Ten-game winless streaks breed discontent, and a coach in his walk year is a ripe and economical target, so the New York Islanders fired coach Scott Gordon and today announced Bridgeport Sound Tigers coach Jack Capuano as his interim replacement. Leading up to the firing, throughout Islanders Country fans and pundits have wondered what ails the current Islanders roster most and how to fix it:
- The basement bargain payroll/roster?
- The offense that will not come alive (1.4 GF/GP during the 0-9-1 streak)?
- The preseason injuries to their best defenseman and best winger (Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo)?
- The tough opening "Tour of Division Leaders" schedule that saw them on the road for 12 of 17?
- A young coach whose system wasn't producing offense -- or wasn't getting their young players to produce?
- A thin roster that couldn't withstand injuries and depended on two waiver-wire pickups for secondary scoring?
These are the most popular
excuses theories that populate the conversation of the here-and-now, which takes place over the murky background of an owner who keeps the budget at the bottom of the league while he searches for a replacement for a venue whose lease, maintenance and accessibility has been a thorn for most of this franchise's lifetime.
Those are the the long-term pains every fan knows too well. The immediate concern: Will this move make a difference? Is Capuano the right guy even for the near term? On the media conference call, Snow spoke of urgency to turn things around now, while the bulk of the season was still ahead of them:
On why now: "With 10 losses in a row, it’s a situation where a change needed to be made. ... We have a big game Wednesday…we need a strong performance on this home stand…"
On why Capuano: "Jack’s done a great job in Bridgeport the last few seasons…it’s a situation where he has familiarity with a lot of players in that locker room. ... Jack knows our players, so there won’t be a feeling-out process. Jack’s familiarity with them to me seemed like a strength."
Even with this biggest change a GM can make other than blowing up the entire lineup, opinions will remain divided on what the root problem was and whether this was the appropriate answer. So what can we expect with this move? I can think of a few probabilities:
The Record Will Improve: It has to. Teams go through streaks and slumps with or without changing coaches. A new coach will get the benefit of the odds, where the team is bound to "bounce" back. A little bit.
The System Won't Change Dramatically, But It Will Change: Capuano is his own man, with his own ideas. When Gordon came on board, the organization made it a point to have Bridgeport align more closely in style with the Isles. (Of course, neither franchise has been dynamite, but most would argue that's because neither franchise has had the horses.) Expect Capuano to put his own mark on in-game approach now that he's in charge and doesn't have to follow the system used by a parent club above him. But one benefit Snow hopes to get by using Capuano is that Capuano will not have to go through the evaluative and "get to know you" process that a new coach from outside (Think Peter Laviolette in Philly last year, where the team initially continued to struggle) has to go through. In theory he's a fresh voice who also knows the pieces he's been dealt. If Blake Comeau and friends don't respond to him now...well then some players' jobs will be as "interim" as the new coach.
The Goaltending Will Remain a Story: Watch what Capuano does here. He's going to be coaching for his professional future (at least for the chance at continued NHL employment) with a thin roster. With stakes like that on the line, will he really want to use real NHL games as chances to get Rick DiPietro to "shake the rust off"? He also has the benefit of having watched two potential successors and one emergency backup in Bridgeport, so he knows quite well what's available if DiPietro's play does not improve.
The Team Will Still Fall Short of the Playoffs: I will be here through it all, rooting like a good homer blogger should. But this team as constructed was always a bubble team at best; add the injuries to Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo -- with a sprinkle of Andrew MacDonald for good measure -- and you have too many holes that keep you from stealing games consistently. Now the Islanders are "only" six points out of 8th in the East (and 8th-place Boston has three games in hand), and they would require 79 points in their final 65 games to reach 90 points, which is arguably the bare minimum threshold it would take to make it in the weaker East.
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Where I was Wrong, Where I was Right
Upon his hiring, I liked the idea of Scott Gordon bringing a more aggressive (and theoretically entertaining) approach. Unfortunately, we only saw glimpses of that. Like many, I worried he doesn't have the horses (particularly puck-moving blueliners) to deploy that approach effectively. This year the defensive effort imploded in a couple of blowout losses, and he spent the next few games getting the team to refocus there, with mixed results and the same old struggles on offense. Many may have been right that without better players, he needed to adjust -- but could never adjust enough. Or others may have been right that no amount of adjustment could win with this roster.
For what it's worth Snow said he thought Gordon had been good at developing the young players, but that they all are suffering from a loss of confidence right now.
Ultimately, I thought Gordon would suffer the same fate of most first responder coaches in a rebuild: They're gone (see Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, St. Louis) by the time the team gets good enough to do damage. But I also thought he would at least last three years, the length of his contract. Even last week, I didn't think he'd get the axe until at least after the team's home schedule balanced out with the road-heavy schedule so far. I figured Snow would be wed to making this relationship work despite this turn, but I misread that one by a country mile.
On that note, even a firing conference call isn't going to have a lot of frank talk -- NHL execs don't like to rip one another, and a firing is damning criticism enough -- but I do figure this was a sincere sentiment from the GM:
"It's very disappointing. He’s a good friend, it’s been great working with him the last three years. ... But for me, when we're in the situation we're in right now, we've lost 10 games in a row, sometimes you have to go with your gut and make decisions that are tough."
Onward we roll...
Ex-Isles Analyst Billy Jaffe on Scott Gordon's Firing (NHL Video)