Cup Final is bittersweet validation for fired Hershey Bears coach
WASHINGTON — The text message lit up Troy Mann’s phone the morning after the Capitals eliminated the Penguins with a patchwork lineup featuring five rookies. It came from Barry Trotz.
“Thanks Manner for having all those rookie Caps ready,” Trotz wrote. “They all played well — you own a piece of this win last night.”
Mann beamed with pride when more than a half-dozen players he coached with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears contributed to the victory that got the Capitals into the Eastern Conference final. Many of those players are still playing key roles for Washington in the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights — more than a month after Mann was fired from his job as Hershey’s head coach.
This is a bittersweet time for Mann, who had a hand in the development of Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson and Christian Djoos as coach and was an assistant when Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Andre Burakovsky, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson went through Hershey on their way to the NHL. Considering the success of those players and Hershey products Nate Schmidt and Cody Eakin contributing for Vegas, the Cup Final is a validation of Mann’s methods of getting prospects ready for the next level.
“I called Troy Mann the other day and thanked him for producing a lot of good players,” Trotz said. “All the players he had the last couple of years are all playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. Guys who haven’t played a (playoff) game before. They’ve brought some of that winning tradition that they had in Hershey. It’s important for those guys to be a part of it.”
Mann has remained connected to the Capitals’ playoff run by talking to Trotz and Hershey video coach Mike King, who’s in Washington. Amid interviews with other organizations for another AHL job or work as an NHL assistant, he has watched about 80 percent of the Capitals’ games this postseason and can see the elements in players’ games he and assistant Ryan Murphy harped on improving during their four-year tenure.
After giving Vrana some tough love by scratching him in the playoffs a year ago, Mann notices the 22-year-old winger getting between the faceoff dots to create offense like he asked. He watches Stephenson playing with the consistency that was sometimes lacking in Hershey, which was all part of the plan.
“We talked a lot during our time here about what they needed to do at the NHL level to be successful,” Mann said by phone this week. “The thing we’ve seen the most with our guys is just the improvement level from year to year and month to month.”
As much as Mann notices the improvement from afar, the players feel it, too, and credit him for giving them the playing time to grow their games in Hershey, a market that expects championships as much as development.
“He just gave us a chance,” said Stephenson, who has seven points in his first Stanley Cup playoffs. “The type of franchise that Hershey’s been and having so many Calder Cups and things like that, he put a lot of faith in the younger guys and just trusted us. He wanted us to get to the next level more so than you wanted yourself. I really respected him as a coach and liked him as a coach and to have that faith and trust (from) him, it’s helped me a lot.”
His support several years ago helped Eakin become a full-time NHL player who said Mann “knows how to get the most out of his players.” Schmidt, who had Mann as an assistant and a head coach, appreciated pre-practice skills sessions to work on his hands and stick work and the honesty with which he deals with players.
“I thought he was great,” Schmidt said Saturday. “You always knew where you stood with him. That’s something that I really respect.”
But after three playoff appearances including a trip to the Calder Cup Final in 2016, missing the postseason this year led to the Capitals not renewing Mann’s contract.
“Troy is a dedicated and hard-working coach, and we appreciate all he has done for the Hershey Bears,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement. “At this point, we feel a fresh approach and a change in leadership is needed in order for us to continue to develop our young players towards the next level and for success at the AHL level.”
That stung for Mann, who worked eight of the past nine years in the Capitals’ system, made Hershey his home in that time and believed he did his job.
“I think it’s very difficult for anybody to tell me that I haven’t done my job here,” Mann said. “I’m very grateful they gave me my first opportunity. As much as I’d love to be the head coach of Hershey next year, the only thing I can hope for now is that other NHL teams are recognizing the work that we did here and that’ll help pay off in the next few weeks here of securing another opportunity.”
Mann was a finalist for one job already and is in demand as Ottawa, Arizona and Colorado all look to fill AHL head-coaching vacancies. He has a big supporter in Trotz, who said recently the Capitals wouldn’t be Eastern Conference champions without Mann and Murphy helping develop Stephenson, Vrana, Djoos, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd and Madison Bowey.
“They did a really good job,” Trotz said. “They’ve developed well, and they’ve been a big part of it.”