New York Islanders Barry Trotz’ System Imperfect
By Mike Stone
New York Islanders Coach Barry Trotz knows that defense wins championships… but he may be taking that too literally. Trotz needs to respond to the circumstances by commanding an offensive push when needed.
Barry Trotz turned the New York Islanders around with a defense-oriented system that focuses on collapsing on the opponents’ transition game and moving loose pucks to the boards. Adding support from renowned goalie coach Mitch Korn and Piero Greco, the Islanders’ goaltending has become the most impenetrable duo in the league.
Both Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have spent most of the season hovering around the top of the league in GAA and SV%. At one point, Lehner and Greiss were the top two goalies in the “chel” in both metrics. Right now, they both are in the top five in those categories.
This defensive scheme not only frustrates opponents entering the Isles’ zone, but also makes other teams’ offensive pushes more predictable. This, in turn, allows Lehner and Greiss to get set up in the crease, providing the extra split-seconds they need to get in position to make the stop.
To be clear, it is not possible to heap enough praise onto Trotz & Company for what they’ve done with a team that was expected to compete for first overall draft pick, instead of first in the Metro.
The Islanders currently sit first in the league in Goals Against (where they’ve been for almost the entirety of the season) with 178, which is 20 goals better than the next-best Metropolitan opponent (Carolina Hurricanes with 198).
However, the system isn’t perfect, and certain issues need to be addressed before the end of the season, or the postseason will be shorter than the team is capable of.
Struggles Against Boston
The main problem with Trotz’s system is that by putting such a high premium on defense, the offense suffers. To a large extent, that has been perfectly fine for the Isles. Any Islanders fan would subscribe to the club’s new adage, “Trotz the Process” in December, all the way through the all-star break, when we were winning.
But it is not perfectly fine anymore.
Against the Boston Bruins, the Islanders suffered an embarrassing 5-0 defeat. While not a true rivalry, losing to any Boston team keeps many New Yorkers awake at night. And it’ll surely be tough to swallow for Robin Lehner, who posted a .872 SV% on the day.
In fairness, the first two goals were flukes. The first was a no-look shot from Sean Kuraly just above the right faceoff dot that Lehner attempted to glove down, but the puck (which was going wide) kicked off the heel of Lehner’s trapper and fluttered behind him into the opposite side of the mesh. The second was Clutterbuck’s fault,* as he lost control of the puck while skating through the hash marks, giving Noel Acciari a quick rip from the slot that beat Lehner glove side.
"*That is exactly why my coach would lose his mind when we would play with the puck in front of the net. Clutter had all the space he needed to go behind the net, pick his head up, and make a safe play. Stupid. Avoidable. Costly."
Even if you take those two goals off the board, the goose egg on the jumbotron rendered the rest of Boston’s performance irrelevant.
In embarrassing fashion, the Islanders tied a franchise record by managing only 13 shots on goal, the worst the hockey club has ever done on home ice. The last time that happened was in 2000, also against Boston.
That is 13 shots on goal. In total, the Isles attempted only 31 shots all night. For perspective, Boston more than doubled that figure with 68 attempts and landed 39 on goal. That’s right, Boston hit the net more times than New York even tried. The stat sheet is indicative of what a pitiful performance the Islanders displayed – and it was even harder to watch live.
This is the problem with Trotz’s system. New York’s transition game is predictable – a trait that Trotz repeatedly emphasizes because it allows for the puck carrier’s teammates to get in position, to get open, and to get the puck deep.
Any fan who watches the games regularly is accustomed to seeing Matt Barzal (or whoever) gain the red line and dump the puck behind the net. Ideally, they’ll dump and chase with support from one or two other attackers (or sometimes Nick Leddy going rogue), and then forecheck until they gain possession and set up in the offensive zone. However, the ideal doesn’t always come to fruition, leading to turnovers and 200-feet of wasted energy.
There’s a reason Barry Trotz is behind the bench, with a ring on his finger, on pace for the Jack Adams Trophy, while I’m angrily venting about what I want to see change. And I understand that.
In fact, more often than not, this makes sense in a very obvious way. Hence all the fantastic defensive statistics the Islanders have earned this year. But sometimes, it’s just not the best way to play hockey.
When the Islanders are up on the scoreboard, it absolutely makes sense to kill time like only Barzal can, pressure the opponent on both ends of the ice like only Cizikas can, and take the body like only Martin can.
When the Islanders are tied, I wholeheartedly “Trotz the Process”. The lock-down defensive structure will often generate offensive opportunities, such as the pair of breakaway goals Cizikas had not long ago, or the Barzal turnover to two-on-one assist to Lee against Montréal last week.
But when the Islanders are down two, three, even four goals a defensive stand isn’t useful. What is the difference between losing by two, by three, or by eight? Pride?
That is the time to attack, full steam ahead, trusting your goalies (which, this year, YOU CAN) to be there for you in case of any mistakes, holding absolutely nothing back. It almost seems obvious, but then it never happens. Instead, the Islanders keep “Trotzing” their process and developing slim-to-no offense.
Take shots from everywhere – Kuraly showed us an extreme example of how that can play out. Stop setting up every play with six passes, exposing weaker players like Beauvillier or Komarov to getting intercepted. Stop having Barzal skate circles around everybody until there’s an inevitable turnover. Shoot the puck (ON NET…looking at Beau and Pulock here…).
A lot can be said about Lou Lamoriello’s failure to acquire a scorer at the deadline, although not for lack of trying. A lot more can be said about how we could have matched Vegas’s price for Stone. But none of that matters now, because this is the squad we’re going to run through the playoffs.
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The boys subscribe to Trotz’s system like their bible; the full-fledged buy-in is exactly what you want. The onus is on Trotz to be more adaptable and to stop playing park-the-bus defense when you’re down a pair of goals in the second or third period, or the Islanders will not have another game at the Barc this year.