Lou Lamoriello twice fired coaches on the eve of the playoffs with the Devils having already qualified for the tournament and twice fired coaches who won the Stanley Cup in New Jersey.
But the 19th head coaching change overseen by Lamoriello might be the most surprising and initially inexplicable one yet.
Lamoriello announced the dismissal of Barry Trotz this morning after four years as the Islanders’ head coach, three trips to the playoffs and consecutive appearances in the NHL semifinals during the pandemic-shortened seasons.
That’s five fewer playoff appearances and two more trips to the semifinals than the Islanders made in the 24 seasons prior to Trotz’s arrival. But other than saying he thought the Islanders needed a new voice, Lamoriello — as is his custom as the most powerful and tight-lipped executive in North American pro sports — didn’t offer any specifics for the firing, which came with what is believed to be one year left on Trotz’s deal.
“Any type of decision like this doesn’t happen overnight, it’s over a period of time,” Lamoriello said. “But I’d rather not get into any of the reasons, because that’s my job upon the information that I have. And I have the experience to make these type of decisions.”
Lamoriello’s next decision will provide the defining answers to the questions that continue looming over what been a fascinating and difficult to evaluate era for the Islanders — an era whose roots stretch back almost 15 years, almost a third of the franchise’s existence.
Whose managerial blueprint turned the Islanders into legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s first term? If not for a 1-0 loss to the Lightning in Game 7 of the semifinals last June 25 — when the Islanders surrendered their only short-handed goal of the season — the answer would probably be hanging in the UBS Arena rafters right now.
Lamoriello’s urgency — represented in 2020 and 2021 deadline deals for Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Kyle Palmieri as well as his ultimately unsuccessful all-in moves last summer — is a welcome departure from the inertia of former general manager Garth Snow, who absorbed plenty of criticism during a 12-year tenure as general manager that included one postseason series victory.
But this year’s team featured 15 players drafted or acquired by Snow, including budding franchise goalie Ilya Sorokin along with co-leading scorers Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal, top defensemen Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield as well as center Josh Bailey, who was Snow’s first-round draft choice in 2008 and whose 993 games rank as the third-most in team history. (This tally counts Matt Martin, a Snow draftee in 2008 whom Lamoriello reacquired from the Maple Leafs following the 2017-18 season)
Will the new coach be taking over a Cup-caliber team, one whose back-to-back losses to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning instilled in the Islanders an unmistakable sense of what it takes to reach the summit and how much it aches to come up just shy?
Or did the Islanders’ best chance to win the elusive fifth Stanley Cup come and go in the first year of the Lamoriello-Trotz tandem? The 2018-19 Islanders had the second-most points among the final eight playoff teams before being swept by the Hurricanes.
And were the 2019-20 and 2021 teams middle-of-the-pack squads that mounted random runs during unprecedented circumstances? The Islanders might not have made the playoffs if not for the expanded field in 2019-20, when they were in ninth place in the Eastern Conference — one point out of a wild card spot and in the midst of a seven-game losing streak — when the regular season ended due to the pandemic. They ranked 12th in the NHL in points during the 56-game 2021 campaign.
To say the Islanders dealt with a difficult set of circumstances this season — including a Covid-19 outbreak at the end of a franchise-record 13-game season-opening road trip and extended injury-related absences for their best offensive player, Nelson, and top defenseman, Ryan Pulock — would be an all-time understatement. Trotz also missed three games, first due to the death of his mother and then after he was diagnosed with Covid-19.
“Certainly, all the extenuating circumstances that transpired this year, uncontrollable by everyone or anyone, is taken into consideration,” Lamoriello said.
But they finished 16 points out of a playoff spot, just one point closer than when their miss in 2017-18 sparked the front office changes that resulted in the arrival of Lamoriello and Trotz. Is there more to be wrung from this core, and how realistic is it to believe the person tasked with that job will be an upgrade on Trotz, the third-winningest coach in history, a Stanley Cup winner with the 2018 Capitals and the legitimate bench leader the Islanders lacked since four-time Stanley Cup winner Al Arbour retired for a second time following the 1993-94 season?
The Islanders ranked no worse than 10th in the NHL in goals allowed in four seasons under Trotz after ranking among the bottom 10 in 10 of the first 13 seasons following the lockout. His style worked in the playoffs, where, counting the qualifying round in the summer of 2020, Trotz coached 53 games. His 14 predecessors combined to coach 93 playoff games, including none by Lorne Henning and Mike Milbury, each of whom had two stints as head coach.
In the moment, it’s hard to believe there’s a better coach for these Islanders than Trotz, but Lamoriello’s Hall of Fame track record is loaded with surprise moves that worked out well for his teams.
The Devils won at least one playoff round in four of the eight seasons in which Lamoriello made a coaching change — including in 1999-2000, when Robbie Ftorek was fired with eight games left in the season and replaced by Larry Robinson, who oversaw a Stanley Cup-winning run. Lamoriello moved behind the bench after firing Robinson and Claude Julien (the latter with three games left in the season) and advanced to the conference semifinals in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
More recently, Lamoriello appeared to be taking on a nearly impossible challenge by joining the Islanders with the status of captain John Tavares uncertain. It’s worked out well so far — the next playoff series Tavares wins with the Maple Leafs will be his first — but this is no longer about easy cracks regarding pajamas and blown 3-1 leads. The Islanders and Lamoriello are now fully intertwined in Stanley Cup-or-bust mode, with the legacy of the most interesting post-dynasty era on Long Island resting on how Lamoriello’s team responds to his most interesting coaching change yet.
“They are on notice right now that the new voice is what’s necessary for us to have success,” Lamoriello said.
If not, all eyes will be turning to the holdover voice.