On Capuano, Coaching and Rebounding from Blowouts

With "Moneyball" sports analytics steadily getting more attention in hockey and providing much more context for evaluating individual player contributions, I'm always wondering what nontraditional advances we'll see to help truly evaluate coaches in a way that's divorced from the roster delivered to them.

Probably not happening.

It is an accepted yet hard-to-measure belief that coaches are not only tactical strategists but also motivational leaders of men. Anyone who reports to a daily job with coworkers can identify with this need -- if not for ourselves (what, perfect little us?), then for our lazy coworkers (yeah, those guys!).

But how do we even surmise how well a coach is leading his charges in the psycho-motivational department? And how important are different line-matching strategies, other than finding a way to maximize the roster a coach is dealt?

These things come to mind as New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano inches closer to matching his predecessor Scott Gordon's win mark behind the Isles bench.

Yes, Gordon collected 64 wins in 181 games behind the Islanders bench. and Capuano is up to 54 in 131 games. (Of course shootouts and overtimes, veritable coin flips, further cloud these things: They matter, but how much is in the coach's control?)

That's ostensibly the topic of our recent "Three Minute Island" short on our new YouTube channel for SB Nation (you'll also see these shorts fill in on the right margin ... feel free to badger us with feedback, complaints, mocking, etc.):

Three Minute Island: Capuano Inches Closer to Gordon's Win Mark. Progress?


Gordon: 181 GP | 64-94-23 (.417)

Capuano: 131 GP | 54-58-19 (.485)

Subjectively speaking, I think Capuano has simplified the approach and employed a low-risk game compared to the more complex, high-risk/high-reward game Gordon used. If that supposition is true, it's resulted in a modest but not playoff-level improvement.

Win-loss records are lovely barometers, but of course they turn on the roster the coach has. We can bet Dave Tippett is a fine coach based on the record he has over many years with teams of varying talent levels. Likewise Joel Quenneville, who's taken a variety of rosters to very nice places. Those guys have a decade of seasons on their records in different situations to go on. You can put Ken Hitchcock in that group, but of course he's both won a Stanley Cup and been fired from last-place teams (twice).

The challenge in evaluating hockey coaches outside of roster-influenced win-loss records is we have so little controlled data, so we're left with a few episodic instances of clear strategy choices where Option A was selected over Option B without injury or fatigue or matchup circumstances or roster concerns clouding our understanding of the decision-making process. Few instances, in other words, where we know exactly why a coach made a debatable move (and even fewer, it must be said, instances where we know the result was directly caused by that move).

Whenever we can get real data to mull, Jack Capuano's decisions as Islanders coach are worth monitoring.

'They Start Flat'

One suggestion I see surfaced by fans every now and then -- coincidentally, it's usually after losses, not after wins -- is that he doesn't have this team motivated or realizing "these games count." It's an assertion that challenges logic considering an NHL coach is always a horrible losing streak away from losing his job.

Sometimes fans point to the oddly high number of early first goals the Islanders have given up this year as evidence. But then one wonders how the Philadelphia Flyers under Peter Laviolette -- JUST LOOK AT THIS MASTER MOTIVATOR -- just went through a stretch of allowing the first goal in nine consecutive games.

"How could he let this happen?!"

Laviolette is much beloved, and missed, by many Islanders fans. He has a Stanley Cup to his name in his first post-Islanders stop and a finals appearance in his current one. Did he lose his players for nearly 9 games (during which they went 4-5), or was his team victim to the ebbs and flows that can affect any team at any time in the season?

How many bad starts is a fluke slump, and how many is a problem? How many mean something's wrong with the guidance, and how many rebounds means the coach has corrected the problem?

What Can We Know?

Back to Capuano: For my own personal assessment, I'm still collecting notes here and there on what Capuano does with the roster afforded to him and how he matches lines or deploys special teams personnel (two of the few areas where we can think we know what a coach is doing). Of course, much can be obscured by 10- and 20-game stints where injuries and luck turn 1-1 games into 2-1 wins or losses.

