It’s been six years since the New York Islanders last qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Isles have had five top-five draft selections, one of which was traded for a ninth-overall pick (Josh Bailey, 2008) in that span. This team and its fans have seen the inconceivable; be it a game in which the team scores four power play goals and loses or Rick DiPietro getting steamrolled by skating out to the blue line for a loose puck.
Yet, while the losses continue to pile up, GM Garth Snow has been working relentlessly to build for the future. And he has.
Some of that young talent isn’t on Long Island right now, but Ryan Strome, Nino Niederrieter, Griffin Reinhart and Scott Mayfield will get there, don’t you worry. What you should worry about, however, is the man calling their names from behind the bench: Jack Capuano.
Many of you will suggest that this Islander team lacks talent. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Between John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Brad Boyes, Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo (yes, that one), Travis Hamonic, Mark Streit, Lubomir Visnovsky and Evgeni Nabokov, there’s enough talent in this lineup to, at the very least, sneak into that eighth playoff spot.
Consider the 2007 Islanders, who are the last ones to have made it.
For the majority of the year, their top-six forwards (points-wise) were Jason Blake, Miroslav Satan, Mike Sillinger, Viktor Kozlov, Alexei Yashin and Trent Hunter. The defense was comprised of Tom Poti, Sean Hill, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Chris Campoli, Brendan Witt and Radek Martinek.
Other than Martinek and Witt, none of the other defensemen were very good in their own zone. Rick DiPietro and Wade Dubielewicz had to bail them out on several occasions.
You’re going to tell me that the 2013 Isles, who absolutely have a better group of forwards, a defensive corps that is slightly worse (if worse at all) than the 07 squad’s and a goaltender with all the skill and experience in the world is incapable of making the playoffs?
They aren’t. What they lack is experience and, perhaps more importantly, direction.
Jack Capuano took over as interim head coach when the Isles fired Scott Gordon back on November 15th, 2010. Under Capuano, the team sported one of the best records in the league between the All-Star break and the end of the season, which prompted Garth Snow to retain his services and remove that interim tag.
At the time, that made all the sense in the world. However since then, things have gone downhill for Capuano and, unfortunately, he’s taken the Islanders down with him.
Snow brought him back again this year, which I didn’t necessarily agree with even though I understood why he’d do that. After all, if you’re going to give a coach one more chance to prove himself, then what better time to do it than during a lockout-shortened season?
Suffice to say, Capuano has failed to redeem himself.
At the beginning of the season, he appeared to be a smarter, more well-versed hockey coach. Not only was the team was playing well, but Capuano’s post-game interviews were particularly telling, at least to me.
Last year, he had a generic response for everything, win or lose. But there was something different about Capuano this time around, and I could hear it in his analysis during that early positive stretch.
The good times did not last, and faced with the slightest bit of adversity, Capuano has no response, no explanation. He’s unable to pinpoint the issues, ineffective when it comes to making adjustments on the fly.
His line-changes are orchestrated terribly and some of his line combinations are mind-boggling. Not only did he insist on keeping Nino Niederreiter on the fourth-line with Marty Reasoner and Jay Pandolfo, but he didn’t even think to utilize Nino on the power play until the season began winding down.
I’ve never seen a coach pull his goaltender as early as Capuano does. On the flip-side, I’ve also never seen a coach leave his goaltender in for the entirety of an embarrassing 7-0 blowout loss, one in which neither the defense or the team in front of him ever bothered to show up.
Capuano has not instilled the right culture, a winning culture, in that locker room.
There’s no accountability whatsoever; if a player makes a mistake, be it once or with regularity, he’s back on the ice his next shift anyways. If Kyle Okposo’s in a slump, he’s demoted to the third line where he’ll have even more trouble re-establishing his game, as opposed to benching or scratching him, which might give him that kick in the rear end to get him going.
When you have a coach who schedules four optional skates during a five-game losing streak, all of which were poorly-attended, there’s something wrong.
That is not to suggest that Capuano should’ve held a bag-skate on game day, but to not have everyone on the ice and to not be working towards improvement when you’ve lost five-straight, and to do it repeatedly during that stretch, that just has to rattle your noggin.
