The Jets are closing in on crunch time in their head coaching search and remain a viable option for Barry Trotz — held to be the top candidate on the market.
Sources confirm a “Winnipeg Free Press” report that talks between the Jets and Trotz are progressing, with parties scheduled to meet this weekend to see if a deal can be worked out. It’s not as though it’s a done deal but, as one source tells The Athletic, there are reasons for the club to be optimistic.
This was not the case as recently as two weeks ago, when Winnipeg began to make it known that it was considering other options. Yes, Trotz is the front-runner — and yes, Scott Arniel is highly likely to be part of the coaching staff — but the Jets have also shown preliminary interest in Jim Montgomery.
I’m hearing again that Montgomery remains a viable contender for the job if Trotz does not work out.
I believe that Trotz’s unique personal and professional factors — a path into management, perhaps, as well as family considerations — are as pertinent now as dollars and term. The Vegas Golden Knights and Philadelphia Flyers may no longer be competitors for Trotz’s services but his personal situation has not changed. He was always going to slow play his decision, taking as much time as he needs, and there are some who believe that he could wait a full season before returning to a coaching job.
There is also the possibility that Florida emerges as a contender; perhaps the Panthers change the game by deciding not to renew interim head coach Andrew Brunette after their second-round playoff sweep.
Part of hiring a big name head coach — whether it’s Trotz or Montgomery — is celebrating the accomplishment. Winnipeg will ideally introduce its head coach on an off-day for the Stanley Cup Final — perhaps even once they’re complete — and use the day to celebrate the potential that he brings. The Jets will want to “win” the news conference, maximizing buzz before heading into the draft and the rest of a critical offseason which could determine the futures of key players from Mark Scheifele to Blake Wheeler to Pierre-Luc Dubois.
For now, fans can remain optimistic that Trotz remains a possibility — and so does Montgomery, whose coaching acumen represents something stronger than a consolation prize.
Which coach should Jets fans hope for?
Let’s start with a discussion of what the Jets need in their next head coach.
A winning resume
One of the first things the Jets’ next head coach is going to be judged on is his ability to command the respect of the dressing room.
An enormous part of that respect will come from his resume to this point of his NHL career.
Trotz has the edge here — not just because of his 2018 Stanley Cup or that he has won the third most games in NHL history. In fact, his work with the Islanders — a team that was not particularly expected to win a lot of games during his tenure — is as compelling as his track record in Washington or Nashville. Trotz’s Islanders saw their points percentage leap from .541 under Doug Weight and .536 under Jack Capuano to .587 under Trotz. He won the 2018 Jack Adams Award in part for that accomplishment, then took the Islanders to the second round and Eastern Conference final twice in three straight reasons.
This was so much further than the Islanders were supposed to go that this season’s disappointment can easily be taken in stride.
Montgomery has a similarly impressive resume but most of it is at lower levels. His 125-57-26 record for the University of Denver from 2013 to 2018 earned him NCAA Coach of the Year honours and a national college championship in 2017. He made it to the Frozen Four in 2016 and 2017 while also winning the NCHC in 2014 and 2018.
That Montgomery did all of this winning after winning two USHL championships as head coach — while also winning USHL General Manager of the Year honours twice — shows a coach who was very much on the rise before being fired in Dallas. He’s re-established himself as a top hockey mind in St. Louis but, given his championships and accolades are from before the NHL, it’s easy to call him No. 2 to Trotz in this category.
A culture of accountability — even from star players
Two days before Stars CEO Jim Lites set the hockey world on fire by calling out his star players’ performances in an expletive-laden tirade, Montgomery held court with those same players at practice.
Montgomery had expressed his frustration throughout a Stars practice in 2018 by stopping drills to correct mistakes on multiple occasions. At one point he interrupted three straight rushes to make his players redo the drill the way he had instructed.
Sean Shapiro first wrote these words in 2018:
The session was sloppy and players looked disinterested, even after Montgomery had a couple of one-on-one chiding moments for individual players out in the open when they missed their mark or instructions on a drill. It wasn’t just mistakes that bothered Montgomery, but the same mistakes being repeated over and over.
Eventually Montgomery called a meeting at center ice.
“We are tied for the last playoff spot,” Montgomery told his team in a voice loud enough to hear from the stands. “We are f****** inconsistent. I’m embarrassed, we should be embarrassed.”
Montgomery then began discussing that morning’s performance, calling it “f***** embarrassing” and saying that the team needed “get it together” before the game in Nashville that evening.
At one point Montgomery told the group, “You want ice time? We are ready to give it. You’ve got to earn it.”
Montgomery concluded that center-ice meeting and left the ice.
The Stars would go on to improve to a .597 points percentage, winning one playoff round under Montgomery after a mediocre .561 under Ken Hitchcock the previous season. They even made the Stanley Cup Final under Rick Bowness the following season following Montgomery’s dismissal.
It took time and it was tumultuous but Montgomery left the Stars’ “culture of mediocrity” in a better place than when he found it.
Trotz has historically done a much more balanced job of measuring out his ice time than past Jets coaches like Dave Lowry and Paul Maurice. The spread of forwards ice time he kept in New York was much tighter and less star-dependent than Winnipeg’s usage of Kyle Connor, Scheifele or Wheeler.
Even then, he criticized himself for his approach.
I’ve also heard NHL executives say that Trotz’s commitment to every last little detail on defence will grind Winnipeg’s stars “into a paste.” I think that’s a good thing.
Winnipeg sorely needs a culture of accountability that ties performance to ice time. Either one of these coaches would mean a step in that direction.
What about the X’s and O’s?
Trotz’s defensive schemes have been the NHL standard for so long that when a coach wants to preach “protecting the ice between the dots” all they really need to do is invoke Trotz’s name.
Defensive positioning is tight to the middle of the ice. Players have strict instructions about when to attack plays on the boards, away from critical ice.
And it works: Trotz’s goaltenders routinely have career seasons.
The thing most analysts skip over is the amount of work Trotz puts into not needing to defend in the first place.
Whereas the Jets’ 1-1-3 neutral zone defence was rendered ineffective by a lack of commitment to backtracking, Trotz’s Islanders ran multiple effective neutral zone schemes. They’d even tailor those schemes to how opposing teams broke the puck up the ice.
It’s this level of detail that has Trotz among the most highly sought-after coaches in the game.
Montgomery’s work in Dallas focused on moving the Stars away from relying as heavily on dump-and-chase hockey as they did under Hitchcock and toward a greater degree of puck control. Whereas Hitchcock’s Stars were instructed in various ways to dump the puck in to maximize puck recovery, Montgomery sought to teach his team to read the defence in front of it before deciding how to create and exploit space.
Upon Trotz’s dismissal in New York, Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello spoke to a need to get more offence from defencemen. This could hint at a desire to emulate the new school, Cale Makar-influenced, “defencemen are a constant second wave of attack” style of hockey. I would believe that offence is sacrificed to play Trotz’s defensive brand of hockey — especially when you consider the big, strong defencemen that best protect the middle of the ice. That said, even his biggest and most conservatively positioned defencemen could make possession-positive exit passes, quickly turning puck retrievals into puck movement.
Montgomery is thought to be the more modern of the two coaches. Andrew Cogliano, the Avalanche forward currently playing against Tampa Bay for the Stanley Cup, once called Montgomery’s systems “designed for the future of the NHL.”
It’s difficult to think of either coach’s attention to detail, preparation or systems planning as anything less than a leap forward for the Jets next season.
(Photo: Brad Penner / USA Today)