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Barry Trotz on the Path Ahead in Mathew Barzal’s Evolution

“When you have the puck, do what you do best. When we don’t have the puck, you better do what we do.”

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Columbus Blue Jackets v New York Islanders
Building the whole toolbox.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images


If there is any single word that has summed up Barry Trotz’s arrival to the New York Islanders as head coach, and players reactions to his arrival, it is the details.

He wants more detail in their game. The players have remarked — with appreciation — at how much detail he’s added to their game.

Mostly this has been in the defensive and shot selection areas of the game. So it’s no surprise that Mathew Barzal, their highest talent and their most prolific freelancer, is the one who most needs to incorporate those details into his overall game.

At the risk* of making this Mathew Barzal Evolution Week — Jonathan covered his defensive weaknesses and bright spots today, and Travis will have something on his offensive improvement tomorrow — what Trotz said after this morning’s practice really covered the Barzal project perfectly.

*Actually, no risk here. Barzal’s importance to the Islanders’ future cannot be overstated. He has the chance to be truly great. The same evolution Scotty Bowman once demanded of Steve Yzerman, completely transforming the latter’s career. Trotz will help Barzal get there.

It’s a topic we’ve covered periodically in the past to explain why, despite such players’ clear offensive upside and net positives (including Josh Ho-Sang, on a lesser level), there is a level of “team” play they will have to get to to reach their full potential.

Trotz answered a question from Arthur Staple of the Athletic about this learning curve for Barzal, particularly after a Calder-winning year:

“It’s the transition from [lower levels of hockey]…a lot of the good players have it, because they’ve been elite players and they’ve played against players of different calibers, and they’ve had success and then all of the sudden he has success at this level and still getting away with it, so he’s going, ‘Well this has always worked for me, why should I change it?’

But it works individually for individual success, but it won’t work collectively for team success. It just won’t. Because you need to have that detail in a close playoff game, tight games, all that. You just have to have that detail. It’s something that has to be in your toolbox.

The other stuff when he gets the puck, the things he can do offensively, he’ll always have that. We’re trying to add to stuff he doesn’t quite have. That’s just making the player better. We’re just trying to add more tools in his toolbox, so when it comes to getting the puck, being more efficient.

You know, the old theory is when you have the puck, you do what you do best. He can skate, push people off, create some space. But when you don’t have the puck, you better do what we do. So you can get the puck back. So we can have it more. So it doesn’t cost us. So we’re all on the same page. That part of our game, that is the strength of our game.”

[Update: Staple has thoughts from Barzal on this transition in this piece]

As fans when we debate these mercurial talents, the kind of players whose talent means they can be differentiators in close games by doing something outside the box, there is a tendency to create a false A or B tension between robotic structured fourth-liner and improvisational artist who occasionally gives up a costly turnover.

The reality is it’s not A or B, it’s a balance of A and B. Every coach seeks a different balance. (Jack Capuano was much more structured than the Wild West Doug Weight.)

Barzal and Josh Ho-Sang — yes, different level, but very much applies to him too — don’t need to be Valtteri Filppula or Leo Komarov, heavens no, but they do need to make sure they do enough of the reliable and predictable things that such “wily veterans” do, so that their on-ice teammates can trust in their decision-making and their coaches trust them enough to put them there.

Usually, a superior talent has to dial back on the freelancing at least to the point where he’s pulling his own weight in his defensive responsibilities (in all three zones) and to the point that his teammates aren’t constantly guessing what he’ll do or whether they’ll have to cover for him.

That’s the “when you don’t have the puck, you better do what we do” part.

That’s where, as Jonathan put it in his post, you can’t “want the puck back so badly that [you] watch and/or chase the puck around to the point of disregard for defensive responsibilities” and leave linemates having to keep an eye on whether you’re minding the story.

Here’s the full Trotz scrum, which covered some other topics, including the Islanders needing to build more things on the same page offensively (when they do have the puck), and also has more good insight on getting the whole team to learn his details.