Then you wonder how in the hell the Islanders always come out as flat as a bottle of Sprite that’s been sitting in the fridge for three weeks. It’s happened at MSG and it always happens at Nassau Coliseum. It starts with the culture you promote and the mindset you instill in your players.
For me, their record at the Coliseum is more of a coincidence than a home-specific issue. It just happens to be that their slow starts and defensive lapses come back to haunt them at home and, if you look at the few road losses they’ve had, they occur in similar fashion, albeit less often.
It’s not just the slow starts; the fundamentals are completely missing. Things I learned as a Mini-Mite at Newbridge Arena; clearing the zone, always having one defenseman in front of the net, using the boards when playing the puck, those have been absent on a consistent basis.
When that becomes a constant theme, I look at the coach. Hockey fundamentals are essential to any team’s success, especially a younger, inexperienced team with a number of players who are still learning the ropes.
That is why, to an extent, I also do blame Capuano for this team’s defensive woes. It doesn’t take Denis Potvin or Bobby Orr to clear the zone; maybe a guy like Andrew MacDonald can’t take the body, but he sure as hell can do the basics.
Capuano’s system (if you even want to call it one, because I don’t really see any set strategy at all, to be honest) does not preach the fundamentals and that is why this defense can’t even perform at a minimally-serviceable level.
Haven’t you ever wondered how the Isles could play so well defensively with four skaters on the ice, yet so horrifically abysmal with five? Is it really because they’re completely clueless in their own zone?
Of course it isn’t.
Doug Weight has done an excellent job as Capuano’s assistant coach and despite working under him, to be honest. Weight has turned the Isles’ power play, once an alarmingly-bad unit, into one of the very best in the NHL. He has been tough in the locker room when the situation has called for it, showing a knack for lighting a fire under his players when they’ve sleepwalked through a period.
Is he ready to be The Man? Probably not yet. But like his team, he’s oh-so-close.
Last year, the Isles were in contention until March, which to me, demonstrated a significant amount of progress, considering that they were basically eliminated in December the year before.
At this point in the season, they’re four points out of a playoff spot. I don’t know about you, but I’d have signed up for that in a heartbeat. It doesn’t really matter that the rest of the Conference has struggled a little because, if that’s the case, then they’re not much worse-off than everyone else, are they?
They’ve been able to remain in the conversation; the only ones taking them out of that conversation are Islander fans.
Ultimately, you’ll say whatever it is you’re going to say about this hockey team, but you cannot tell me the signs and glimpses haven’t been there.
We all saw them beat the Pittsburgh Penguins — in Pittsburgh and on national television, no less — in convincing fashion, we all saw them come from behind to beat a red-hot Montreal squad at the Bell Centre, we all saw them overcome an early deficit to defeat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
A team that ranks in the top-10 in both special teams categories, goes 6-3-1 on the road and can win against opponents like Pittsburgh, the Rangers, New Jersey, Montreal and Tampa Bay is not one that lacks talent. Are you going to tell me they won those games by accident?
There is a coach out there who can help the New York Islanders and turn them into winners. There is a coach out there who can instill the proper mentality, a system that plays to this team’s strengths and a culture of work-ethic and accountability. As far as I’m concerned, that coach is Guy Carbonneau, but that’s for another day (or article).
Jack Capuano is the greatest threat to the Isles’ postseason aspirations. His system (or complete lack thereof) is what leads to about 75-85% of this team’s defensive zone breakdowns.
Does this defense have holes that need to be filled? Yes, without a doubt. But are they really as bad as they’ve played, as bad as advertised? Absolutely not.
It would be best for Garth Snow and his advisory staff not to do a rush-job on this one. Do your homework, go out and find the best candidate for the position. I know you’re all convinced that Charles Wang refuses to hire a real coach. I can tell you right now, that’s not true and even wrote about it at length last week.
The Islanders are awfully-close to taking that next step. If they fire Capuano, they’ll get that much closer.
Comments are welcome.
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