Barry Trotz was talking about the identity the Islanders had established under his watch in his first year behind the bench. Beyond the “Tough to play against” tag and “five-man structure,” the coach talked about how his team has “to go with a four-line mentality because we’re not loaded with top-end talent.”
Mat Barzal and perhaps Anders Lee aside, there is truth in that statement. But what makes it so intriguing is that Trotz had the ultimate top-end talent in his last gig in Washington with Alex Ovechkin. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov weren’t too shabby, either.
The coach believed in five-man structure there, too, but Trotz rode his horses in DC to the NHL’s best record in 2015-16 and 2016-17 before winning the Cup and bouncing to the Island in a Johnny Keane-like scenario. In his 20th season behind an NHL bench, the first 15 with Nashville, Trotz coaches the players he has, not the ones he wishes he had and not the ones he had the previous year or two.
“There are basic principles of structure and playing responsibly on the defensive side of the puck, but I try to assess what I have in terms of personnel and go from there,” Trotz told The Post before his team’s Thanksgiving Eve showdown with the Rangers at the Garden. “I think I’m good at putting players in the right roles where they can be productive.
“In Nashville, we had as good a defense as anybody, so we played to that strength. When I got to Washington, I moved Ovie to the right side because that’s where he’s most effective cutting in toward the net, but there were things I needed from him on the defensive side. And I explained that I needed that so we could get the puck back as quickly as possible to get it onto his stick.
“Don’t get me wrong, we have good offensive players here, but it’s more a byproduct of our depth. So you play to that.”
And playing to that, the Islanders have gotten important contributions from the Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck unit that is currently disassembled following injuries to both Cizikas and Martin, and from free-agent signees Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula.
Trotz’s precept sounds simple, but it isn’t. After the Rangers changed the nature of their team over the summer of 2012 by acquiring Rick Nash in exchange for a package featuring Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, John Tortorella spent much of the following season pining for the 2011-12 Black-and-Blueshirts. That’s a for-instance, not necessarily a lone exception to the rule. After last season, Alain Vigneault spoke about how he’s proven himself a very capable coach when he’s had a very capable team.
Both Battle of New York contestants have been pleasant surprises, the Rangers at 11-8-2 and the Islanders at 10-7-2 entering the match. Both have turned the page on bygone eras, the Blueshirts moving on from the Vigneault pocket of substantial success with the deadline teardown and summer hiring of BU coach David Quinn, the Islanders leaving behind the quirky days of Garth Snow with the hiring of Lou Lamoriello as franchise mayor, justice of the peace, police chief, chairman of its chamber of commerce and chief custodian.
“You hear so much talk about Lou’s rules, but they’re not even rules” captain Anders Lee told The Post before his team sought its 13th victory over the Blueshirts in their last 14 confrontations. “They’re just the right way to do things. They’ve been easy to embrace. We’re all buying in. There’s pride about being an Islander.”
The Islanders are living life without John Tavares without even a glance into the rear view. It’s as if Tavares, captain for the last five years and face of the franchise since his first-overall selection in 2009, has been gone for as long as, say, Hector Marini. The changing of the guard has gone off like clockwork.
“First there were the changes in the front office and with the coach [with Trotz replacing Doug Weight], and then Johnny, so when camp opened, it seemed like everything was different,” said Lee. “From Day One, you could feel it. There’s been no looking back. There’s been a feeling of excitement around the team.
“Barry and his staff, with what they accomplished last year, they have an incredible amount of knowledge. They’ve opened the door to different ideas on how to attack and play within a structure to create better scoring chances while defending as a five-man unit.
“And Lou, he’s just a great guy. He believes in doing things the right way. And we’re doing them together, as a team.”