How Barry Trotz helped turn the Islanders into consistent contenders

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Last season, one which resulted in a painful overtime loss to the Lightning in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals, Islanders head coach Barry Trotz shared a favorite story to his group.

The story was about a personal friend who had climbed Mount Everest, but didn’t complete his journey until the third attempt.

“The question was asked, ‘why’d you keep going back?’” Trotz told Moose & Maggie on Thursday. “The reason is, you want to find out if you can. And this group has that mentality.”

After finishing off the Bruins on Wednesday night, Trotz’s group is back on the cusp of their own personal Everest, back in the conference finals for the second straight year, once again set to take on a dangerous Lightning team that just easily disposed of the Hurricanes, and are looking to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Fortunately for Trotz, he has a particular familiarity with completing a difficult journey after coming oh-so close multiple times.

In his four years as head coach with the Capitals, Trotz led Washington three straight 100-point seasons, but lost in the second round all three of those years, continuing the painfully familiar disappointment from previous regimes of falling short in the postseason after dominating the regular season. Trotz, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals finally completed that journey in 2018, taking down their chronic playoff tormentors in the Penguins along the way before knocking off the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup.

The Islanders will look to accomplish something similar this season, and Trotz continually points back to his time in Washington to prove that it can be done.

“I think all through my tenure here, there’s things I’ve taken from our journey in Washington and applied here and talked about it with the players,” Trotz said. “We were fortunate to play Tampa last year…they had a loaded team the last few years and didn’t get to where they wanted until last year.”

The Lightning are another prime example of a team finally reaching their lofty expectations after years of falling short. They won it all in 2020 after losing early in the playoffs each of the two previous years when they piled on 128 and 113 points in the regular season. The Islanders suffered a similar fate earlier in the decade, when head coach Jack Capuano and captain John Tavares led the team to 100-point seasons, only to be knocked out of the playoffs far earlier than expected.

By the time Trotz arrived on Long Island in 2018, New York was in need of a new, winning identity.

“I think I’ve been very fortunate to have this group,” Trotz said. “It started with Lou [Lamouriello] bringing me in. But to me, it’s about the players. This group of players always cared…they just needed to be a little more organized and given a little bit more direction in terms of some of the groundwork that’s needed to get to the level you need to win consistently and be a threat for the Cup consistently.

“I was fortunate to come off a Cup win in Washington, and probably had a lot of weight when you win a Cup and come to an organization where the players were starving for that. There were a lot of good players here from the previous regime and the players Lou brought in, it made sense.”

Trotz was hired in late June of 2018, and by early July, Tavares was gone, signing with Toronto and seemingly sending the Islanders backwards in their quest to build a consistent contender. But now, less than three years later, Trotz and company are preparing for their second straight conference final, and are confident they can produce a different outcome this time. It’s all part of the culture change that Trotz helped along when he arrived three years ago.

“The players bought in and we changed the mindset,” Trotz said. “That was the number one thing. That was the year they lost John Tavares to free agency. So there were a lot of players here, the one thing that was said was that this is a pretty good team, even without John, but we needed a little direction. I think it started in picking the right captain, the right leader in Anders Lee, and going from there.”

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