The New York Islanders are one of the NHL’s most storied franchises, making their mark on the league during their brisk ascension in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After their four straight Stanley Cups and 19 consecutive playoff series wins, the Islanders found themselves on a bumpy road as they fought to stay relevant in a growing league. Since their inaugural season in 1972-73, they have had 17 coaches with varying degrees of success, though some stood out more than others.
5: Ted Nolan
Fans of a certain age – ok, fans that are my age – may vividly remember Ted Nolan as coach of the New York Islanders even though he was only behind the bench for two seasons. After a lockout in 2004-05 and a disappointing 2005-06 campaign, Nolan took over and helped lead the Islanders back to the postseason, doing so in dramatic fashion. On the last day of the season in a must-win game, the Isles defeated the New Jersey Devils in a shootout.
The victory was capped off by a poke-check by Islanders’ goalie Wade Dubielewicz, who played just eight games that season behind Rick DiPietro and Mike Dunham. To make this win even sweeter for Islander fans, it knocked the Toronto Maple Leafs, who defeated New York in the 2002 playoffs, out of the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference.
4: Peter Laviolette
Before he was known as one of the best American coaches in the game, winning a Stanley Cup and leading Team USA during the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, Peter Laviolette started his head coaching career on Long Island.
Following a successful, yet short, coaching career in minor league hockey with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers and the AHL’s Providence Bruins, the latter of which he led to a Calder Cup in 1998-99, Laviolette took over the Islanders’ bench after a tumultuous period where the team not only missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons but were in the basement of the NHL.
Around the time of Laviolette’s hiring, Charles Wang, the founder of Computer Associates who passed away in 2018, became the majority owner of the team and, at least at first, had a willingness to spend money, helping the Islanders attract free agents and encourage trading. This led to the team bringing in players like Michael Peca, Chris Osgood, and Alexei Yashin in addition to Jason Blake, Shawn Bates, and Mark Parish.
Laviolette brought the Islanders back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1993 in his first season (2001-02), clinching on April 4, 2002, with a nailbiting 5-4 victory over Jaromir Jagr and the Washington Capitals.
3: Jack Capuano
Jack Capuano is easily the most polarizing coach on this list despite being the second-winningest and second-longest tenured coach in franchise history. His coaching style, or lack of actual coaching if you ask some Islander fans, coupled with questionable decisions by general manager Garth Snow, put the Islanders on a bumpy road between 2010 and 2016.
Even with that, Capuano led the Islanders to back-to-back 100-point seasons and managed to do something no other coach had done since Al Arbour in the spring of 1993 – win a playoff series. He was fired during the following season after a mediocre 17-17-8 start and replaced by Doug Weight, who nearly dragged the Islanders to the playoffs, falling just one win shy.
2: Barry Trotz
Why is Barry Trotz at No. 2 instead of Laviolette? Not only did Trotz bring a team into the playoffs that just lost its franchise player and, subsequently, everyone had pegged as a basement team, but he also led them to the second round. Now, the Islanders faced a swift exit at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, but they cruised passed the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round using Trotz’s defensive systems that had brought them success since the start of the regular season.
Trotz transformed an otherwise pedestrian lineup into a team that had analysts and media talking all season. They struggled mightily in the offensive zone, but their about-face on defense was eye-opening. Under his watch, the Islanders allowed 100 fewer goals against in 2018-19 than they did the previous season, an amazing feat considering the lack of roster changes. Trotz, the current head coach, continues to lead the Islanders into the future, helping young players grow and expertly manipulating lineups to find success.
1: Al Arbour
While some of the other coaches on this list were difficult to rank, the No. 1 spot will forever be Al Arbour’s. The Islanders’ third coach – yes, they had two other coaches during their inaugural season – Arbour quickly turned the Islanders into a perennial playoff team, making the postseason for 10 straight years beginning with his second year behind the bench on Long Island. That year, the Islanders made it to the semifinals after defeating the New York Rangers and then completing the unthinkable 3-0 series comeback against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Arbour’s biggest accomplishments wouldn’t come until the early 1980s when he led the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups and 19 straight playoff series victories. Not only is he the winningest coach in Islanders’ history, but he also ranks fifth all-time in NHL history in wins by a coach, recently being passed by Trotz.
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Arbour retired from the Islanders following the 1993-94 season, leaving him with a total of 1,499 games coached and 739 victories. On Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007, at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders welcomed Arbour back behind the bench to reach the 1,500-game milestone alongside Nolan. The Islanders won in a fitting fashion with Arbour as the bench boss; a 3-2 come-from-behind win against the Penguins.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.