On Arbour/Potvin, Gordon/Tavares, and coaching young stars

Arbour sought to strike a balance between the individual and his team responsibilities, and that caused turbulence. ''He'd make me so mad before games that I'd play like a wild boar, just tear up the other team,'' said Potvin.

Aggrieved at the time, Potvin took years to realize the method behind Arbour's manipulations. ''I lived pretty much on the edge back then,'' he said. ''My emotions were on a tightrope, and Al saw that and capitalized on it, which in retrospect seems like a very good thing for my career. He made me perform like a madman.''

>>April 6, 1988, New York Times, on the eve of Denis Potvin's retirement

It's tales like this that illustrate why so many Islanders fans love Al Arbour. No question, Arbour had an all-star crew of players on his dynastic run of an NHL-record (still!) 19 playoff series victories in a row. But lots of teams are loaded with talent; few are able to keep all those talent focused, happy and driven toward a team goal.

Arbour did that, whether it was with wily NHL veteran Ed Westfall -- who retired just before the Dynasty began -- or with the precocious #1 overall pick in the draft, the blueliner who would break Bobby Orr's all-time records and key four Cup champions. Arbour blended them all. Scotty Bowman told Arbour if he took the Islanders job, "You'll lose for 10 years." Instead, 10 years later Arbour was completing a dynasty, and Bowman was finding the GM role in Buffalo was tougher than it looks.

I mention this because with the selection of John Tavares, I've been thinking about the coaches who handle projected superstars, and whether they survive the star's baptismal years, which are by definition a franchise's lowest point. Some coaches grow with the team; some are collateral damage of the growing pains. Whither Scott Gordon?

Gordon was brought in by GM Garth Snow as a long-term partner selected specifically for his ability to work with young players. That meant not only the young players the Islanders already had, but also the young stars the Islanders would inevitably collect in the drafts ahead.

It's safe to say he handled Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey just fine last season -- in fact, if anything, it was at the perceived expense of some aggrieved veterans. But John Tavares is on another level. Tavares has received top billing since he was 14, and he's been the big dog on just about every team since.

While all indications are he's already well-grounded in the team concept, if things get rough -- or if frustration at the pace of the rebuild mounts in two or three years -- as the next face of the franchise Tavares will have the kind of pull and influence those others do not. You might expect he'd have the same influence and leeway amassed by the Islanders' last #1 overall pick, Rick DiPietro, whose rumored internal influence and independence has produced at best mixed results. There will be the added pressure of Tavares' next contract, which could take him into his free agent years; if at that point Tavares has reservations about Gordon, then ...?

Recent NHL Coaching History

In Washington, Glen Hanlon did the yeoman's job of carrying the Capitals through their transitional, prospect-collecting years. But as the roster got better, his weaknesses were exposed (or did time simply run out?) and he couldn't transition the team to the methodical consistency required of a contender. Enter Bruce Boudreau, who could, and did.

In Tampa Bay, Steve Ludzik was a casualty of the Lightning mess during Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards' formative years, when John Tortorella came in to drive Lecavalier nuts while also driving him to become a champion.

In Chicago, Denis Savard was possibly never a smart coaching pick to begin with. But he was a noted influence on a young star like Patrick Kane (heh, funny that, in light of this week's news), his firing mourned by young Blackhawks players even while Joel Quenneville quickly took them to the next level.

In Pittsburgh, Ed Olczyk was another rushed choice of an ex-player, who couldn't pull it all together between young prospects and aging veterans -- though he probably never had the horses to, anyway. No shock that it was hard-driving Michel Therrien who the Pens hired to refocus that squad (and bring them to the finals), and then no further shock still that Therrien's act wore out and Dan Bylsma, a player's coach with a coach's system, took them all the way.

Gordon: Not Your Average Newbie

Of course, unlike those last two failed examples, Gordon fits the recent trend in NHL coaching hires of going with successful young minor league coaches, rather than turning solely to retreads and recently retired stars. This is good; it gives us a counter-perspective to the still-present preference for "veteran, experienced" coaches who built their resume in a different era. The Pat Quinns of the world excelled when the league was run by millionaire veterans rather than the future-millionaire youngsters whose prominence is based on their speed, talent and cost-controlled place on the roster. While there is a place for old coaches, it is not nor should it be the only option.

Scott Gordon doesn't have a Denis Potvin on his roster (not yet?), and like all 29 other coaches he won't be lucky enough to have the accumulation of talent that Arbour had on the late '70s-early '80s Islanders. At the same time, the coach-as-supreme-authority act doesn't work anymore: In the era of millionaire rosters, you have to pick your spots to play strategic mind games with a young player, and you better achieve some team success before that young player reaches the self-actualized moment where he'd rather rebel than endure.

So Gordon has had success with this generation's youngsters, albeit at the AHL level rather than with budding NHL superstars. He has the approach and perspective, I think, to make it work through the lean years. But history warns us -- although Garth Snow seems determined not to repeat it -- that Gordon could easily become a casualty of these growing pains, while the next coach benefits from his trench work. If the rebuild stalls, if a big prospect flops -- or worse, succeeds elsewhere -- if the Lighthouse project passes but stalls -- there are a hundred reasons why the easiest "shake-up" available could befall Gordon in the next few years.

Still, if Snow sticks to his guns and the Islanders' roster-building follows a reasonable path of success, Gordon should last long enough to see the fruits of his labor. And if he is still around by the time the Coliseum is an unrecognizably shiny new home, we'll know Gordon passed his biggest test.

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