There aren’t many coaches who have a profound understanding of their players, extensive knowledge of the game and an ability to implement a winning team culture wherever they go. Most are proficient in one, maybe two, if they’re lucky.
Barry Trotz is the epitome of a triple-threat in this regard.
The Islanders’ head coach has established himself as one of hockey’s masterminds throughout his career. From his playing days in junior hockey and the AHL, through stints as a scout and an assistant coach, to pioneering as leader of an NHL expansion team before ultimately winning the Stanley Cup, Trotz has an unparalleled view of the game that has brought him success wherever he has gone.
With an 877-635-60 career record in the NHL — which ranks the Dauphin, Manitoba, native third on the league’s all-time coaching wins list — Trotz has clearly developed a knack for winning games.
In 1993-94, his second season as an AHL head coach, Trotz won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award, which is given to the top coach in the league. He’s also a two-time winner of the NHL equivalent, the Jack Adams Award, earning it with the Capitals (2015-16) and during his first season with the Islanders (2018-19).
But beyond the statistics, records and numbers that prove Trotz is one of the best at what he does, is a coach who has commanded respect from everyone with whom he has worked.
That has been apparent since the moment Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello signed Trotz to his five-year, $20 million deal in June 2018. The Islanders have bought into Trotz’s philosophy of playing for the logo on the front of their jerseys rather than the name on the back. He preaches that playing a well-rounded game, competing with heart and maintaining a collective belief in themselves will allow his players to “climb to the top of the mountain,” as he likes to put it.
The 58-year-old is gearing up for his 14th NHL playoffs, with the Islanders set to face the Penguins in Game 1 of the first round Sunday at noon in Pittsburgh. After getting within two wins of reaching the Stanley Cup finals during the bubble playoffs last season, Trotz said he’d have visions of losing to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals on his deathbed.
Trotz always has held himself to the highest standard, even when he was a teenager in the Western Hockey League.
After serving as captain of the hockey team at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a boarding high school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, Trotz, at 19, began his career in the WHL with the Regina Pats in 1979.
Trotz already had been away from his family for some time, so moving in with one of his teammates, Garth Butcher, and his family wasn’t a tough transition. Butcher, who was 18 at the time and grew up in Regina, shared the basement with Trotz.
“He was much better behaved than I was,” Butcher told The Post with a chuckle in a recent phone call.
“I do recall one night, because we were in the basement, we had some windows in the back,” Butcher continued. “I had a girlfriend coming over to see me at night, but I hadn’t arrived home yet. Trotzy heard her knocking at the window, and he was kind enough to help her through the window till I got home.
“He’s a guy that basically if you ever told him a secret, you knew that secret was good.”
Trotz surely wasn’t one of the bigger guys on the team, but he was a good skater and had the right head for the game, according to Butcher. He was known as a team guy in the locker room, wasn’t cliquey and was friendly with everybody no matter their stature.
“Trotzy was always figuring out the game and thinking through the game,” Butcher said. “By the same token, it was a pretty tough league back then. He was fearless. He was first guy into the corner every time, he played like he was a bigger man.”
After three seasons with the Pats, accumulating 14 goals and 49 assists, Trotz was invited to training camp in 1982 with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ AHL team. Bears director of player recruitment Jack Button saw something in Trotz, but he was ultimately cut.
Trotz finished his WHL days with the Brandon Wheat Kings in 1983. To wrap up that year, he competed for his hometown team, the Dauphin Kings, which won the Manitoba Junior Hockey League title and Anavet Cup.
But the Capitals organization wasn’t done with Trotz. Button, who died of leukemia in 1996, encouraged newly appointed vice president of hockey operations and general manager David Poile to see Trotz for what he was: a rare hockey mind.
Washington hired Trotz who had begun his coaching career as an assistant at the University of Manitoba in 1984, as a part-time scout. Trotz also served as head coach and general manager of his former team, the Kings, from 1985-87 during his time as a scout for the Capitals.
“I got to know Barry more through meetings,” said Poile, who now is president and general manager of the Predators. “You could tell he was an up-and-coming, really good hockey mind. He worked hard at it in terms of the number of games he went to, and his input in meetings was terrific. At that time, I guess I started to see some of the things that Jack saw in him.”
After returning to Manitoba as a head coach for the 1987-88 season, Trotz was brought on as the assistant of the Capitals’ former minor-league affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks, under Rob Laird. He worked alongside Laird from 1990-92 before assuming head-coaching responsibilities during the 1992-93 season.
Laird and Trotz had a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic in Baltimore. When Trotz took charge of the team, he already had the respect of the players because they all knew what he expected of them.
“Barry was the one that you could go talk to when things weren’t going well,” said former NHL forward Tim Taylor, who played three AHL seasons under Trotz and is now director of player development for the Blues. “He’s the one that approached you, where in those times, head coaches, the communication wasn’t there. So you really relied on Barry. He’s the one who initiated it all, too. He’d come to you. I think that because he had the lack of experience and his personality, it allowed the guys to talk freely with him.”
When the franchise moved to Portland, Maine, and rebranded as the Portland Pirates, Trotz led the team to two Calder Cup finals, winning it all in the team’s inaugural season in 1994. He qualified for the playoffs in each of the four seasons he coached in Portland.
“I have never been around somebody that can process the game so well,” said Shawn Simpson, who was a goalie for the Skipjacks. “His ability to sit and watch something in live time and make adjustments and kind of see it. It’s a gift that I then couldn’t understand, and I still don’t understand it.”
When Poile landed the job in Nashville in 1997 (ahead of the expansion team’s 1998 start), he made a point to call several people who were familiar with what it took to lead an expansion team.
“Everybody said the same thing, ‘David, your team isn’t going to very good. You should hire the most experienced guy that you can get, because that will cover up a lot of flaws for your team,’ ” Poile said. “So I did the exact opposite and hired somebody that had never coached in the NHL. But it was one of my best decisions I ever made.”
Poile knew Trotz would be appreciative, as he always was in Washington, but Trotz was close to tears when offered the head-coaching job of the Predators in August 1997. Trotz earned playoff berths in seven of his 15 seasons in Nashville, but it devastated Poile that they weren’t able to win the Cup together.
“I knew that he was going to be even better the next place he went to,” said Poile, who has the most wins as a general manager in NHL history. “And then the next place he went to …”
Trotz finally won the Stanley Cup in 2018 with the same team that gave him his first opportunities in professional hockey, the Capitals. He did it in four seasons, just like he said he would. With a stunning 205-89-34 record in Washington, Trotz put the NHL on notice.
But when the Capitals couldn’t reach an agreement with Trotz on an extension, he became just the seventh head coach in the expansion era to not return to his team after winning the Cup.
Lamoriello, who became president of the Islanders in May 2018 before naming himself general manager the following month, quickly snatched up Trotz and paid him more than double what he had been earning in Washington. The longtime GM felt he needed an individual who exuded success.
Trotz has now installed a winning culture into the Islanders, just as he has with every other team he has been a part of.
He has lived up to his reputation as being detail-oriented, always prepared and structured — traits that Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said he took from Trotz and incorporated into his own coaching style after playing under him with the Skipjacks in 1990-91. Quenneville, second all-time in wins, has 85 more victories than Trotz.
“I look at coaching, my time, as I’m in a partnership with the players,” Trotz said in March, after becoming just the third ever to coach 1,700 games. “We’re in a partnership to win hockey games. The other partnership is to make you the best version of yourself, whatever that version is.”