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Barry Trotz has a reputation as a fixer, but it’s unlikely many hockey people thought he could work this quickly.
Trotz, a 56-year-old from Dauphin, was hired in the off-season by the New York Islanders after guiding the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup title last spring.
His new job looked like a long-term project. Few would have imagined the Islanders would be battling for the Metropolitan Division lead for most of 2018-19, but that’s where they’ve been.
Entering Thursday’s game in Winnipeg, the Islanders (44-26-7) were tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for second in the Metro and only three points back of the front-running Caps. It’s a far cry from last season’s non-playoff finish in which they gave up more goals (296) than any other NHL team and had the league’s eighth worst goal differential (minus-36).
Did Trotz think the reboot could materialize so quickly?
“Honestly, I (didn’t) know,” said Trotz following Thursday’s morning skate at Bell MTS Place. “I went in not knowing much about their players other than what you know when you play against them. (Islanders director of goaltending) Mitch Korn has a term that I’ll steal from him and that’s ‘you don’t know until you own it,’ and I didn’t know where we were going to be.
“I knew we could fix our ability to defend. That’s commitment. That’s detail. That can be fixed. I thought we could score some goals with the people we still had and I didn’t know enough about the individuals. But as training camp went along, I started to feel pretty confident we could be a pretty solid team.”
A franchise superstar, John Tavares, departed via free agency but a sizeable, veteran core remained. Sophomore defenceman Ryan Pulock noticed major chances from the start of training camp.
The old, freewheeling Isles of the Doug Weight era were history.
“It was basically just a lot of skating, a lot of work and kind of a change of that mindset,” said Pulock, who hails from Grandview, a 30-minute drive west on Highway 5 from Dauphin. “It wasn’t going to be easy, but we came in here and put in the work, (knowing) we could change our defensive game. (The new coaching staff) came in with a plan and put the trust in one another.
“We’ve gone out and done a good job and our goalies have done a good job. When you can put those two together, you have success.”
Emerging superstar centre Matthew Barzal believes buying in to a defence-first policy was crucial.
“Details are a big thing,” said Barzal. “Just all-around, passing hard and passing on the tape and being sure of defensive detail, it’s been a key this year and contributed to our success. We have a good checking D-corps; in practice battling against them they’re tough to play against.”
Trotz has also dialled down the risk factor.
“I’ve had one other coach, Dougie (Weight), and we were definitely tailored to a little more offence,” explained Barzal. “Just the D-men getting up in the rush, pinching the puck and taking that extra chance. Eight out of 10 times it might work out but two out of 10 it might lead to a 2-on-1. We’ve kinda eliminated those 2-on-1s and we’ve made sure we’re making 100 per cent plays. It’s really being disciplined and solid defensively and that being our MO, that being our identity. And you know, it’s worked.”
The changes took hold quickly. Pulock, who was a third pairing blue-liner during his first full season in the NHL, has morphed into a top-four defenceman getting heavy minutes. His average ice time is at 22:18, almost four minutes more than 2017-18.
“The first couple weeks, you’re learning and it’s a process, (with) new systems, but a couple of weeks in you could start to see we were winning those 2-1 games and we weren’t giving up a whole lot,” said Pulock. “That’s kinda what we’ve been doing all year from that point. We do a good job of keeping things to the outside and being hard in our zone and not giving up those grade A chances like we did in the past.”
Despite the huge turnaround, Trotz believes his work is far from done.
“Coaching is not only about the X’s and O’s,” said Trotz. “It’s about relationships and how people deal with different pressures. When there’s no pressure, it’s easy to deal with. When there’s pressure, guys react differently… There’s a lot of guys in our room that haven’t played a lot of these meaningful games… We’re learning to get more comfortable.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.