Little did those fellow Long Island Rail Road riders realize early Monday that the quiet, bespectacled fellow in their midst, wearing jacket and tie, is one of the best in the world at what he does. No one recognized Barry Trotz, Stanley Cup-winning coach, which was fine with him. He was just happy that someone assured him he was going in the right direction.
“I was a little bit nervous this morning. I didn’t want to end up in New Jersey,” Trotz said after making his first commute by rail as Islanders coach. “I had to double-check on everything. I had to ask some people: ‘This train is going to Barclays, correct?’ and ‘This is the stop, correct?’ ”
Once he gets to a rink, Trotz truly knows where he is going, probably as well as anyone behind any bench. There is no guarantee he can instantly turn the Islanders into something they are not, but he sure is going to make them better than they would have been if he were not here.
Put it this way: If the Islanders decide they want to really tank it this season and try for the top overall draft pick, they definitely have the wrong coach. By any other measure, though, Trotz is the guy.
“He’s very detailed and structured but he’s got a human element to him. He’s easy to talk to, he jokes with the players. He’ll tell jokes in meetings,” said Matt Martin, who had the third goal in a surprisingly resounding 4-0 win over the Sharks, considered one of the NHL’s best teams, on Monday afternoon. “He’s relaxed but he’s detailed at the same time. He doesn’t yell on the bench. Even in Carolina when we were getting outshot by double, he was like, ‘Don’t worry about the shot clock. Don’t think about it, don’t focus on it.’ As long as we’re working, he doesn’t have a problem. At the same time, he’ll let you hear it if you’re not going. It's kind of the best of both worlds.”
Trotz can traverse different worlds, carrying the small-town ethos with which he grew up in Dauphin, Manitoba — 180 miles north of Winnipeg — through all of hockey’s biggest cities. He took the sport’s greatest prize, the Stanley Cup, back home to Dauphin this summer. Trotz had the foresight to autograph thousands of photos before his public appearance so he would be free to shake his fellow townspeople’s hands and look them in the eyes when they got together.
“Barry is a terrific guy,” said Butch Goring, who played for the Dauphin Kings years before Trotz began his coaching career there. The two crossed paths often when Goring spent 30 summers in a cottage up there. “He has got great values. He has never forgotten his roots.”
This Islanders season, the first after the departure of captain John Tavares, will be a test lab for how much an NHL coach matters.
I will never forget the time in the early 1990s when our Long Island chapter of the hockey writers association presented an award to Al Arbour. In his acceptance remarks, the recipient said, “I’m doing a great job — I’ve got the team in last place.” The point is, even the most legendary coach can do only so much.
But Trotz, only a few months removed from a championship with the Capitals, already has created an Arbour-like structure on which the Islanders can rely. The penalty kill, historically bad last season, is 8-for-8 through three games (two wins and a loss).
“Obviously, coming off a Stanley Cup, he gets the attention of the dressing room pretty easily,” Martin said. Then again, goalie Robin Lehner, who had a shutout in his Islanders debut Monday, said the other day that the coach’s personal dignity carries more weight than his title.
Trotz, three games into his 20th NHL season, said: “Guys grow. They grow as players, they grow as people. We’ll get to know them as players, we’ll get to know them as people. To me, getting to know them as people trumps everything.”
He realizes that getting to the top of the league is a heck of a lot harder than getting to Atlantic Terminal on the LIRR. But he does know the way.