Nashville Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz was named a finalist Wednesday for the Jack Adams Award, given by the NHL to the coach of the year.
Trotz has been the only head coach in the history of the Predators franchise, and is the second longest-tenured head coach in the NHL, just a few months behind Buffalo's Lindy Ruff.
Looking at players and coaches in the NHL, we as fans often focus on the statistics or wins and losses. It is instructive to go beyond the numbers and take a look at this head coach that consistently turns out a great team regardless of the components that he has been given.
If you listen to Trotz after a game, it is difficult to tell from the tone of his voice if the Predators have just won or lost a game. Trotz is an even-keeled coach who has piloted the Predators since their inaugural season, and the coach of the playoff-bound Predators sounds the same as the coach that guided an expansion franchise through its formative years.
Yet underneath that calm demeanor there is a drive to excel that pushes Trotz—and subsequently his players—to consistently exceed the expectations of the hockey world. As the coach of a team that doesn’t spend as freely as some of the large-market competitors, Trotz is called upon to squeeze everything out of the talent that he is given.
And squeeze he does. Successfully.
The Predators have made the playoffs in six of the first 12 years of their existence, and five of the last six years. This despite having a smaller budget for payroll than most teams. This despite having a roster purge as former owner Craig Leipold was attempting to sell the team and being forced to reassemble a team that could be competitive. This despite turmoil that has occurred with both current and past owners.
So who is this coach that has quietly built another contender out of the Predators?
A native of Manitoba, the 48-year-old had a career as a player that ended with the WHL Regina Pats in 1982. Trotz was never known as a star, but he was a rugged and steady player who overcame serious injury to achieve success in the minors.
Trotz began his coaching career at the University of Manitoba in 1984 as an assistant coach. His career has seen him as a head coach and general manager (Dauphin Kings); a scout for the Washington Capitals; and head coach of the Portland Pirates, the Caps' AHL affiliate. He was named head coach of the Nashville Predators in 1997, and the Predators played their first season in the NHL in 1998.
Trotz is a coach that respects his players and puts the responsibility for the play on them. Although he will “call out” a player in the media, it is more of an exhortation to bring their game back to a certain level of performance rather than berating the player in public. This approach is appreciated by the players, and because Trotz respects them, they in turn respond to his coaching.
This is not to say that Trotz can’t light up a player or the team when necessary. I travelled with the Predators on a Western Canada road trip several years ago, with the first stop in Vancouver. The Predators played an uncharacteristically lifeless game and lost 2-0.
I caught up with Coach Trotz the next day in Calgary, and we talked about the game. He told me that once the doors were closed, he had some choice words for the team and that he called out several of the “stars” on the team. His comment was that if you want to be treated like a big dog, then play like a big dog.
Therein lies, I believe, the foundation of the success of Barry Trotz. He respects his players as players and, more importantly, as people. The fact that the team had to be chastised never even made it to the beat reporter from Nashville following the team. This was family to Trotz, and he dealt with it behind closed doors. He did not embarrass the players. He clearly defined expectations and in turn expected his players to respond to him.
They did then.
And they have consistently over the years.
Trotz continually preaches the value of resiliency to his team. He tells them there will be moments in a game, and stretches in a season, where things don’t work, where the individual or the team suffers a setback. Trotz continually coaches his team to focus not on the breakdown or the tough patch, but to focus on the comeback. Take the punch, get off the mat, and fight back.
This has been bred into the DNA of the team to the point that players often bring this up when talking to reporters. The philosophy of Trotz—and by extension the Predators—is not to dread the setbacks. They know they will come. Instead, have the fortitude and the ability to overcome adversity.
Trotz has framed his coaching style with a healthy dose of reality, and in turn, he has imparted that to his players. When the Predators opened the season 2-6-1, it appeared as if the pundits would be right and this team would not remotely come close to the playoffs. Seventy-three games and 95 points later, the Predators had secured a seventh seed in the highly competitive Western Conference with 100 total points.
When asked about the turnaround of this team, Trotz gave a very telling answer: “They (the players) stopped trying to be who they wanted to be and started playing like who they were.”
Trotz has said all along that the current edition of the Predators will not have some of the flash of teams past, but that they can be very successful by doing the little things, the hard things that lead to wins. Going to the net, winning puck battles, and playing fundamentally sound hockey would lead to a successful season. When this squad embraced that reality, the wins and the points began to pile up.
Trotz has often been described with many adjectives—stoic, hard-working, underappreciated. All are accurate. But if you want to really understand the success of Trotz and his ability to get the most out of his team, it starts with these three characteristics: respect, resiliency, and realism.
Quietly and steadily, the resilient Barry Trotz molds realistic expectations for his team and helps them achieve their maximum potential.
Now, he has the respect of his peers.
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