If you were hoping for a little clarity as to why the Islanders decided to fire coach Barry Trotz on Monday, general manager Lou Lamoriello didn’t have much for you in a follow-up conference call that took place about a half-hour after the news shocked the hockey world.
Instead, the primary takeaways were as follows:
• The decision was Lamoriello’s and Lamoriello’s alone.
“Did I consult with anyone on this decision? The answer is no,” Lamoriello said. “Did I speak to players on this decision? No. I would never even consider thinking of anything like that. This decision is on the knowledge that I have, of the experiences I’ve had, and also going forward as far as what I think and feel is best for this group to have success.”
• That Trotz had one year left on his contract wasn’t a factor.
“Not at all,” Lamoriello said.
According to The Athletic‘s Pierre LeBrun, the final year of Trotz’s original five-year deal was at a $4 million salary.
• The Islanders failing to meet expectations this season was not the sole reason Trotz was let go.
“This decision was not just primarily made on this season,” Lamoriello said in what was perhaps his most puzzling statement, considering the Islanders were coming off back-to-back trips to the league semifinals, losing both times to the eventual Stanley Cup- Lightning champ.
• There is no timetable to find a new coach, and all of Trotz’s assistant coaches are still with the team, including Lane Lambert, who many believe is ready for a head coaching job himself.
“Each and every one of our assistant coaches are under contract for next year,” Lamoriello said. “We’ll address everything appropriately and a new coach will have a voice in whatever decisions ought to be made, if they are to be made.”
• There was no rift between Lamoriello and Trotz.
At least not according to Lamoriello.
“I spoke to Barry this morning,” he said. “We have a, and have had, and will always have, a tremendous personal relationship. This is certainly a business decision, as far as hockey and winning.”
But the biggest question — what was the reasoning behind this move? — was essentially left unanswered other than the standard “this group of players needs a new voice” trope that is so regularly uttered in situations like these in professional sports.
Trotz is regarded around the NHL as one of the league’s best coaches. He won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018 and won five playoff rounds (plus a qualifying round) with the Islanders in his four seasons. If he isn’t a good enough voice for this team, who could possibly be a better one?
Perhaps it’s Lambert, although logic would seem to dictate that if it was, the team would have announced it concurrently with Monday’s news.
That will be answered at some point this offseason, of course. And along with finding a new coach, Lamoriello also has work to do to alter the roster. He has said he believes he has the correct core in place but touched on what his priorities might be at the end of his call Monday.
“We’d like to improve our defense if we can, as far as offensively,” he said. “If there’s a way of making a hockey deal, certainly with our forwards, we would do that. I think what we have to do is get improvement out of our younger players and also a more complete year out of some of our veterans than we did this year.”
That last nugget could offer insight into how Lamoriello came to the decision he did regarding Trotz. While young players, like Noah Dobson and Ilya Sorokin, did take huge strides this season, others, like Oliver Wahlstrom, did not. Trotz’s handling of Wahlstrom was a particularly hot-button topic throughout the second half, as was the coach’s long leash for veterans who struggled in the early part of the season.
And then there’s the still-young Mathew Barzal. The 24-year-old forward is the most individually talented player on the Islanders’ roster but saw his ice time and role reduced over the second half of the season. He is also eligible to sign a long-term contract extension this summer as a restricted free agent.
One league source with knowledge of the Islanders’ dressing room pushed back on Lamoriello’s assertion that the decision was made without any player input, pointing out that the general manager surely knew what they were thinking after holding the standard individual player meetings immediately after the season.
“When you wait a week to fire a guy, you’ve obviously listened to the players in their meetings,” the source said. “It wasn’t done right when the season was over. So he took a week, met with the players, and obviously the players’ voices have been heard here and this is the result.”
If players were indeed critical of Trotz after the season, they weren’t the only ones. Trotz himself openly questioned the way he handled the Islanders’ strange circumstances. For example, he wondered whether the team would have been better off resting more and practicing less in January, when it had one game in a 13-day span to start the New Year.
He also pondered whether the Islanders’ style of play, which he’s in charge of implementing, holds up better over a shorter period of time, like in the 2020 playoff bubble or the 2021 shortened season.
“The 56-game schedule (in 2021), we probably played 48 playoff-(like) games, hard,” Trotz said. “Eighty-two was a little tougher for us to play that style — that hard, grinding style. And we didn’t have much of a break.
“We had like five mini-training camps. Some of those we probably didn’t need because there was still that mental grind of preparing. We had like a 10-day training camp (in January). Looking back, maybe we should have taken five days off. Sometimes you try to push too hard and you get less done.”
That could have been the case. That style also could have led to frustration in the dressing room and in the postseason meetings. At least some players on the Islanders were not surprised by Monday’s apparent bombshell, according to a league source.
“Is it fun to play that way?” the source said. “Is it fun to have your stick in a certain lane all the time? You don’t play with instinct. It adds up after a while. With his style of play and his structure, you’re either all-in or you’re not. If you’re not all-in, it’s not going to work. It’s as simple as that.”
An Eastern Conference team executive echoed that sentiment.
“When you play the way that the Islanders play, it’s a hard way to play night in and night out, year after year,” the exec said. “It takes incredible discipline. That’s why I think teams that play like that always have to change out a few pieces every year, no matter how successful they are: to bring in a little bit of life into the team.
“They’re a hard team to play against defensively. They don’t give you a lot. But it’s also a hard way to play for them, to play that way every night.”
Still, whether a change behind the bench was necessary can be debated. Trotz’s tenure with the Islanders can only be considered a resounding success, and he’ll leave Long Island with his reputation as one of the game’s best head coaches firmly intact. Trotz, 59, is third in NHL history in wins by a coach (914), trailing only Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Joel Quenneville (969). In four seasons under Trotz, the Islanders posted a 152-102-34 record in the regular season and a 28-21 mark in the playoffs. He won the 2019 Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach.
There is already speculation as to where he could end up next, with many suggesting that the Winnipeg Jets would make the most sense. Trotz said after the conclusion of the Islanders’ last game that he still had a number of personal situations to handle, likely stemming from the death of his mother in January in Manitoba. He hails from Dauphin, Manitoba, about three hours from Winnipeg.
“He’s a great coach,” the exec said. “He’s a Stanley Cup winner. He’s a terrific person. The reality is there’s no shame in failing every once in a while. You lose your job because of accountability, expectations, whatever. That’s part of our business. Results really should be what matters in our business. That is what matters for a lot of ownerships and general managers like Lou Lamoriello.
“Lou is about accountability, and they missed the playoffs. I think that sometimes in our league everybody wants to look at excuses — like, there was injuries, and there was COVID, and there was all these other things. But Lou’s history has been that he’s looking for results. And they underachieved.”
From Lamoriello’s perspective, he expects the players to respond to whomever he chooses as the 18th head coach in franchise history.
“These type of decisions are made for going forward, not backward,” he said. “I think with this group we have, they are on notice right now that the new voice is what’s necessary for us to have success, in my opinion. Unfortunately or fortunately, my opinion is what has to make these decisions.”
(Photo of Barry Trotz on the bench with Zach Parise and Oliver Wahlstrom: Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)