Barry Trotz is so renowned leaguewide and in Winnipeg that it’s easy for his Jets coaching candidacy to be discussed with a dangerous amount of hype.
All of the cornerstones of a coaching resume are there. The Stanley Cup, the commitment to defence, the multiple seasons of teams outperforming their projected standings position. Trotz’s community credibility is there, too; we’re several weeks into Winnipeg’s head coaching search and every whispered piece of gossip about the guy is about how solid of a human being he is.
But what if he’s not the right person to coach the Jets?
Now that talks between Trotz and True North are heating up and a decision is expected by July 1, it’s time to consider the possible downsides of Trotz’s tenure.
Let’s take it beyond the obvious — what if he costs too much? — because, well, it’s not our money. Let’s ignore the impossible-to-predict — what if the Jets miss the playoffs anyway? — because, well, that’s impossible to know from here.
Instead, let’s focus on three known concerns.
The first and most obvious is that Trotz appears to be interested in a path to management. It’s been said and bears repeating that, with head coaching vacancies being filled across the league, Trotz is essentially down to coaching in Winnipeg, pursuing a murky situation in Florida or perhaps even joining Nashville in some kind of management capacity. Given that he’s still meeting with Winnipeg, it seems as though the Jets have every chance to employ Trotz if he coaches in the NHL next season.
The Jets take on a risk based on the degree to which Trotz is able to make player input a formalized part of his job duties
Coaching excellence doesn’t guarantee managerial excellence. One imagines a certain degree of growing pains, even when it does work out.
Jets fans will be quite familiar with the traditional late offseason signing of Matt Hendricks, Mark Letestu, Nate Thompson or Riley Nash. Winnipeg made moves like this on a nearly annual basis in the Paul Maurice era and there is a perception that, even in a collaborative workspace, these moves were more celebrated by coaching than by management. On a small scale, a veteran player earning the league minimum salary comes with limited risk; the cap implications are minor, the minutes tend to be low-leverage and the player can always be moved like Nash was if the experiment fails.
Sometimes the minutes matter more: Nash averaged 1:31 per night on the power play, which trailed Nikolaj Ehlers (2:12) and Paul Stastny (1:44) while surpassing Cole Perfetti (1:15) and Adam Lowry (0:54). Nash scored zero points in 22:46 total minutes with the man advantage.
Trotz is not responsible for Nash. However, a look at the minute distribution on Long Island last year shows a balanced team, led by Mathew Barzal at the top (18 all-situations minutes, according to Hockey Viz. The fourth line — most frequently Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck — got between 11 and 14 minutes per game. The most negative available interpretation, being made here for argument’s sake only, is that Trotz’s preference is to reduce high-leverage star minutes too steeply in favour of reliable fourth-line players.
If Mark Scheifele is sent to New York for Jean-Gabriel Pageau — a superior checker who has averaged less than half a point per game in his NHL career — it will obviously be a clear loss.
No, it’s not fair to invent a hypothetical trade and then blame a hypothetical coach for not being overruled by his theoretically more-powerful general manager. I won’t begrudge you a little eye-roll at my expense. My point here is just that everyone has their preferences and Trotz has a winning reputation. It is easy for me to say that Jets management is lean as opposed to bloated — that, if any team has room to create an assistant GM position in a few years’ time or even to bump its GM upward to president of hockey operations, Winnipeg is it. But ironing out the exact breakdown of roles, responsibilities, powers and privileges may not be as easily done as written.
Winnipeg’s second substantial risk, should it hire Trotz as head coach, is that it will immediately need a succession plan.
Whereas True North executive chairman Mark Chipman prefers coaches with longevity, using continuity to build trust, Trotz appears to be headed toward a shorter contract — perhaps two or three years — as he nears the end of his coaching career. Winnipeg may feel pressure to hire his eventual replacement this summer instead of when that contract ends, asserting continuity into future seasons instead of putting together an extensive coaching search all over again a few years from now.
Hiring Trotz ratchets up the pressure on the organization to build a coaching staff around him, perhaps asserting its own choices where a head coach might traditionally get more leeway. Whether this means an associate coach in waiting like Scott Arniel, someone highly touted from outside the organization or otherwise, Winnipeg will need to work harder to create a staff with complementary and diverse skill sets. Ideally, that would happen in concert with Trotz — after all, if he’s the one being hired, then presumably his vision and the club’s vision aligns.
Scott Arniel (Jonathan Kozub / NHLI via Getty Images)
None of this is impossible. It is just an additional potential pressure that True North may find unwieldy — an extra needle or two to thread in an ideally snag-free transformation of the club.
It would also be completely reasonable for the club to start next season with Trotz at the helm and a succession plan in mind and then divert from that plan if the process doesn’t appear to be working. I just think that the Jets run themselves so methodically and think so far into the future that version of a two-step may not be the homecoming dance it has in mind.
If this sounds too hypothetical, consider what Chipman said last fall: he told Maurice the day they met that he “expected (Maurice) would be here for a long time. And I really did.”
“Unless you get really, really fortunate, you can’t have success — however you define it — without a culture that’s built on trust,” Chipman went on to tell me. “Trust between the players and the coaches, and vice versa. And between the hockey administration and the coaches. And you can’t just add water and have trust — it takes time.”
Keep those words in mind when considering Chipman’s thoughts when recently asked about Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik’s success.
“The patience he’s shown with (Lightning coach Jon Cooper), it’s the same thing in the front office,” Chipman said. “There’s been longevity in terms of leadership there. When they had an off year or disappointing playoff, they didn’t panic. He didn’t abandon his principles.”
It’s entirely possible Chipman was speaking only about Tampa Bay and the very specific success the Lightning have had. It is my own belief that sticking to his principles has been an overriding aspect of Chipman’s tenure at True North. I wouldn’t be surprised if the unique structure of this situation — whether it’s about a path into management or the need to find a new head coach sooner than later — challenges some long-held practices with respect to continuity and tenure.
Winnipeg’s third risk is the nature of the path between how the Jets played last season and how Trotz would insist that they play.
I’ve heard Trotz described by those who know him as relentless in terms of making people play the right way. I’ve heard his approach described by players as extraordinarily structured and planned. Every faceoff, every neutral zone transition, every defensive zone coverage comes with a distinct plan. We know Trotz’s methods lead to results and we know they lead to buy-in, especially in increments of a few years at a time.
It’s also safe to expect that a Trotz hiring would come with plenty of friction and perhaps even some roster churn between last season’s performance and true contention.
It may be that all of these concerns are just the cost of doing business with someone known to be among the very best at what he does.
Just don’t mistake Trotz’s position as Winnipeg’s front-runner for a guarantee everything goes 100 percent smoothly.
We may look back at the days between now and his ultimate decision as the least stressful part of Winnipeg’s path back toward the top half of the league.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)