WINNIPEG — An unexpected free agent has landed in the unemployment line and Barry Trotz immediately morphs from being fired to highly coveted for several vacancies, including the Winnipeg Jets.
The New York Islanders surprised many in the hockey world by relieving Trotz of his duties on Monday, but speculation swirled immediately that he won’t be out of work for long, provided the fire still burns to coach.
And you can expect that it does.
It’s one of the most important off-seasons in franchise history for the Jets and having the opportunity to pursue Trotz for the head coaching job certainly adds intrigue to the search.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has left the status of the coaching staff mostly up in the air, other than mentioning interim head coach Dave Lowry has earned the right to an interview if he wants the opportunity to do so.
Sure, there have been some names that have trickled out as possibilities, but this turn of events could yield an outcome that would immediately stabilize the situation and solve a few obvious problems for a Jets team that finished 11th in the Western Conference with a record of 39-32-11 and was eight points behind the Nashville Predators (after a four-game winning streak to end the season when the pressure was off).
Trotz, 59, is a proven winner and his resume includes leading the Washington Capitals to their first and only Stanley Cup in 2018.
He’s known as a great communicator whose teams play with structure.
Drilling into the details is another strength and accountability isn’t optional, it’s demanded.
He also knows a thing or two about longevity and keeping the message fresh, having served as the bench boss of the Nashville Predators for 15 seasons, beginning with the inaugural campaign back in 1998-99.
Prior to the Islanders going 37-35-10, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs by 16 points, Trotz led his club to Game 7 of the final four in consecutive seasons, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in both 2020 and 2021.
Oh and did we mention he’s got strong ties to the community and province. He got his coaching start with the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and eventually made his way to the University of Manitoba Bisons before the journey intensified.
Why is that important?
For a franchise that is looking to sell hope, being a proud Manitoban isn’t an essential quality but it most certainly would be a bonus.
For a team whose buy-in wasn’t nearly good enough during a season that was defined by underachievement, Trotz could end up being a perfect fit for the Jets.
If it was easy to simply get the deal done, Jets governor and co-owner Mark Chipman and Cheveldayoff would hop on a plane and bring a lucrative contract for Trotz to sign.
But there will be competition for Trotz’s services.
It’s not every day that the individual with the third-most wins behind the bench in NHL history becomes available.
Most of the teams with an opening, along with several others who may have one in short order, could be interested in Trotz, who is a two-time Jack Adams Trophy winner (2015-16 with the Capitals and 2018-19 in his first season with the Islanders).
So what does that mean for the Jets?
It’s time to put on the full-court press and they might just have to win a bidding war for his services.
For all of the talk about how Winnipeg isn’t a marquee destination for free agents, it’s incumbent on Chipman and Cheveldayoff to share their vision with Trotz when the dust settles and show him why he’s the perfect guy to help spark the turnaround.
That likely means spending more than they have before on the coaching budget, but this is an investment in helping the organization repair some of those foundational cracks that have emerged during the past several seasons.
Why would the Jets position be of interest to Trotz if he has options as we expect he will?
Despite having a somewhat flawed roster, there’s ample talent at the next coach’s disposal, beginning with Kyle Connor, who just put together the best offensive season in Jets 2.0 history by producing 47 goals and 93 points, noted play driver Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
There’s also a top-end goalie in Connor Hellebuyck, depth down the middle and emerging prospects on the blue line that are ready to join Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and company.
Trotz could play an important role when it comes to Jets captain Blake Wheeler, as he was the person who helped convince Alex Ovechkin the reason he was shaving his ice time slightly was to keep him ready for the post-season.
It didn’t mean he wasn’t still a valuable member of the team, but playing a bit less over 82 games would leave some additional gas in the tank for when the games really mattered.
Ovechkin eventually rewarded that belief with a complete buy-in and led his team to the promised land, playing a vital role every step of the way.
Wheeler is coming off a productive season that saw him finish with 60 points and his 17 goals are even more impressive when you consider he missed 17 games and didn’t score his first goal of the season until Dec. 10 (a 21-game drought to open the campaign).
But the soon-to-be 36 year old needs to move from first to second-line minutes next season.
Wheeler is doing his best to fend off Father Time and remains an important piece of the puzzle, but he’s reached the point of his career where he can accomplish more by playing a bit less.
Inking Trotz to a deal could also bring a bit more clarity to Mark Scheifele’s situation.
There would be an important heart-to-heart discussion on the horizon and it would not take long to figure out if Scheifele wants to be part of the solution or if it was time for him to part ways with the only organization the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft has known.
Scheifele still has some untapped potential, even after being a point-per-game producer for six consecutive seasons, and if Trotz can help with the defensive-zone engagement, there could be another level to reach.
Building a winning culture isn’t an easy task, but bringing in a passionate, well-respected voice whose name was recently engraved on the Stanley Cup is an important place to start.