Islanders Coach Barry Trotz looks on during his return to Washington Friday night for a game in which his new team defeated his old one. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

If this was supposed to be weird — and it was, right? — leave it to Barry Trotz to strip aside the awkwardness and put everyone at ease.

“Really, my heart is full of good memories,” Trotz said. “I worked with great people. We had good teams. We won a lot of games. And we did the ultimate: We won a Stanley Cup.”

That was the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup-winning coach absolutely burying any bitterness as he returned Friday night to Capital One Arena with his New York Islanders in tow. They had already met once, back in November in Brooklyn, when Trotz got his ring and greeted his old team. But Trotz hadn’t been in his old building. He hadn’t shaken the hands of the dressing room attendants and security guards and parking lot workers who were woven into the fabric of his life for four years. That stuff mattered.

“Thank them for all of their time and effort, their kindness, to not only me and my family,” he said.

Which reminds you why you once rooted for this guy. Just more than six minutes into the first period, the video board above center ice showed a montage in honor of Trotz: His introductory news conference, at which team President Dick Patrick said, “Barry’s a great coach, but he’s a better person.” His work in the film room and at the practice rink. His presence in the community. Alex Ovechkin handing him the Cup, which he kissed. And finally, champagne. So much champagne.

The sellout crowd stood. Trotz seemed like he teared up. So nice. All of it, so, so nice.

“I was trying not to look too much because I was getting pretty close to that sensitive side of myself,” Trotz said afterward. “. . . It was so well done, and I appreciate the Caps for doing that.”

The whole event was such a group hug, weren’t a few people turning to each other in the stands asking, “Wait, why’s he behind their bench, not our bench?”

We’ll get to that because it’s important not only as the Capitals try to put a midseason lull behind them — and Friday night’s 2-0 loss to Trotz’s Islanders extended their losing streak to four — but also as this franchise moves forward and pursues the unthinkable: a second Cup.

But Friday night was a moment to remember not just what Trotz helped the Capitals accomplish, but what he did when he first arrived here before the 2014-15 season. Remember that the Caps were in disarray, dripping with self-doubt. Adam Oates had been fired after a disastrous two-year tenure as coach. George McPhee, the longtime general manager, couldn’t be allowed another chance at a coaching hire, so he was out, too. There were deep questions about whether an Ovechkin-led team could ever push through.

Seems like a different era. Which it was.

Enter Trotz.

“We had the perfect coaching staff all around,” said Brian MacLellan, who replaced McPhee as general manager and helped bring in Trotz. “Personalities, skill sets. That whole group was, I think, real good.”

What they did, collectively, was overhaul how the franchise functioned. Trotz, of course, instituted an on-ice structure that was much more sound than, say, that of Bruce Boudreau — which was fun to watch but not durable come springtime. MacLellan’s acquisitions — particularly defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik — were vital, and Trotz’s imprint was immediate: an improvement of seven wins and a bump from 90 to 101 points in the first season, then back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies as the league’s best regular season team and a feeling that — if they could just get past Pittsburgh, if they could somehow surge past the second round — they might actually be a threat to win the whole damn thing.

But Trotz, too, was burdened. In 15 years with Nashville, he, too, had failed to advance to the conference finals. The pressure on the entire enterprise was real.

“Me and Barry had dinners with ownership every year,” MacLellan said. “That’s the main topic: How come we can’t get past the second round?”

In that pursuit, Trotz last spring began saying that winning a Cup or failing to win a Cup — that wouldn’t define him either way. In the moment, it almost seemed like a crutch. But on Friday evening, with his name now etched on the Cup, he reiterated those same thoughts.

“Winning a Cup hasn’t defined me at all,” Trotz said. “All it does is, you know, it’s part of your past. And I’m not looking in the past. I’m looking in the future, and the future’s with the Islanders.”

First, though, one point about the past. Remember that Trotz coached his final season in Washington as a lame duck. The Caps weren’t going to extend him if he couldn’t push past the second round, and there are very few who rock the red who would have disagreed with that assessment. During the 2017-18 season, which was no 82-game joyride, there were two moments when Trotz was close to being fired. These seasons, these careers, they’re impossibly fragile.

But two things happened when Washington won the Cup: a two-year extension kicked in on Trotz’s contract — with a modest raise — and Trotz, logically, thought he should be compensated, in both years and dollars, in a manner more commensurate with the top coaches in the league.

His ask, then: Five years at $4 million per. The Capitals couldn’t convince themselves any coach — even a coach who had helped them achieve the unimaginable — was worth such a commitment. Trotz resigned. The Caps promoted one of his assistants, Todd Reirden. And here we are, seven months after the ultimate achievement, welcoming back a guy who won — and walked.

“It can only last so long,” MacLellan said. “So it’s different now.”

Different means Trotz not only isn’t behind the Caps’ bench, but he’s with a division rival that moved past the Caps into first place Friday night. His impact with the Islanders has been immediate and thorough. A team that finished dead last in the NHL in goals allowed last year is now first in the same category. That’s coaching.

Know where that kind of coaching is going to get Trotz? To the Hall of Fame, that’s where. He’s already fourth on the all-time regular season wins list. He now has the Cup to remove the biggest, “Yeah, but . . .” If he builds the Islanders back into a contender — and, honestly, even if he didn’t — he seems like a lock.

If he makes it to such an induction, the clips will include some of those same moments shown to the Capital One Arena crowd Friday night. When that video ended and the cameras turned to Trotz, he waved to thank the crowd — and then put his hand on his heart.

That’s what matters here, that last moment. Not how he departed. Not the dollars and the years the Caps wouldn’t give him. Not where he coaches now.

What matters is that Barry Trotz and these Washington Capitals are forever linked, linked in the best way possible. So Friday night, facing their old coach, wasn’t weird. Barry Trotz wouldn’t let it be weird.

“I had a smile on my face all day today,” he said.

Including at the end, when he walked out of the Capitals’ arena with a first-place team that happened not to be the Capitals.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.