  • The Islanders are 26th overall in the league in the standings, and their 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio ranks 29th -- as it did often under Capuano's predecessor Scott Gordon.
  • With the score close or tied, the Islanders' puck possession metrics as collected at Behind The Net have them just below the league's middle third, where they've been most of the season with a cluster of similar teams.
  • Their goals for per game, 2.27, is 28th in the league.
  • Their powerplay production (18.4% now) has been in the top half and even top third most of the year (including their 49.4 shots per 60 on the PP, which is a more telling metric); their PK (81.8%) has been middle tier (though the shots allowed metric is in the bottom third).
  • And yet, in "clear victories" tracked at Copper & Blue (wins by two or more goals without empty nets, listed in the right margin in that link), they have the fewest wins and lowest win percentage.

So they win mostly close games and lose mostly close games. Offense continues to be a challenge. Some say more imaginative lines would alter that; others say there is no such mix available on the roster.

Blowout Losses: How Do They Respond?

If motivation were an issue, you'd think blowout losses might be a regular occurrence, no? You might think the Islanders would've never recovered from their poor first quarter?

Instead they are here, seven points out of eighth place -- which is very very likely to be too far back to climb, yet still the mark of a team that has hung around and not given up on the coach.

Aside from empty net goals that turned two-goal leads into three-goal margins of defeat, there have been very few occasions where the Islanders have lost by three or more goals this season. (Unlike the "Clear Victory Standings," I'm not counting two-goal margins as comfortable ... or at least as signs of total victory.)

On only two occasions after three-plus goal losses did they fail to come out the next game and either win or lose by one goal or shootout:

The Low Point: Consecutive big losses in November. The Islanders lost 6-0 to the Bruins, then 5-0 the next night in Sidney Crosby's return to the Penguins lineup. The following game, they lost in OT to the Flyers. ... the other occasion was the back-to-back losses in Florida, where they lost 4-1 to the Lightning and then lost to the Panthers 4-2 (with an empty net goal).

Other Examples: They followed a poor 5-1 loss to the Coyotes with a 5-1 win over the Red Wings (Does that mean Mike Babcock doesn't have his team prepared?) ... They followed a 3-0 loss to the Rangers (including an empty-netter) with two consecutive home wins over the Oilers and Flames. ... They followed the disappointing pre-All-Star loss to the Leafs (3-0, again with an empty netter) with an OT loss in the other end of the back-to-back.

The most recent blowout example -- and the only other time they suffered a big loss and failed to get a regulation point out of the next game -- was the absolutely flat Feb. 20 6-0 loss to the Senators, which they followed with a 2-1 loss to the Sabres.

It's a backhanded compliment at best to say, "Well, at least they don't get blown out two games in a row." But the point is the Islanders generally keep games close, perhaps to the best ability of the evolving roster they have. That's not dominant nor a sign the solutions are here by any means, but at minimum it is a sign of a team that shows up for its coach. I'm open to tactical and roster deployment questions, but I'm less convinced that getting players to play for him has ever been an issue for Capuano.

What to Watch

This is not meant to dismiss criticisms of the coach, real or imagined. On the contrary, it's inviting relevant criteria. I'm simply more careful with my own critical questions, because I'm not confident that we know what we might think we know about his performance, much less the decisions and factors behind that performance.

Unfortunately, 131 games still isn't a lot in this vague category, and I suspect that's why NHL coaches tend to last more than two seasons even if they miss the playoffs both years, but don't last three or four without seeing the postseason or meaningful progress. (Incredibly, only 15 NHL coaches have been with their team longer than Capuano now.)

We do know that the team's record is a little better under Capuano than his predecessor. We do know that his record since he grabbed the helm has improved over time (as has the roster itself).

Next year -- whether through internal improvement and external additions -- the roster should be even better, the expectations raised accordingly. How will he respond to better tools, and how will the players respond to him? How will we know which is which?

That's why we'll watch, and that's how will learn more. Little bit, by little bit.

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