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Trotz's Capitals could be blueprint for Leafs' transformation under Horachek

01/08/2015 07:00 EST | Updated 03/10/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Early this season, the Washington Capitals battled fits of inconsistency and the confusion that comes with yet another coach and another system. Almost halfway through the season, they looked like a team that had everything together.

The Capitals, in beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-2 Wednesday night, provided a blueprint for what Peter Horachek wants to accomplish the rest of the year. His mentor, Barry Trotz, took some time to get Alex Ovechkin and Co. to put the pieces together, but a recent stretch of at least a point in 14 of 15 games represents the consistency the Leafs want to find.

"I have a feeling they're going to be playing a pretty similar system," Capitals forward Eric Fehr said of the Leafs. "You can't do it all in one day. I think the most important part is the D-zone and we established that in training camp with a lot of physical battles in training camp and a lot of teaching.

"I don't know how much time they're going to have to learn it on the fly, but it's worked well for us now that we figured it out."

Washington forward Brooks Laich, now on his fifth coach along with many of his teammates after stints under Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates, estimated it takes 50 to 60 games "to really get your identity and identify how you're going to win."

The Leafs don't have that kind of time, at least to salvage this season. At the midpoint, they're 21-17-3 and a point out of a playoff spot. The Capitals, thanks to their recent run of success, are 21-11-7 and solidly in third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Much has changed for Washington, not the least of which has been stronger play from goaltender Braden Holtby, who has a 2.33 goals-against average and .930 save percentage over the past 15 games.

"It means he's playing really well and it means we're playing well defensively as well to give long-range shots, not second chances, that sort of thing," Laich said. "Our five-on-five play has improved. Two areas of that is the wall play, breaking out of our zone, and the net-front traffic at the other end has drastically improved."

The Capitals made roster changes from last season, with new general manager Brian McLellan bringing in defencemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to stabilize the team's biggest weakness. The Leafs may find themselves in a similar spot this summer trying to shore up a few areas.

But for now the teams have some similarities. Phil Kessel is a poor man's Ovechkin, a scoring winger who is the subject of criticism, and other key pieces match up, even if Washington has more depth of talent and the evidence to prove it from several playoff appearances.

Still, when Trotz took over for this season, it was something of a fresh start. The longtime Nashville Predators coach had to drill his philosophies into a veteran group that had gone through plenty of coaching changes already.

"The player has to make the commitment. That's where it starts," Trotz said. "I've been very fortunate that the guys that I've gotten an opportunity to coach here, they're committed to the buy-in and they wanted the change. ... They're a group that recognizes that there's a certain way we need to play as a group if we're going to be successful."

Horachek worked 10 seasons under Trotz as an assistant and then an associate coach for the Nashville Predators and could look to turn the Leafs into a version of the Capitals. But he doesn't have a long-term contract to work with, just 40-some games and the freedom that comes with lower expectations.

On a very small scale, Horachek is already following his good friend's lead, even if just subconsciously. Before his Leafs head-coaching debut, the 54-year-old said he wasn't going to rush changes, something Trotz was careful about in Washington.

"At the beginning of the season, Trotzy didn't want to give us too many adjustments," Fehr said. "We've slowly transformed our game into the way he wants us to play. I think he's done a good job of it, we understand what we need to do. I think we're pretty consistent at doing it."

General manager Dave Nonis cited inconsistency as the reason for firing coach Randy Carlyle. Horachek will try to instill something of that in the near future.

Even in the 6-2 loss to the Capitals, Horachek pointed to limiting chances and shots and controlling puck possession as positives the Leafs can build off of.

But Toronto is a long way from what its opponent was like Wednesday night. Change there has set in.

"I think it's the way we use all five guys in the D-zone to help break out the puck," Fehr said. "We do a good job coming back helping our defence find outlets. I think it really frustrates teams when they can't sustain pressure and we can just get the puck up and out."

With the Leafs trying to become more of a puck-possession team, first under Carlyle and now under Horachek, the first step is getting the puck back. Horachek is expected to adopt some of Trotz's theories to make that happen and began making adjustments Tuesday in practice.

"It's what we used to call five, five and five," Horachek said. "We want five guys in the defensive zone, in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone. It's all connected and we believe that's the way it has to be."

Even if the Leafs hope to replicate the Capitals, it won't be a smooth process. Trotz knows from the past few months that there are growing pains associated with change.

"Even if you're playing well defensively you might not get the wins," Trotz said. "You always get tested how far you're going to come off the rail, if you will, to have balance in your game. We've been tested a few times and you've got to keep pulling it back. To me I've been very fortunate, I've got some really good leaders in the room, our leadership group is strong. We've had some pointed talks, if you will, when it's gone off the rails a little bit."

It's unfair to expect Horachek to be a miracle worker, even though he worked under Trotz for so long. And as Laich knows, players need time to adjust to a new coach.

"A system is not a hard thing to execute, it's not," Laich said. "But it does take time to iron out every little detail of your switches in your own zone, your coverage changes, your side-to-side transitions, your rotations. Those are little, finite things that do take a little bit of time."

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