In an era where the star players dictate what goes on more than ever, at least two NHL coaches are pushing back and reasserting control during this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.
Nashville's Barry Trotz and Washington's Dale Hunter are polar opposites in many ways. Trotz is a calm and steady guiding force who's been with the Predators since the franchise's inception. Hunter is a fiery competitor who racked up 3,565 penalty minutes in his playing career and has been behind an NHL bench less than a season.
But there is common ground between the two as well, and not just because they're both trying to lead their teams past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since Hunter was playing back in 1998 in Capitals case and the first time period for the Predators.
Both have been faced with tough decisions this postseason, and both responded with decisive action. Trotz laid down the law with enigmatic stars Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, benching them both for Game 3 for a violation of team rules, while Hunter has cut back Alex Ovechkin's ice time in favor of more defensively responsible players late in tight games.
Radulov and Kostistyn's transgression was widely reported as the pair breaking curfew the night before Game 2, which Nashville lost 5-3 to fall into a 2-0 series hole.
With Matt Halischuk (2 takeaways) and Jordin Tootoo (game-high 5 hits) inserted into the lineup, the Predators won 2-0 to get back into the series and, on Friday, Trotz announced he would stick with the same lineup in Game 4 that night, leaving Radulov and Kostitsyn in the press box as the Predators try to even the series.
"The decision for me was pretty simple," Trotz told The Tennessean. "The group that went in there was very committed and got the job done, plain and simple."
Radulov, meanwhile, has built a reputation for his lack of commitment. He walked away from Nashville in 2008 to play in the KHL before returning in late March to finally honor the end of his contract. There's no denying the talent brings to the Predators, but that talent means little when there's no effort to actually apply it.
Radulov showed what he is capable of doing in the opening round against Detroit when he led Nashville with 1-4-5 totals in five games against Detroit. But he disappeared in the first two games against Phoenix with one assist, just one shot and a minus-3 rating while often dogging it on defense.
His benching may be the wake-up call Radulov needs to finally put his skills to use consistently, and Trotz has wisely chosen not to burn his bridges with the talented imports completely. Trotz hasn't ruled out dressing them again later in the playoffs, but in the meantime the rest of the club can rally around knowing that everyone in Friday's lineup is fully committed, and that their coach will accept nothing else.
Hunter is also walking a tightrope, trying to get the most out of his team without completely alienating the franchise's marquee attraction. He has been far more judicious in his use of Ovechkin than Hunter's predecessors behind the Washington bench, playing him extensively when the Capitals are behind and in need of scoring and limiting his time on the ice when Washington is trying to protect a lead.
The pattern was set in the opening round against Boston, and worked well as the Capitals role players took advantage of their extra ice time to help shut down the reigning champs with Washington squeaking out the win in a defensive struggle with an overtime victory in Game 7.
Hunter has stuck to the plan in the second round, limiting Ovechkin to a season-low 13:36 in Game 2 against the Rangers. In proof that sometimes less is more, Ovechkin still managed seven shots that night, including one that went in for the game-winning goal.
Ovechkin has led all Washington forwards in ice time in every season and postseason since coming into the league in 2005, with last year's 21:21 average his lowest ice time until this season. Under Hunter, Ovechkin was reduced to 19:48 in the regular season, but that still led all caps forwards.
In the playoffs, Ovechkin is averaging 20:45, but that is skewed by the 35:14 he played in Wednesday's triple-overtime epic. He's played under 18 minutes in five of Washington's 10 playoff games and ranks eighth in ice time, including just third among forwards.
Hunter is staking his NHL future on the gamble that he can lead the Caps deep into the playoffs by keeping a tighter rein on Ovechkin in key situations. So far, Ovechkin has bought in with Washington winning, but it is a risky strategy to go against the face of the franchise who still has nine years left on a $124 million deal.
Hunter's tactics did get an endorsement from an unlikely source, with the man he replaced in Washington coming out in support.
"A lot has been made about Ovechkin and his ice time," Bruce Boudreau wrote in a blog for the Los Angeles Times. "I admire Dale Hunter for following the beat of his own drum. He is looking at the game and saying, 'This is how we are going to win.' He's staying true to himself and doing exactly what he thinks is the right thing in order to be successful."
If Trotz and Hunter do prove successful this postseason, it just might change the star culture in the league a bit and restore some of the team concept that has eroded over the years.
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