Twenty-six years ago, Barry Trotz was fighting circumstance, just as he is now.
As the coach of the Portland (Maine) Pirates, then the AHL affiliate of the Capitals, Trotz was constantly phoning agents to deal with injuries and call-ups decimating his lineup plans on a nightly basis. His assistant coach, Paul Gardner, had to suit up in practice regularly, and even played in a game. When it snowed in Maine and opponents couldn’t get in safely, postponements piled up. A group that had won the 1993-94 Calder Cup two seasons prior sat well below .500.
It does to Trotz.
“Sorta looked like, where we were in the standings, like we do right now,” the Islanders’ head coach said Saturday.
The Islanders, after success the past two seasons, are in last place. Their roster has been turned over by injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak — though not to the point of an assistant coach needing to play. They have nine games that need makeup dates, and after returning to play on Thursday night, they are unlikely to get much of a break the rest of the season.
Whether the Islanders can get back to the playoffs and make a run will come down to whether they can start turning things around coming out of their latest break. In the case of the Pirates, they managed to do just that — and went on to make the 1995-96 Calder Cup finals.
“He kept a very calm attitude through it all,” Gardner said of Trotz. “You’ve never heard him complain, ‘Well we’re missing this guy’ or ‘We just got our key player called up’ or anything like that. He never, ever complained.”
The Pirates took those cues from their coach, and it translated to the ice.
“He just did a good job of keeping us even-keel, keeping us focused,” Darren McAusland, a winger on that team, told The Post. “Not worrying about the outside distractions whether it’s canceling games or not being able to practice because of weather. He’s very good at keeping a nice, steadying hand, especially at that level [where] you have a lot of younger guys.”
McAusland pointed to Trotz’s temperament — calm and composed — as his way of doing that. Screaming and yelling when things are going badly is an easy thing to do, but can result in losing the locker room. When Trotz spoke, he did so with purpose.
He stuck with his system, which was similar to the one the Islanders run now. The Pirates played a defense-first game, forechecked hard and looked to counterpunch.
“We were not some team that, we’re going to win 10-8 and outscore everybody,” McAusland said.
In mid-February 1996, facing a stretch of five games in seven days with their record at 17-26-9-3, the Pirates swept all five. The ensuing momentum helped them get back to the postseason, albeit with a record below .500. Once back in the playoffs, the Pirates put together a run.
During their push to make the playoffs, Gardner recalled that Trotz would put up in big numbers how many points the team needed to make the postseason. When they won, they would come in and knock two more points off.
“It became a real fun thing and a goal for the players,” Gardner said. “And it was always right there in their face as they walked out onto the ice.”
The Pirates hit their magic number, and ended up making a run they couldn’t have foreseen a few months earlier, when everything was going wrong.
It’s a history Trotz hopes he can repeat with the Islanders, at a higher level, but with the same climb upwards.
“He does not change his style or his ways of treating people,” Gardner said. “I think that’s what made him so successful and got him through some tough times in the schedule and what he’s going through right now, with the injuries and COVID and all that stuff.
“But I know he believes in his players and he’s going to push that to them. That they can win. And I wouldn’t bet against him.”