After leading the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup championship last June, head coach Barry Trotz asked management to show him the money. Stacks and stacks of it, in fact. And you could understand why he felt that way.
Only Gregg Popovich, the venerable coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, has more tenure than Trotz among the head coaches of professional teams in North America.
Trotz coached the first of his 1,524 games in Nashville in 1998 and he’s worked in the league ever since. He also has 798 career wins, fourth all-time. Scotty Bowman is the only coach with at least 1,000 wins (1,244) and it certainly seems conceivable Trotz might be the second.
Plus, Trotz, who made $1.5 million last season, understood other NHL coaches like Toronto’s Mike Babcock ($6.25 million), Chicago’s ex-coach Joel Quenneville ($6 million) and Montreal’s Claude Julien ($5 million) all made more than him last season.
He rightly figured there had to be some equity in hoisting the Cup and the two-year, $300,000 annual raise he’d negotiated in Washington, which kicked in when he won the championship, no longer seemed fair.
The Capitals did not share his opinion. Refusing to offer Trotz what he wanted (five years, $20 million) the team allowed him to leave and within two weeks he was hired by the New York Islanders, who had just cleaned out their front office and hired Lou Lamoriello to run the organization.
This was a major step for the Islanders financially. Until Trotz came into the picture, the organization was known for how little they paid coaches. Two of his predecessors, Scott Gordon and Jack Capuano, were the league’s lowest paid.
What has resulted since has blown the NHL’s mind. Not only are the Islanders winning, but they have totaled turned their frown into a smile by playing the best defense in the league.
Coming into this season, there had been only one NHL team to go from worst to first defensively in one year, the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators. But now it’s looking increasingly possible that there might be a second – the Islanders.
Currently in first place of the Metropolitan Division, the Islanders (36-18-17) are the No. 1 defensive team in the league. They have allowed only 146 goals, 13 less than the second-place Boston Bruins. Their goals-against average has dropped from 3.57 to 2.39.
Meanwhile, the Capitals, who are two points behind the Islanders in the division have allowed 203 goals in 63 games (3.22) behind new coach Todd Reirden.
“We weren’t a team that was very good defensively last year and we needed to fix that,” Trotz said last week.
To accomplish it, Trotz simply asked the players to believe in him after making simple modifications in the base strategy deployed last season by coach Doug Weight.
“There was a little bit of a cultural change – how we practiced and why we practiced,” Trotz said. “We gave them a lot of the why. It was: ‘this is what we’re doing … and here’s why.’ We gave them good examples of that – and then they’ve built on that.
“Someone asked me, ‘now that you’ve won the Cup, does it change you? Does it define you?’ And my answer was absolutely not. My ring is in a box somewhere. My trophies are in boxes. This is what defines me,” he said, pointing to his family, who had congregated just outside the locker room.
“That’s what really matters. Do I want to win? Absolutely. But I finally realize you don’t define yourself with trophies. People always want to. I see that in the NFL, with great players. I see it in the NHL. Come on! Really? To define yourself with a trophy? That’s crazy. You define yourself in the way you live your life.”
One of the keys is New York’s goaltending tandem of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner. Greiss returned from last year’s team and Lehner came over from Buffalo with a one-year deal.
Of course, the biggest change on the team was the loss of captain John Taveras. He signed with Toronto leaving a big hole both competitively and spiritually. But Trotz and Lamoriello have rebuilt the team with a cadre of young, hungry players who are performing with energy and efficiency.
“But all the credit goes to the players,” Trotz said. “If they don’t buy in, then there’s no coach in the world that has a chance. They’re a proud group and they’re proud of the organization and of the fan base and what they’re capable of doing.”
Despite all of this, the Islanders remain one of the league’s least sexy teams. They don’t even have a fulltime home, splitting time between the Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In fact, not until last week did they even know where home playoff games would be held. It was finally decided that first-round home games will be on Long Island and subsequent ones in Brooklyn.
“I think it’s important to the fans, important to the atmosphere, enthusiasm that’s been created,” Lamoriello said. “I think it’s the right decision.”
Just like hiring Trotz was. Sometimes compensating a little extra for experience can pay off and the Islanders are proving it.