ARLINGTON, Va. -- Even a minor play in the first period of the Washington Capitals' first preseason game has value to coach Barry Trotz. He sees everything now through the same prism:
Are they getting it?
This one play in particular Sunday at Verizon Center was a sign they are.
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and defenseman Karl Alzner were tracking the puck in the defensive zone when they realized the Buffalo Sabres were positioning to try to make a play into what Trotz called a "soft area" of the zone. Ovechkin, playing deeper in the zone as he's supposed to support the defensemen, switched with Alzner, a move that threw off the Sabres. Ovechkin wound up intercepting a pass into that soft area and going the other way with the puck.
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"He was taking care of his responsibility," Trotz said. "It's some things that make the game easier for us, little details that sometimes when you're playing you don't think about and you go, 'Ah, it's not going to matter that much.' But it ends up mattering enough to where it makes the game easier for you."
That is Trotz's challenge in his first training camp with the Capitals. If he can make the game easier for the players, he trusts their talent will have a better chance to shine and the Capitals will be able to contend for the Stanley Cup.
His task is getting his players to play instinctively and think the game differently than they have in the past. He's putting more emphasis on breakouts and zone entries, and giving greater responsibility to the forwards to support the defensemen than the Capitals had in the past.
All indications are he's been on point so far in everything he's trying to accomplish.
"The culture feels different," forward Brooks Laich said. "The coach is the leader, he sets the tone with the leadership committee, and they set the tone with the rest of the players. It feels like that's the feeling we've been searching for for years around here."
Laich said the difference between this coaching change and the previous three he experienced in Washington is Trotz is a veteran NHL coach. He's 15th on the League's all-time coaching wins list with 557. He's fourth in wins among active coaches.
Before Trotz, the Capitals hadn't hired a coach with previous NHL experience as since Ron Wilson in 1997.
Laich said Trotz's experience already is paying big dividends. He used the leadership committee as an example.
Forming a players-only leadership committee was one of the first things Trotz did after he was hired May 26. He won't say publicly who is on it, but it is believed to include Ovechkin, Laich, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Brooks Orpik, Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera.
For the first time in nearly two decades the Washington Capitals have brought in a veteran NHL coach, and it's making a difference during training camp as Barry Trotz and his players already seem to be on the same page. (Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI)
Trotz held conference calls during the summer with the leadership committee to direct them on the changes that were coming so nothing came as a surprise in training camp. Nothing has.
"That's where the clear leadership from the coaching staff has been evident," Laich said.
Trotz has patience for his players to grasp the systems he wants them to play, but he's relying on their professionalism too. He doesn't want the players to be at the rink all day, so the coaches are cramming a lot into small windows of time and hoping the players ask enough questions and do enough homework to understand the concepts so they can execute them.
"We're in the age of why," Trotz said. "Our kids grow up and ask, 'Why do we do that?' I'm telling them why."
The Capitals still are working on developing the instincts to run Trotz's system without hesitation. The learning curve is accelerated because they don't want to use the regular season as a test period.
"I don't think anyone is quite there yet, but we have eight [preseason] games so we have time to get comfortable with it," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
Alzner said there hasn't been any pushback as far as he can tell.
"We know playing against Nashville the last few years that they were hard to play against, but the problem is they didn't have that high-end scoring punch," Alzner said. "We have that. If we can play that style with the guys scoring goals, we can see the progression and some light there."
The changes aren't limited to what's happening on the ice.
Laich said the coaches assigned the players their stalls in the dressing room at their practice rink and at Verizon Center.
In the past the Capitals players, at least the veterans, had sat in the same place even after coaching changes. Forwards sat next to defensemen. Alzner and John Carlson, familiar defense partners, did not sit together. It didn't seem like a productive working environment.
"There is change where players are going to be out of their comfort zone a little bit," Laich said. "He's told us that in camp: 'You're not playing with your usual linemates because I don't want you to rely on your linemates.' He said, 'You're going to be in a red jersey playing with another red jersey and this is how we're going to play.'"
That way was the hard way on the first day of camp. The players were on the ice for 45 minutes doing 1-on-1 battle drills before starting their on-ice conditioning tests. They were sucking wind and dreading the next whistle.
"That was probably the hardest Day 1 I've had with any of my training camps," Orpik said.
If it gets easier and easier as the days go on, Trotz will know the program is working, that the players are getting it. He's already seeing signs that it's happening.
"If we're machine precision on what we're doing, man, the game gets easy," Trotz said. "And then then it gets fun because you're having success."