a 3-0 victory at home.
What’s in store for Game 7? Well, who knows?
But keep an eye on the coaches’ lips afterwards. They just might reveal who has a job next season.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos