One of the many questions facing Barry Trotz as he prepares the Capitals for their 40th anniversary season is how he will treat his Russian players, particularly star captain Alex Ovechkin.
Fairly or not, Trotz was accused of clashing with Russian players when he was in Nashville, where he suspended Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for two playoff games in 2012 for breaking curfew.
At last month’s NHL draft in Philadelphia, Trotz was asked about his relationships with Russian players and he shared some interesting thoughts on the matter.
“I’ve also coached Swedes and Swiss,” Trotz told a Russian reporter. “Russian players, they’re really no different than the other nationalities, really.”
Trotz said during his introductory news conference that he would first need to get to know Ovechkin before he could get his 28-year-old captain to play the style he wants.
“It can’t happen until I have a relationship with him because there’s no trust,” Trotz said. “For me, Alex has to trust that I’m giving him the best advice for the team, for him, to grow his game.
“I don’t know Alex as well. Going against him, I know what he does well, but I need to know Alex the person. Coaching’s not just about Xs and Os, it’s about people.”
Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who has spent the past 17 years with Trotz, said there will no gray areas when it comes to Ovechkin and Trotz.
“Ovi will know where he stands with Barry,” Korn said. “I guarantee that.”
Trotz often talks about building a culture with the Capitals, who for years have been known as a Euro-friendly team. However, their projected 2014-15 roster has 13 Canadians, four Americans, three Russians and two Swedes.
Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, 22, and defenseman Dmitry Orlov, 22, each of whom saw limited ice time under Adam Oates, could be key pieces of the Capitals’ puzzle under Trotz.
Kuznetsov is entering the final year of a two-year contract signed late last season that carries a $900,000 cap hit but includes $2.85 million in performance bonuses.
Orlov signed a two-year extension that pays him $1.75 million this season and $2.25 million in 2015-16.
While many will focus on Trotz’ relationship with Ovechkin, it will be interesting to see how the 52-year-old coach handles the two young Russians, especially after his mercurial relationship with Radulov, who played two seasons for the Predators, left to play in the KHL for parts of four seasons, was suspended by Trotz soon after his return to Nashville in 2012, and returned to the KHL after his brief return to the Preds.
Trotz said one of the reasons NHL teams shy away from drafting Russian players – the Caps have drafted just one Russian [goaltender Sergei Kostenko, 7th round, 2012] since taking Kuznetsov and Stanislav Galiev in 2010 – is the threat of the Kontinental Hockey League.
“They have options over there,” Trotz said. “You want your whole foot in the water if you’re going to play in the National Hockey League.
“I don’t want your toe. If you’re just going to put your toe in the water … A couple Russian players have come over and they don’t put their whole foot in the NHL sometimes, and that holds them back.
“… If it’s just about the money, then probably the KHL is a better option.”