Lou Lamoriello showed his commitment to the Islanders’ aging core by standing pat at the March trade deadline.
But all year when asked about head coach Barry Trotz’s contract — which was expiring at the end of the 2022-23 season — Lamoriello demurred. And on Monday morning, in a stunning move, Lamoriello fired the Jack Adams Award winner in a tacit admission that something had to change following a season in which the Islanders failed to come close to meeting their preseason Stanley Cup goal.
“I believe this group of players needs a new voice,” Lamoriello said on a conference call with media. “This is not negative on Barry Trotz. He is a tremendous human being.”
As for the assistant coaches — a group that includes associate coach Lane Lambert and goaltending coach Mitch Korn, people who have worked with Trotz for a long period — Lamoriello would only say they were under contract for next season, though the new coach will have a say in whether that remains the case. Lamoriello did not commit to a timetable for the hire.
Lamoriello informed Trotz of the decision Monday morning after speaking with owner Jon Ledecky. Players were not involved in the process, though Lamoriello expects them to take heed.
“These types of decisions are made for going forward and not for backward,” he said. “The team is on notice right now that the new voice is what’s necessary for us to have success, in my opinion.”
Lamoriello didn’t discuss the reasons behind the firing, saying only that it’s his job to do what’s best for the organization. It’s far from the first time he’s made a surprise decision to move on from a head coach: In 2000, when he served as general manager for the Devils, Lamoriello fired Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the season and hired Larry Robinson, who went on to win the Stanley Cup with the franchise. Seven years later, Lamoriello fired Claude Julien with three games left in the season and the Devils holding the best record in the East.
As for the priorities this offseason, Lamoriello said improving the blue line from an offensive standpoint, and potentially a hockey trade involving forwards, would be on the table.
From the beginning, the Islanders’ season went drastically wrong. The team started off with a 13-game, five-week road trip, followed by a COVID-19 outbreak that rocked the team as it opened UBS Arena. They never fully recovered, and didn’t make more than a glancing impact on the playoff race, finishing with a mediocre 37-35-10 record. At one point amid a breakneck schedule during the second half to make up for their COVID-induced postponements, Trotz said the season was “mentally exhausting.”
Following the last game of the season, a loss to Tampa Bay in which the Islanders blew a third-period lead, Trotz called it “the most bizarre season I’ve ever been involved with” but offered no hint that he knew his fate.
“This is hockey and this group — a good portion of it — should be back together next year, but there’s always some change,” said Trotz, who had a 152-102-34 regular-season record with the Islanders. “And wherever that change is, then it’ll be a new group, just with a few changes. And hopefully this group has played a lot of hockey, a lot of important games in the last little while, last couple years. And hopefully this summer will be a summer to reflect, a summer to get recharged.
“The NHL can humble you. We got humbled this year.”
Though those external factors played a part, the Islanders also struggled to live up to their on-ice potential. Trotz’s defense-first style, which had served them so well in the past, faltered, as the Islanders struggled to score and leaned on goaltender Ilya Sorokin too hard, too often.
The team’s core is one of the oldest in the league and — following a second straight run to the NHL semifinals in 2021 — the Islanders are contractually committed to keeping it mostly intact. That creates an urgency to win now.
If Lamoriello decided that something had to change after the failure to make the postseason, it follows that the factor he could control would be the coaching staff.
Still, Trotz is widely considered one of the best coaches in the sport, and the Islanders’ struggles this season were to some extent out of his hands. There should be no shortage of demand for Trotz’s services this offseason.
He is a Stanley Cup-winning coach, who exited his last job after earning the Capitals a championship. This exit isn’t quite as stunning, but its ramifications will reverberate on Long Island in the months to come.
Lamoriello now has a franchise-altering decision on his hands as he looks to hire a new coach who will walk into a pressure cooker of expectations.
The Islanders finished well outside the playoff picture this season. In 2022-23, though, their goal will be the same as it was this year: winning the Stanley Cup.
Lamoriello just laid the marker down. And it’s now on his shoulders to deliver.
— Additional reporting by Jenna Lemoncelli
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