How did we get here? Did we take a wrong left turn at Albuquerque?
The Isles season with Jack Capuano at the tiller should have been finished shortly after late October. The Isles had just blown another 3rd period, allowing the Penguins 3 goals and take the game. It was a text book Capuano fixture to his tenure, where a lack of poise … albeit with below average goaltending … blew a lead and then the game.
Capuano was frustrated and angry. He was staring at a wall that he could not, and would not ever pass. He was out of solutions, expertise, and began to reflect that frustration back out. Whether he was willing to admit it or not, he blamed the lack of offense and chemistry thanks to GM Garth Snow’s offseason. He was resentful that he didn’t have any say in the offseason changes and UFA period. He rued the changes that were forced on him.
Conversely, part of it was his own doing. Once again his development of the deep prospect pool was not bearing out. He had failed before. Nino Niederreiter’s stilted development was also squarely on his shoulders. Garth Snow might have penciled him onto the team too early, but it was Capuano’s inability to develop him that showed in the end. Nino developed in Minnesota… becoming the forward that the draft and scouting staff always thought he would be.
Now Capuano was frustrated by Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, and those who needed that same mentoring and tutelage to break through on the NHL level and remain consistent …. It was happening once again. Plus, more players were all beginning to logjam at Bridgeport, needing to be placed into the NHL schema.
The Bigger Organizational Picture
Internally, the team had reached a juncture where young players needed to fill the gaps as veteran players were now UFA. A static cap ceiling and a big re-signing with John Tavares loomed over the horizon. Any NHL GM will tell you that there is a need at that pivotal juncture for young players to now fill those gaps. There was a problem… they were not getting the production. Was it the players? Capuano thought so.
Add to this, it was a summer of massive change. With Kyle Okposo to move on, Frans Nielsen taking advantage of Detroit’s need for a center, and Matt Martin heading to Toronto, this was the first real exodus for a primarily young team. Capuano was not exactly enamored with some of the newer players work habits. He felt it was starting to rub off on other players.
However, it has always been an all too fragile team… and that I believe, has to be placed on the coach’s shoulders. This fragility was due to the flaws in the system framework on the NHL club.
The created logjam was self-made because the coach lacked the skill-set and ability to get them playing and get those players to pivot into the next needed steps. Above all, they were not being placed in a system most conducive for their skill-sets. This was impeding development, forcing them to play differently.
These Isles players had been chosen to play a particular team philosophy and system. Yet here they were being forced by coaching to mesh to another system and style. They were being used out of their natural positions and their natural strengths. Therein lied the biggest problem…. One years in the making.
The Bridge Coach From Bridgeport
When previous coach, Scott Gordon, imploded during the 10-game losing streak in November of 2010, Jack Capuano was placed as an interim with the mindset that he was never to be “The Guy”. As their Bridgeport coach, the idea was for him to continue those development methods with the NHL team. It was easier that way than to dig through for a coach to fit their very particular needs… especially when the team was far from where it needed to be competitively. They also were still forced to the cap floor by owner Charles Wang. So, they weren’t going to pay for a high-priced coach until there was venue certainty and the team was poised to turn a corner.
When the team dug out from that hole and ended up with a 26 win, 29 loss record with 62 points, everyone seemed to be impressed. He was made full-time coach.
Was this a mistake?
By doing so, they placed someone as coach who did not have the necessary tools to get them all the way down the line. Was it ok to use him as a bridge? Maybe, but as we saw on the slide last year and this year, when you refuse to recognize the time for that change, it makes things worse. That is on GM Garth Snow most of all.
Instead, he was left to struggle, along with the team, development and player performance. So, for a team who recognized that they needed to have kids to get to the next level, their own choices and reticence to make changes exacerbated the situation. It hurt their plans, needs and was stunting the much needed growth.
Flaws to the coaching, development, and an overall lack of trust in the kids would only increase over time. The more Capuano felt the pressure the more he leaned on veteran players with less skill sets over those he needed to get to the next level. Ryan Pulock and Ryan Strome both ended up victims of this of this methodology.
As management chose to have both Matthew Barzal and Anthony Beavillier stay up with the team, the message to get them involved and things sorted was clear. Instead Barzal never was used. Though, another year in juniors is not detrimental to his development. However, it only
undermines underlines another example of the disjointed operation between organization and coach.
The issue has always seem to have been a heavy-level of confidence erosion and mistake scrutiny by the head coach and staff on the kids. You get the trust you give, and Capuano had lost faith. He seemed to have no belief in the overall vision, the kids, or the off-season changes. Those around him heard him only cite the impediments. There seemed to be an atmosphere of a fear of failure, which seemed to pop up early in 2014-2015 season, as they adopted a far more careful less-risk, but far less reward, system of play.
