Something occurred to me as I spoke to Butch Goring soon after confirming my fears that the Islanders’ would go for flexibility over pure talent with their opening roster: Barry Trotz is still figuring out what he has on the roster, and he probably appreciates as much flexibility as possible in that quest to figure out where all the pieces will best fit his scheme.
Goring wasn’t talking about the roster when he said this, but it applies: “Having been a coach, I know, it simply takes a while,” Goring said. “New team, new GM, it takes a while for a coach to understand what each of his players is capable of, and it takes a while for the players to understand what a new coach’s expectations are.”
You might say — okay, I would say — that it’s the general manager’s job to make some of those decisions for the coach, and Lou Lamoriello has gone all old-school with his summer moves and his opening roster, resorting to clean-shaven buzz-phrases like “culture change” and “experience in a winning program.”
But one thing Lamoriello has done, even though it appears exactly like what Old Culture Garth Snow would have done, is navigate the waiver rules and opening roster deadline to make every player available to Trotz. They acquired waivers on Tanner Fritz and Tom Kuhnhackl and sent waiver-exempt Devon Toews and Jan Kovar to Bridgeport, making all of them at Trotz’s disposal or a phone call away over the first month of the season.
We know from the daily D pairings blender that Trotz is still sorting how who can do what. We know he seems set on his first and third line (“the best fourth line in hockey which has become the most meh third line” as Noel said), but the second line is a wild card with Brock Nelson at center and the fourth line is subject to change each day.
So I don’t totally agree with the approach, and the Luca Sbisa signing is an echo of every previous Isles camp, but otherwise I understand it. A coach has to feel comfortable in his personnel, and Trotz has to arrive at a level of comfort that he’s using the best pieces in the most appropriate spots.
Goring on Getting Past Tavares
I spoke with Goring Tuesday as part of MSG’s promotion of their coverage, where he is the in-game analyst next to Brendan Burke. (MSG has 81 Islanders games this season, about 20 of which will now feature U.S. Olympic champion AJ Mleczko in studio, by the way. Coverage begins with pregame for the opener at 6:30 p.m. Thursday on MSG+.)
I did not tell Goring, though I now finally feel safe to say so publicly given the summer’s events, that he was and is my favorite #91 in Islanders history*.
Thinking back on his playing career, and even his coaching career — he coached the Bruins and the Islanders (receiving zero support in 1999-01), and a dynamite IHL team — I realized Goring had never been part of a team that lost a star like Tavares. In fact, arguably, Goring was the departing star (via trade) from the Kings (though obviously Marcel Dionne was the marquee player there) and the first key “core” piece of the Dynastic Islanders to exit (via waivers) in 1985.
Still, he’s seen a lot and been in a lot of team dynamics, so I asked him what the returning Islanders must do to healthily approach life after that other 91, John Tavares.
“Certainly they need to forge their own identity. It’s a new team, new management, the past is the past,” he said. “Sure, it’s great motivation for them, to prove that they don’t need him to be successful. But there’s no reason to dwell on the past.
“They may be old cliches, but they’re true: You can only control what you can control. It’s not about one player, it’s about what 20 players can do. The onus is on the dressing room, they have lots of veterans, everybody is savvy, and they know what it takes to win in this league.”
On Robin Lehner
I asked Goring which player he thinks is most likely to emerge or surprise fans, or which player is ready for a breakout. He cited Robin Lehner as the one to watch.
“I’m very excited to watch Robin Lehner. A new player, but also in the most important position. The pressure will be on him, it always is on the goalie. But in the NHL or any league, really, you just can’t win without good goaltending. So they’ll need him.”
On the Power Play
The point about it taking a while for coaches to get to know their players’ capabilities came up when I asked about the power play. Goring is optimistic about this area of special teams under Trotz and said he likes what he’s seen in the preseason.
“It was good last year, and I think it will be good again this season,” Goring said. “They’ve implemented some different scenarios... I like what’s going on. ”
In preseason the Islanders used Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle and Nick Leddy on the first unit. The second unit, which is lower-octane up front, features the double-cannon of Ryan Pulock and Johnny Boychuk. Arthur Staple of The Athletic quoted Barry Trotz describing how these are simply two different looks: the first unit builds from the half wall, with lateral movement and mobility. The second unit is “a shooting unit,” joking it’s “rocket one and rocket two.”
Goring on the Wünderkind Barzal
Over the summer I’ve noticed in talking to fans and reading other media — though not the Vegas odds, which tend to leave him off the radar — that the secret on Mathew Barzal is out. People realize he’s special. I hear from people who want to see more.
I asked Goring what, aside from the obvious dynamic skating, is so special about the Islanders’ #13.
“Of course he’s a great skater. Very creative. Tremendous confidence. He’s very competitive. He wants to win. But it’s his legs. He is so strong on his skates for such a young guy. He’s not a very big guy, maybe carrying 190 pounds, but that leg strength makes him so hard to knock off the puck.
“I think he’s going to have an even better season this year. Yes, he’s going to face even tougher competition, the opponents’ best, but he’s ready.
“He’s the most exciting player in the league. I didn’t say he was the best player, but he is definitely the most exciting player to watch. That should excite fans, he’s worth the price of admission.”
On the rest of the league
I asked Goring about the rest of the Metro division and the league, and if he had any sleeper picks or surprise teams.
Not really, he said. Mostly everyone knows the elite teams, and the teams the experts pick to be at the top should be there. “But I’m sure they will pick the Islanders somewhere near the bottom,” Goring said. “And that’s where I hope they get it wrong.”
He did say he’s naturally interested in seeing how San Jose will do after adding an all-star like Erik Karlsson. And it will be interesting to see how Washington does without Trotz.
I asked if he thinks Trotz will be excited to take his new team up against the one he guided to the Stanley Cup next spring.
“I’m sure he will be,” he said. “And like a player who was traded, I expect he’ll receive an extremely warm welcome” when the Isles visit D.C. on Friday, Jan. 18.
On Springtime at the Coliseum
Another storyline for this season, though it won’t hit until the calendar
turns to approaches 2019, is the return of non-preseason games to the renovated Nassau Coliseum.
It’s a ways off, but has Goring thought about it yet? Is he excited?
“Selfishly, the first thing is that it’s closer to home for me. So I like that.
“But no, of course it will be great. Barclays Center is a great facility, and it has been home, though not always at the right times, but the Coliseum is where the team has has the most success. That’s where my era took place, and it’s a great place to see a game. The low ceiling, the crowd is louder, so many Islanders fans see it as home. And so it will be our true home until the Belmont arena is open.”
The Islanders open the season on the road against the Hurricanes Thursday night. Pre-game coverage on MSG+ begins at 6:30 p.m.