This will be no ordinary playoff series for the Washington Capitals. It won’t even be a rerun of recent years when they went to war with the Pittsburgh Penguins, their fiercest rivals. The New York Islanders bring some bonus intrigue, although Todd Reirden and his players have tried to minimize it.
But really, who is he kidding?
It’s natural in hockey culture to avoid drawing a spotlight to one’s self, and neither Reirden nor Trotz are the type of man to say anything that would overshadow their team’s efforts and objectives. But the story of the Capitals-Islanders first-round series, with Game 1 starting Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the NHL’s bubble in Toronto, can best be understood through the lens of the coaches behind each bench and the history they have.
How their mutual familiarity will affect the outcome of the series boils down to a well-trodden philosophical question. Who has the upper hand: A coach facing his former team — including, in this example, his former right-hand man — or the team who knows their old coach well?
“Trotzie may think he knows some weaknesses maybe that individuals have,” T.J. Oshie said, “but if we’re playing how we want to play as a team, none of that’s really going to matter.”
Gone their separate ways
Let’s recap, starting in June 2018. It was a busy month for Trotz. He hoisted the Stanley Cup — the first for both the Capitals franchise and his own career — then resigned and took the Islanders‘ job.
Trotz didn’t feel Washington was paying him market value; a two-year extension and some contract incentives kicked in for winning the Cup, but even that didn’t add up to $2 million per year. Other top NHL coaches were making far more.
“At the end of the day, it became business,” he told the Washington Post later that year. “It became business from their side and my side.”
Assistant coach Lane Lambert and director of goaltending Mitch Korn followed Trotz to New York. They were welcomed into the Capitals‘ locker room before their first meeting of 2018-19 for a warm Stanley Cup ring ceremony, and Trotz warned somewhat playfully that the Capitals would “have to go through the [expletive deleted] Island” in order to repeat as champions.
“Obviously (he’s) someone that I keep track of and watch how their team’s doing, but that’s not someone that I talked to during the four months of the pause,” Reirden said.
Twelve players on the Capitals‘ current roster remain from the Cup-winning team. Trotz said that can give him “a little insight” into individual tendencies; Oshie dismissed the idea with a bit of a sly grin.
It’s fun to imagine how knowledge of the smallest details might give one coach an advantage over the other. In reality, though, it’ll be more telling to track how the similar systems fare against one another. Some Capitals players have said that facing Trotz’s Islanders is like playing against themselves.
On a Trotz-coached team, defense and physicality are paramount. Only he could take a franchise like New York from the league’s worst goals-per-game defense to No. 1 in the same category in one year. This season, the Islanders were ninth in goals allowed and first by a mile in blocked shots.
“They seem very detailed in the way they defend,” Oshie said. “Their neutral zone obviously switched to the 1-3-1 or the right-wing lock that we were using. I think they’ve switched that now since to something similar to what we’re doing.”
“The system that he’s using, I’m quite familiar with,” Reirden said then. “I like to say that we helped build it together amongst our coaching staff, and it’s a good system. It works and he’s getting buy-in from his players.”
There’s never been a more important time for Reirden to leverage that familiarity and attack a system he says he helped build.
Players on both benches agree that the two clubs have similar styles.
“I think Barry (and) Laner obviously have a lot of history with these guys,” Islanders winger Matt Martin said. “Put together plans to make them successful in the past. Hopefully they kind of know the formula to shut them down as well.”
“It’s going to be a little bit of a chess match game in that, at some point, systems a little bit are going to go out the window,” Oshie said. “I think both teams are going to play their systems pretty well. It’s going to be who’s going to not quit, who’s going to keep going, who’s going to really stick with it until the end.”
The series between the two Metropolitan Division teams has been eerily even since Trotz took over the Islanders. In each of the past two seasons, they split their season series 2-2. In 2018-19, their aggregate goal total was 7-7. This season’s was 14-14.
All of this is to say nothing of the potential emotional aspect. Reirden might feel extra pressure to beat his old boss and win the series after the Capitals fell in the first round in seven games to Carolina a year ago. Trotz may or may not want to stick it to the Washington front office.
Trotz, Lambert and Korn “had a lot of success with that team, so I think those guys have some pretty fond memories,” Martin said. “I think when you win a Stanley Cup with a group of people, you’re always attached to them in some way, shape or form.
“But I’m sure it would be sweet to knock them out of this thing.”
To be fair to two coaches who don’t want this to be all about them, systems only work when the players execute them. They agree it isn’t merely “Trotz versus Reirden.”
They agree on something else, too. As Trotz put it: “I think it will be a hell of a series.”
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