Stop us if you’ve heard this story before. The New York Islanders get off to a good start. Fans that were already hopeful that this would be the year that the rebuild starts producing fruit, allow themselves to start believing in the team. The wins mean the dark days may finally be coming to an end. Then, just as quickly as it started, the hope pulled away and the Isles are in last place faster than you can say Alexei Yashin.
The story this year is that the Islanders have lost nine out of 10 games. The story last season was that they lost ten straight. You see, the story this year is really the same story as last. The Islanders went though one of the worst losing streaks in recent memory last season. It was so bad that the promising young head coach, Scott Gordon, was offered up as the sacrificial lamb while the rest of the organization tried to figure out what had gone wrong.
Last year, they completely missed the point.
The losing streak was rough—but it was much more representative of the players that they were putting on the ice on a nightly basis. Take an objective look at last year’s roster and they just didn’t have the guns to compete with the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Looking at their blueline, they didn’t even have the talent to play with the average teams on a nightly basis unless they brought their “A game” to the rink. It is what it is.
It wasn’t Scott Gordon’s fault last season when they lost and it’s not Jack Capuano’s fault that they’re losing this season. Scotty Bowman couldn’t win with this roster this season.
In many ways, this year is an ugly reflection of last season. The Islanders still have some young, promising young pieces. Yet aside from forwards like Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, and John Tavares, they don’t have players that are ready for the responsibilities demanded on this team.
Mark Streit is an underrated defenseman, but where’s his help? Are Steve Staios and Mark Eaton the kind of players that can log 20 minutes per night for a team that expects to win? Even a guy like Travis Hamonic has shown that he’ll be an NHL defenseman; but asking him to play 20 minutes a night at this point in his development is asking him to fail.
Let’s be honest: Islanders head coach Jack Capuano will find his head on the chopping block if his team doesn’t start winning games in a hurry. Wins. That’s all that will save him at this point. The young forwards could develop into good two-way players, the young defensemen could learn how to play with better awareness, and the entire roster could learn to play with more maturity. All are necessary for the Isles to succeed in the long-run; but if they don’t win, improvements for the long-term won’t save him.
Unfortunately, depth and inexperience aren’t the only problems for the organization—it looks like the team that lacks elite talent lacks heart as well. While Capuano desperately tries to press any button he can to light a fire under the players, he consistently gets subpar efforts from guys he likes to call “passengers.” In fact, he told Newsday exactly how he felt about a faction of his team:
“There are guys who need to find their game and show some will. Once again, we had a few guys take a night off. They may talk a good game to the media, but you’ve got to perform. We can’t have guys continue to feel comfortable they’ll be in our lineup every night.”
It wouldn’t be shocking if this collection of players quit on their coach in the middle of the year. You know how we know? Because they did it to Scott Gordon; and even though people knew the players quit, it was viewed as Scott Gordon’s failure. If it happens a second time, to a second coach in only 12 months—then maybe the real problem lies with the 20 guys in the locker room.
Honestly, Capuano may have been thrown into a situation that he wasn’t ready for quite yet. Last season he was coaching in Bridgeport and it was the right spot for him. Just like players, coaches learn their craft in the AHL as well. And just like players, if a coach is called up to early from the minors, it could be a disaster.
Yet look at the roster. Does it have pieces to give fans on Long Island hope? Absolutely. Does the team have the DEPTH they’ll need to succeed over an 82-game season? Absolutely not. Do they have the goaltending they’ll need to provide a solid backbone when some of the young players make their obligatory mistakes? That all depends on which one of the three goaltenders they have in the net on a given night. Unfortunately, the only guy succeeding between the pipes is the last guy management wants to be thriving in net.
The team hasn’t lost 9 out of 10 because of poor coaching. The team is losing because the roster isn’t good enough to compete with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and the New York Rangers over the course of a six month season. They just don’t have the weapons. And they certainly don’t have enough weapons to coast through games and expect to compete with other NHL teams.
Depending on who you talk to, the lack of depth (and high-end talent) falls at the feet of one of two men. Is it general manager Garth Snow’s fault because he has put together a very average team? Or is it owner Charles Wang’s fault because the Islanders are consistently one of the cheapest teams in the league?
It’s been the most important question surrounding the team for the last few years.
Just like we can’t completely blame Capuano for the poor performance, we can’t completely blame Snow for the poor roster. Sooner or later he needs the man who is writing the checks to start writing bigger checks. Until then, he’ll be forced to depend on players like Andrew MacDonald and PA Parenteau to get the job done in rolls that they have no business filling.
The Islanders will end up firing Capuano because that’s the easiest thing to do. Firing Snow would admit that their rebuild isn’t working—and the rebuilding project is really only halfway done. Wang stepping down and inserting a Terry Pegula type owner is the answers to every Islanders fans’ prayers, but there are only so many billionaires floating around that want to use an NHL team as a toy. So Capuano is the convenient scapegoat at the beginning of an underwhelming season. Just like Gordon was a season ago.
Again, stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
It’s a viscous cycle that has no end in sight. Either admit that the team is in the middle of a rebuild and take the loses in stride or spend money to put a competitive “win-now” team on the ice. Is there anyone who really expects the latter while Wang is at the helm?
The worst part is that the Islanders could be on the right track. They have good pieces in place. They’re making a conscious effort to patiently develop prospects like Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Strome, and Calvin de Haan. But when you’re being patient with prospects in juniors while other young players find their way at the NHL level, the team is going to lose. That’s reality. It sounds so obvious, but it’s something that either the fans or the organization has lost sight of over the course of the rebuild. If not, the people wouldn’t be calling for Capuano’s head. They’d understand that it’s part of the process.
Rebuilding is hard work. If it were easy, then everyone would do it. The problem is that it’s hard and it’s time consuming. As the years pass, the pressure to win and rush young players becomes greater and greater as fans starve for any semblance of hope. But if the organization really wants to set the team up to succeed for the long-haul, they’re going to need to realize that they need some stability at the head coaching position.
Young players need a guy they can learn from in practice. They need a guy they’re comfortable with on a daily basis. But more importantly, they need some continuity. Learning how to play in the best league in the world is hard enough; trying to find your way while dealing with a new head coach every 12 months is just an added burden. And an unnecessary one.
You’d think they would have learned that a year ago when Scott Gordon was given his walking papers. Since they didn’t, what’s to make us think that they’ll learn anything from Jack Capuano’s demise?
The Islanders biggest problem is not that they can’t find the solution to all of their problems. No, their biggest problem is that they can’t even figure out what their problems are. They think their problem is coach or his style. It’s his inexperience or that he’s “lost the team.” But those aren’t even the real problems in Long Island.
The real problem is that they say they are rebuilding, but won’t accept the trials and tribulations that go along with the reconstruction of the team.
Every team understands that there are two ways to build a team: either a) bring in veterans, spend to the cap, and try to win now; or b) rebuild with prospects, teach them the right way to play, put them in a position to succeed, and hope they fulfill every bit of their potential. Part of that is learning from a coach that they understand and trust. From a coach that provides a solid foundation in the locker room. A voice that all players can follow.
When the organization is constantly shuffling in coach after coach, how can a player learn his craft from a coach who is as stable as an alcoholic in an earthquake? Yet with news that Jack Capuano is on the hot seat, we’re reminded that the Islanders organization just doesn’t get it.
Forget the solution—they don’t even understand the problem.