Maple Leafs Hiring Barry Trotz Would Not Be All Positives

Barry Trotz was fired by the New York Islanders after last season, a decision that was surprising to many fans and experts considering his success with the team in four seasons. The assumption was that when Trotz was ready to coach again, he would choose his ideal destination and find the perfect opportunity in the NHL.

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Recently, Trotz stated on The Cam & Strick podcast that he would like to coach an Original Six team. While there may be plenty of teams that are better suited for his style on the ice, he’s hoping to end his coaching career with a historic franchise, especially if he can lead that team to a Stanley Cup title.

One of those Original Six teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, has struggled to start the season. They entered the season as favorites to win the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference but, 10 games in, have a 4-4-2 record. A lot of signs point to Trotz as a possible replacement for Sheldon Keefe if the team continues to struggle. He’s an intriguing name for the Maple Leafs to consider, but general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas and the front office must be cautious about signing him, especially considering his recent history with the Islanders.

Trotz Is a Playoff Proven Head Coach

Trotz not only brought stability while coaching the Islanders, but he also made them a perennial playoff team. The Islanders reached the playoffs in his first season with the team, losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, then helped them reach the Stanley Cup Semifinal in 2020 and 2021. While they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in both semifinal appearances, they pushed them to the brink, notably in 2021 when the series went to a Game 7.

Trotz Bourque Nelson
Barry Trotz, New York Islanders, September 17, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What stood out about Trotz during those successful playoff runs was his situational awareness and ability to set the Islanders up best for success. He’d know which goaltender to start depending on the type of game or series to give the team an edge. In 2020, in the Edmonton bubble, the Islanders lost consecutive games to the Philadelphia Flyers, and facing a Game 7, he pulled a fatigued Semyon Varlamov, who started the previous two games for backup Thomas Greiss.

The move paid off, as Greiss shut out the Flyers in a decisive 4-0 win. Likewise, in the 2021 run, Trotz started Ilya Sorokin, who was the backup that season, in the first round to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. However, after Sorokin struggled in Game 1 against the Boston Bruins, he went back to Varlamov, who helped lead them to a series win in six games.

Along with goaltending awareness, Trotz often shuffled the defensive pairings depending on the opponent the Islanders would face. They would move their best skating defensemen to the same pair to defeat teams like the Penguins to limit the speed of Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Against teams like the Bruins or Capitals, Trotz would match the veteran defensemen with the younger ones to form a well-rounded unit. He’d also give Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, two of the more disciplined skaters, more ice time to limit the methodical attacks of the two teams.

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The Maple Leafs’ woes have been in the playoffs. They haven’t advanced past the first round since 2004 and haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, and a successful season will only be measured by playoff success this year. Trotz will notably give the Maple Leafs an edge on the bench, not just with his experience as a head coach but with his ability to give his team an edge.

Trotz Emphasizes Defense

The Islanders had an awful defense when they hired Trotz in 2018. In the 2017-18 season, they allowed 3.57 goals per game, but in his four years with the team, they never allowed over 2.82 goals per game. And in 2020-21, they allowed only 2.23 goals per game. The turnaround can be credited to some of the defensemen, including Pelech, Pulock, and Scott Mayfield maturing and developing into great players, but a large part of their success was the discipline at both blue lines and the instinctual play in the defensive zone. The Islanders would, more often than not, be in the right position to make the right play and keep opponents from finding effective shots on the net.

Likewise, Trotz’s defensive influence helped balance out a Washington Capitals team that had an elite offense led by Alexander Ovechkin but needed to prevent opposing teams from easily finding the back of the net. The Capitals notably stepped up at the defensive blue line to halt rushes and limit teams from effectively carrying the puck into the offensive zone. The strategy ultimately rounded out the team and allowed them to win the Stanley Cup in 2018.

Alexander Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The downside to the defensive philosophy is the style of play, especially when it hurts the offense. The chip and chase strategy becomes a common method for the team to start up the offense instead of outlet passes or zone entries where skaters carry the puck into the offensive zone. Likewise, Trotz’s teams would often slow the games down and limit the effectiveness of an offensive zone presence with minimal speed and puck movement. In a league where teams are looking to become faster and more offensive-minded, hiring Trotz would be a step in the opposite direction. One of the reasons the Islanders moved on from him and promoted assistant coach Lane Lambert behind the bench was to improve offensively and make speed an integral part of their game.

