Barry Trotz gambled on himself Monday when he resigned his position as the Washington Capitals' head coach less than two weeks after guiding the franchise to its first Stanley Cup, believing he could land himself top-tier pay akin to that of the likes of the NHL’s top-tier bench bosses.
And it has taken Trotz all of three days to see that bet pay off in a big way.
Amid rumors he was a top candidate for the vacant Islanders coaching position, New York announced Thursday that Trotz, 55, has indeed been hired as the organization's new coach, with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reporting the contract is a five-year deal worth “at least” $4 million per season. While that’s not quite a Mike Babcock or Joel Quenneville-esque salary — both earn at least $6 million — earning $4 million annually for his work behind the Islanders’ bench would make Trotz the fourth-highest paid coach in the NHL, according to CapFriendly. That is, however, among the known salaries, as the financials of the contracts for several prominent bench bosses are unknown.
In New York, Trotz will replace Doug Weight, who was relieved of his duties after just 122 games as coach of the Islanders. Weight had originally taken the bench on an interim basis following the firing of Jack Capuano at the midpoint of the 2016-17 campaign, and while his 24-12-4 record was a promising step forward for New York over the back half of that season, the past season was catastrophic for the Islanders in a number of ways. After a strong start and flirting with a playoff berth across the opening months of the season, New York came crashing back to earth as result of atrocious defensive play. The Islanders finished the campaign with the highest goals-against average of any team in the past decade and the fourth-largest in the entire post-lockout era.
The directive for Trotz will be clear from the outset: get the Islanders back to prominence by not only guiding New York to the post-season for the first time in two seasons but by making the franchise a consistent playoff contender. And one of his primary responsibilities in taking over in New York, and one way he’ll be able to right the ship in a hurry, will be shoring up a leaky defense. And Trotz’s defensive track record makes him appear to be the perfect fit in that regard.
During his prior 15-season tenure with the Predators, which spanned from 1998-99 to 2012-13, Nashville tied for 13th in goals-against average. If you remove the first five seasons from the equation, too, which were the campaigns in which Nashville was gaining traction as an expansion franchise, the Predators had the eighth-best goals-against average. And if we focus on his five-year tenure with the Capitals, a club that wasn’t at all noted for its defensive responsibility before his arrival, Trotz’s resume shines brighter. He helped Washington to the fifth-best goals-against average of any team in the NHL from 2013-14 onward, with only four-one hundredths of a goal per game separating the Capitals from the second-place Anaheim Ducks.
Trotz will have a decent stable of rearguards to work with in attempting to get New York back on track, too. By no means is it comparable to the blueline the Predators currently boast, nor does it match even, say, the Winnipeg Jets or Calgary Flames D-corps in quality, but Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Ryan Pulock, Brandon Davidson and the potential return of Calvin de Haan would give Trotz a foundation with which to work. That’s not to mention Sebastian Aho or Devon Toews, both of whom could possibly crack the roster as depth defenders as early as the coming campaign.
And while goaltending is a necessary addition for the Islanders this summer, particularly with Jaroslav Halak set to hit the market and Thomas Greiss coming off of a sub-.900 save percentage season, Trotz may very well be able to find some immediate comfort between the pipes should the Islanders acquire Philipp Grubauer from the Capitals. Washington GM Brian MacLellan said he’s going to evaluate his options for moving the 26-year-old restricted free agent netminder, and there’s a possibility Grubauer follows Trotz, who gave him a shot as the Capitals’ starter to open the past post-season, to the Islanders. If that comes to pass, it would give Trotz’s new-look New York defense an immediate boost. Grubauer’s .923 SP is the third-best mark of netminders to play at least 80 games across the past three seasons.
The need for improvements defensively and the potential to see some familiar faces come opening night with the Islanders aren’t the only parallels Trotz might be able to draw between Washington and New York, however. Upon his hiring in Washington ahead of the 2013-14 campaign, the Capitals had posted the league’s ninth-best offensive totals over the three prior seasons, scoring at 2.75 goals per game, with that often being the focal point of their game. Similarly, the Islanders have had the seventh-best offense in the NHL over the past three campaigns, scoring 2.96 goals per game. Washington actually improved offensively during Trotz’s tenure — they rose to 3.11 goals per game — and there could be similar room for the Islanders to grow.
And while all coaches have their blindspots, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Trotz has played at least some part in the development of a few top contributors in Washington over the past few seasons. Evgeny Kuznetsov grew into a top-line center under Trotz’s watch, while others such as Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and even Jakub Vrana, especially late in the past post-season, flourished over the past few seasons in Washington. If Trotz can help young Islanders such as Mathew Barzal, Josh Ho-Sang, Kieffer Bellows and Michael Dal Colle develop in a similar way, his hiring in New York will pay even greater dividends.
All of this, of course, is to say nothing of what Trotz’s hiring can potentially do for New York’s chances of re-signing pending free agent John Tavares. Less than two weeks away from being able to hit the open market, Tavares is a crucial part of the Islanders’ off-season plan and retaining the superstar center is of paramount importance. Tavares has said in the past that he wants to see the organization do everything in its power to win, and New York’s hiring of — and reported big-spend to land — the top coaching free agent speaks volumes about their dedication to fielding a winning team. And, if nothing else, if Trotz’s hiring allows the Islanders to retain their captain and arguably the biggest free agent the league has seen in the salary cap era, every single penny the coach is paid will be worth it.
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