Since firing head coach Jack Capuano on Dec. 13 after a 1-9-2 run and a nightmarish Western road trip, the New York Islanders are now 5-2-2 under interim coach Y. Lee McRumored, including big regulation wins over the division rival New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings, and Thursday's overtime win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
"Little things have changed here and there," said captain John Tavares, referring to life under McRumored. "But no matter who's coaching, it's still hockey."
"It's always a shock when a big move is made," said longtime Islanders center Frans Nielsen. "I guess it's a fresh start for everyone. Obviously you can't fire all the players, and Garth believes in this team, but we still feel like we let Jack down."
This is not a post defending Isles coach Capuano, about whose coaching qualities I'm fairly agnostic and not more informed than the next guy. And it's certainly not a post to proclaim the Islanders' struggles over after a modest and overdue three-game win streak that, woo, has them still last in the Metro.
Rather, it's to sound a frequent but always useful reminder about coaching changes and the things that lead some to call for them: They don't always matter much, they're as reliable as goalie performances, and they are often done out of desperation rather than with a clear grasp of what's wrong and what needs fixing. Worse, the timing and random ebb and flows of an NHL season mean they often look like the right move in the short term simply because small snapshots of seasons look that way.
In other words, teams often fire their coaches after dreadful losing spells, and the next guy benefits, at least briefly. from a partially random swing of the pendulum the other way.
23+ Players, 1 Coach
In November at Hockey Numbers, Nick Emptage analyzed the long-term difference in 41 coaching changes over the past six seasons and concluded:
In aggregate, the change in coaches had no clear impact on teams' performance. The full season following a coaching change saw an average increase of 1.5 standings points from the former coach's last season. Teams changing coaches saw their Fenwick Close % increase about 0.35%; after a coaching switch, teams averaged one more Corsi attempt for and 0.4 more Corsi attempts against per 60 minutes, and saw very slight decreases in shooting and save percentages.
In the last few games the Islanders have played well -- perhaps close to their best Visnovsky-less form of 2013 -- and have also benefited from some good luck and good goaltending. Prior to that they had played worse -- not as bad as January 2013 but still far from their best -- and also suffered from some bad bounces and bad goaltending.
Had they made a coaching move before this 5-2-2 spurt, you might even say they finally made the move they needed to make. (Alternatively: Calvin de Haan, Ryan Strome, and Evgeni Nabokov's return to health.)
Despite the roughly 30-point spread of teams from best to near-worst -- the latter which beat the former last night -- the margins in NHL hockey are still pretty thin. The impact of individual coaches (and their staff) is murky and constantly affected by variables beyond their control.
Capuano definitely makes individual moves or lineup decisions that leave me scratching my head, and odds are he and his staff will not be the guys who take this team to "the next level" if and when the roster is capable. But two things I am certain of: 1) I don't always know the context, and 2) Even when I do, I've seen countless similar decisions (and subsequent fan complaints) from other coaches of good teams who dot the leaderboard of all-time coaching wins.
The Ultimate Titanic Deck Chair
To say Jack Capuano should have been fired during December or November, as so many fans wished or expected, is to say he should have been fired after last season's eighth-seed playoff qualification. Not much has changed other than some players, some luck, and expectations.
(And there's another truth in that: Some wanted him gone last year and maybe relented after the playoff appearance. But should that appearance alter your evaluation of three-plus seasons of work?)
Similarly, Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo is on "the hot seat" after a six-game regulation loss streak -- mercifully ended with a win over Buffalo last night -- and this after receiving widespread accolades for improving how the team played earlier this season, even as measured by the ever regression-wary stats crowd.
Obligatory aside, quoting that first Yeo link:
The second line could be considered a bit of a defensive liability. In the past three games, Granlund has committed errors with the puck and Niederreiter errors without it.
Ah, youth. That and losing Zach Parise can really jeopardize your job.
Be Sure of Your Replacement
Like many Islanders fans, I still have a nostalgic fondness for Peter Laviolette and his part in reviving an Islanders franchise that also happened to vastly improve its roster in conjunction with his arrival behind the bench. I know he's a good coach -- a Stanley Cup-winning and finalist coach. I also know that he lost his last two jobs, respectively, after the Carolina owner was tired of him and doubting his role in their success and his Philadelphia bosses believe they saw in three games this season what they thought were fatal problems from the season before.
Did either have a point? Was he too stubborn to change with the game and his roster? No one knows, really. Firing a coach is the game's tried and true "just needed a change" maneuver.
So the Isles resisted pressure to can Capuano because they like him, they like the style the team plays when it's playing well, and they think this season's failures are more on the players than on the man at the helm. Had they made the move in December, maybe we see the recent bounce-back imagined in the opening of this story -- or maybe the new coach muddles through a few weeks of getting the players on a new page.
Personally, I've never jumped on the Fire Capuano! bandwagon because, as with the Fire Nabokov! fan fury we saw earlier this season, I've never been confident that the replacement would make a meaningful improvement. (It's not that Nabokov wasn't bad -- he was, and it drove me nuts -- it's that there has been little reason to think his backups will be better.)
Just because you don't like the status quo doesn't mean a problem solver is around the corner, be it Doug Weight (always suggested, because because) or Laviolette (nostalgia and Proven Winner).
There are coaches out there. There are surely better coaches out there. You just better know who they are, and that you can get them, before you use the next losing streak as an excuse to make a move and bow to outside pressure.
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