Furthermore, the defense might not be the primary issue for the Maple Leafs, especially to start the season. While they have allowed 3.00 goals per game through their first 10 games, the offense needs a spark, too, averaging only 2.70 goals per game with only 11 goals scored in the last four games. With that said, by the end of the season, the offense is expected to carry the Maple Leafs, and a balanced team could be one that makes a playoff run. This leads to the next attribute when it comes to hiring Trotz.

The Maple Leafs Mirror His Capitals Teams

The Capitals, like the Maple Leafs, had always disappointed in the playoffs. Throughout the franchise’s history, they would put together great regular seasons but come up short against teams like the Penguins, New York Rangers, and Montreal Canadiens. Trotz, however, allowed the Capitals to get over the hump and helped them win the Cup for the first time in the history of the franchise.

Along with the history of playoff defeats, the Capitals teams that Trotz coached look similar to the Maple Leafs, considering how they are built and how they look on the ice. Both teams are top-heavy rosters with a handful of star players taking on large contracts, and they possess an elite goal scorer that can carry the team if needed. The Capitals have Ovechkin, while the Maple Leafs have Auston Matthews, who is the reigning Hart Trophy winner and one of the most dynamic players in the league. In addition, both teams have reliable puck facilitators in Backstrom and Mitch Marner and top-six forwards that can add versatility to the offense.

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Trotz can complete a Maple Leafs team that is good and looking to take that next step. He’d strengthen the defense to go along with an elite offense to give the team little to no weakness for a playoff run. Ultimately, he is the type of head coach that can lead this team to the Stanley Cup and end the longest drought in NHL history.

Trotz Favors Veterans

Oliver Wahlstrom is one of the best young forwards on the Islanders, as he can gash opponents with his skating ability and his accurate shot. Despite his upside, Trotz played him in a minimal role, with only 12:04 ice time during the 2021-22 season. Along with Wahlstrom, Anthony Beauvillier struggled under Trotz, failing to find a role in the forward unit and the defensive-minded system. Ultimately, the Islanders’ younger players failed to reach their potential in his system, and the team ended up with a veteran-heavy, aging roster that cost them a playoff spot last year.

Oliver Wahlstrom New York Islanders
Oliver Wahlstrom, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Granted, the Maple Leafs have a veteran-led roster, and a preference for experienced players might not be an issue for them. However, a lack of young talent on the ice can backfire for teams eyeing the Cup. Teams that make deep playoff runs often have a mix of veterans and young players that take on big roles and provide balanced rosters. Last year, the Rangers and the Colorado Avalanche were notable examples of two teams that “let the kids play” by letting them take over games and add a spark to their roster, fueling deep playoff runs. Trotz can make the Maple Leafs an elite team, but if he withholds the young talent from making an impact, they might continue to struggle in the playoffs.

Eventually, Trotz’s Voice Wears Off

His downfall with both the Nashville Predators and the Islanders can be attributed to a struggling offense but also largely from his inability to keep the teams motivated. After a few years under the same system and playing under the same disciplined coach, the players couldn’t keep up and lost the urge to rally behind their head coach. Lamoriello specifically stated after firing Trotz that the Islanders needed a new voice, one that could motivate a roster that lost a competitive edge, resulting in the Lambert hire.

The Maple Leafs can hire an older, veteran, and playoff-proven coach like Trotz that runs a disciplined team, and the move can pay off, allowing them to make a deep playoff run and win the Cup. However, a lot of the old-school, traditional coaches — from John Tortorella to Mike Babcock and Claude Julien — wear off after a few seasons.

The question is, if the Maple Leafs are going to look for a new head coach, what type of coach should they consider? Trotz is an intriguing option but one that must force the front office to proceed with caution, considering his history. Another possible avenue for the team is to look at what the Edmonton Oilers did last year, hiring Jay Woodcroft, who was a younger head coach but thrived by elevating the play of his stars and not clashing with them.

Likewise, the blueprint of success in recent years has been the Avalanche, who won the Stanley Cup last season. They hired Jared Bednar in 2017, and his coaching style plays into the star-studded roster that they possess, allowing the Avalanche to often look like an unstoppable team. The Maple Leafs ultimately have to find a coach that optimizes the best players on the roster and doesn’t clash with them while at the same time patches up some of the underlying weaknesses.

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