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NHL

Barry Trotz Takes The Fall

ELMONT, NEW YORK - MARCH 03: Head coach Barry Trotz of the New York Islanders speaks with the media prior to the game against the Vancouver Canucks at the UBS Arena on March 03, 2022 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

You hire Lou Lamoriello with the full knowledge that he likes firing guys. Loves it! Can’t get enough of it. He’s going to turn around a struggling franchise, and he’s going to fire a coach or six. Sometimes that second thing kicks off the first thing. Sometimes it’s subsequent. And sometimes, at the most interesting of times, it’s fully coterminous. This is The Lou Experience, and knowing the deal still doesn’t make it any less surprising that the Islanders just canned head coach Barry Trotz.

The Isles were a mess this year, but Trotz remains the guy who oversaw three straight playoff seasons, including two trips to the third round in which New York was eliminated by eventual Cup champs Tampa. Those were by any measure unexpectedly successful seasons for a mostly star-less Islander team, propelled by standout goaltending and near-flawless execution of Trotz’s signature defensive hockey. Trotz has one more year left on his deal and was thought safe, given what he’d done and who he’d done it with. But, again, this is the Lou Lamoriello show, where no number of overachieving seasons can make up for a single underachieving one.

Here’s Lou, not really helping his case:

If you want to read some tea leaves, you can, for a number of narratives. Lamoriello made the usual noise about the dressing room needing “a new voice,” which is plausible enough, especially on a veteran team—players tuning out a coach is a real thing that happens and not one that tends to be reversible. (Still, Lamoriello said today he didn’t consult with any players on this.) Then there’s this, which to me hints at some discord in contract negotiations. Perhaps he didn’t want to coach next season as a lame duck; perhaps Lamoriello didn’t want to commit beyond next year. Again, plausible enough—Trotz was only behind this bench because he left the Capitals right after winning a Cup because he felt disrespected in extension talks with Washington. (Worth noting: The Caps haven’t gotten out of the first round since.)

The reasons will come out in time. But no explanation will convince me that what ails the Islanders is Trotz’s fault. This season was a bizarre disaster from the start, with the team spending six weeks on the road because its new arena wasn’t ready, and then the roster and schedule being ravaged by COVID-19. By the time things finally settled down into some sense of normality—and indeed they played at a playoff-qualifying pace in the last third of the season—the Isles were basically already out of it.

While none of those factors are likely to be repeated, the Islanders aren’t in a particularly good place. They’re aging, and locked into some potentially unpleasant contracts. Their roster moves doubled down on their grinding style, and they paid for it with one of the worst scoring offenses in the league. They’d probably love to have back Devon Toews and Jordan Eberle, who because of cap issues they gave up for, respectively, very little or nothing. Their last offseason was spent nibbling around the edges, signing a bunch of old guys and hoping for the best, a strategy that rarely pays off and didn’t here.

None of the items in that paragraph can be laid on a coach. In fact—one could argue if one were so inclined—the blame should fall on, say, a GM and president of hockey operations. Maybe even of a GM and president of hockey operations—again, speaking theoretically—who just fired his head coach to distract from his own failings in building a roster.

Trotz will land on his feet. One sign of a questionable firing is when, the second it’s announced, multiple teams begin salivating at the thought of hiring the newly available coach. Trotz, for all that went wrong this season, is instantly an appealing and superior option for many—most?—NHL franchises. Let’s also invert that equation: Just how easy does Lamoriello think it’s going to be to find a coach better than Barry Trotz?