That system…. In lieu of the successful possession methodology from a season before, really was the clarion bell of dissension within the team vision and coach vision. Yet, it was left to sort itself out. Last seas0n’s success is only really due to Thomas Greiss’s banner season as goaltender offsetting some of the lumping up of issues.
When the Islanders made the playoffs last season, it would then be about best players vs best players. Coaching system and flaws would take a backseat to those items due to the short playoff series. Yet, coaching still came up as an issue, especially when Tampa outclassed the Isles in round 2. Best player and goaltending battles were won by the Lightning, and coaching inefficiency peeked out again when Tavares and Greiss were nullified.
The warning signs… all over again. Yet, there seemed to be this level of denial from above.
This past training camp, the coaching and team seemed completely disheveled. As NHL teams were working out the kinks, the Isles came into the season looking dazed and confused.
It didn’t get any better.
October and November were car alarms, gongs, cymbals, and even an out-of-tune full brass band all blowing shrilly. Yet, no move was made. There was a hope for adjustment and for things to take shape. Due to this, a season sunk into a hole.
Come December, even attention began to come onto their star, John Tavares… who was playing far from an elite level. When your elite player is not playing anywhere near his level, well, let’s just call it the biggest warning sign of all.
Yet, the band played on. The Isles fans groaned.
Yes, analytical folks will tell you that before his dismissal, the team was in fact playing better. But, it doesn’t change the long tale and narrative that has been evidenced from back in 2010. Capuano, a meat and potatoes type of coach. just did not have the right skill sets or tools to get them anywhere else. And the philosophical differences were beginning to spill over in interviews.
Capuano has always been highly liked and respected by the organization and the players. Even in the playoffs, his no-nonsense approach seemed comfortable and at-ease. Maybe that and his relationship with players and top brass really shrouded the inherent problems.
Isles will quietly cite that goaltending was mediocre earlier this season… from both goaltenders. They would be quite correct. But that was just one issue to what was sliding out the bottom. The team dynamic and basic vision was completely and utterly out of step with its application. The entire enterprise was failing…. with the flaws starting to become glaring in every capacity as it wore on.
Their offense was offensive. Their defense had no offense. Their goaltenders were playing average at best.
In business, managers and CEOs will tell you when stakes become high, IF your foundation is off, eventually the enterprise will crumble. A hockey club is like a business… a large number of collaborators must be in synch, onboard strategically and in implementation. For the Isles… this was a bane that could no longer be overcome. It needed to change.
This season was a systematic failure that finally exceeded the slack that lower stakes and static rosters previously allowed. There was no more room for middling performances, substandard mercurial goaltending, and … above all, a bad fit as head coach. There was no more room for the coaching and organizational vision and strategy to not be committed to the same tract.
There was no more room for the play-it-safe game philosophy, never using the dynamics and skill sets of the players, speed, and possession savvy.
Here And Now
Flash forward to mid-February post-Capuano, and Anders Lee is on pace for 30 goals. Josh Bailey might get 55-60 points. Even Ryan Strome has come alive and tallied 8 points in his last 9 games. UFA’s that frustrated Capuano are on track. Jason Chimera is on pace for 20 goals. Andrew Ladd also should pass 20 goals. Both of these players are getting these from only 3rd line and their minutes.
The team still is not fully on all cylinders, but already with some of those smaller changes, things are starting to bear out. They at least can make a solid run at the 8th spot for the playoffs. Even if they don’t make it, they are a certainly better team than they have been all season.
Above all, now that the coaching move has been made, there is no more room for a GM to be tone deaf to the long-term needs of the organization. There is no more cap floor creed from ownership. That means they need a NHL coach who has player development skill set, a successful; track record, confidence in youth, a commitment to the internal analytic philosophy, and …. perhaps even…. playoff experience.
Nothing less is acceptable.
Unfortunately, one of the best candidates has already been lost. Claude Julien had planned to wait it out until the offseason. Then Montreal came calling, which is one of the gold standard organizations in hockey. When compared to Florida, Las Vegas and the Isles… there simply was no comparison. It was a no-brainer.
Now, we will see how this team bears out. They will attempt to make a trade IF they can by deadline. If not, then they will have to be active at the NHL draft. They must do moves before the expansion draft. Many teams will be in the same boat.
GM Garth Snow will be given leeway to make necessary changes to get them back on track. There is no more room for mistakes. The road is starting to run out.
Garth is on the clock.