Any good coach seems to know what is going to happen before it does. So it was with Barry Trotz, who told the Washington Capitals back in late November that they have a shot to win another Stanley Cup but warned them, “You’ll have to go through the [expletive] Island.”
Score a big one for his reputation as a clairvoyant, because if the Capitals get past the Hurricanes and proceed in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they will in fact have to get past the Islanders next (albeit in Brooklyn, but you get the drift). He saw it coming all along.
Except, he said on Thursday, “I didn’t ‘know.’ ”
Reflecting on the night when he was invited to the opposition locker room to receive his 2018 championship ring, Trotz said, “If anybody really listens closely to that statement, it was from my heart.”
And back then his heart was saying — in the rough language that hockey players appreciate — how much he admired the Capitals, with whom he had “climbed the mountain together.” His mind was saying that they had almost all of their championship roster back. At the same time, he was adding that his heart already belonged to his new players and their fans. “I wanted to hopefully bring that same joy and that same experience to the Islanders,” he said Thursday.
So this season, with its stunning first-round sweep of the Penguins, is not about his prowess as a fortune teller. It is about his legacy as a coach, which is even greater now than when he hoisted the Cup last June.
It would have been understandable if Trotz had treated this job as a well-paying lifetime achievement award, a victory-lap golden parachute for having paid his dues. He could have coasted in his first year as the head of a team with low expectations and a departed superstar. Instead, he went headfirst and headlong into a new kind of challenge. What he did in reviving the Islanders was just as impressive as winning the title, maybe more so.
He and his staff worked their heads off, turned the league’s worst defensive team into the best and made a hopeless situation joyful. There he was Thursday at the practice facility, talking about how much he loves the playoffs. He was standing in the same spot he occupied on the first day of training camp, when he did not know what he was getting himself into — especially because that very day, new goalie Robin Lehner revealed his bipolar condition and addiction issues.
“Honestly, I went in with a clean slate. Perception is reality a lot of times . . . as you got to know and be with guys over a length of time during the season, that perception goes away and the reality is, ‘This guy can do this’ or ‘I didn’t know this about this guy,’ ” he said. “Or ‘I thought this guy wasn’t much of a player; he’s actually a really good player.’ ”
Trotz provided an atmosphere in which everyone, particularly Lehner, was free to flourish. Obviously, the coach’s arrival was good for the whole team. But it also was good for Trotz.
Just as he wanted to see his new team revel in an experience like the one he enjoyed last season, the Islanders offered him a chance to be part of a tradition. He often was mentioned in the same breath as Al Arbour. It was cool, on the night the practice rink was named for Bill Torrey, to see Trotz blend in so well among John Tonelli, Stefan Persson, Pat LaFontaine and Patrick Flatley.
That is heady company for a hockey lifer, the sort of camaraderie he could only have dreamed about when he was growing up in little Dauphin, Manitoba. His career had been terrific up until this year, but for it to be complete, he needed the taste of a heritage.
He had to go through the (expletive) Island.