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When GM and Coach See Eye to Eye, but Not Veteran to Prospect

In which we invite you to speculate over which Isles employee is blocking your favorite kid.

Who to play, what to do...
Who to play, what to do...
Bruce Bennett

In sports, the nature of the coach/general manager relationship -- and the nature of their quite different levels of job security -- puts the coach's "win now" near-term view in occasional opposition to the GM's "risk now, win later and maybe now too" view.

That eternal tension among otherwise "we're on the same team!" collaborators came up in last week's Elliotte Friedman 30 Thoughts column, which started with discussion with Capitals GM George McPhee about prospect Dmitri Orlov:

3. The conversation about Orlov reminded me of a chat I had with another GM a few years ago. He really liked his head coach. But he was unhappy younger players were "blocked" from getting a shot over veterans the coach was comfortable with, so he traded them. It worked for that team, so I wonder if that is what McPhee may try and do.

In Orlov's case, the GM needs the player on the roster a minimum amount to retain his rights, but the coach hasn't seen fit to play him. (Later that week Orlov finally appeared in a 2013-14 NHL game -- against the Islanders, of course.)

Is Capuano Blocking Any Snow Projects?

Is there any insight here to be applied to the Isles and their recent history? Do you see any obvious examples where the coach and GM have different views of a player's role?

It's a question that demands considering any time you see the Isles make a roster move that offers multiple interpretations.

Certainly general manager Garth Snow has peppered the lineup with veterans over the years, some cheap and ultimately underperforming ones, some cheap but older (and quite good) ones like Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau. If coach Jack Capuano prefers veterans from time to time, Snow has made them available, with varying degrees of results.

But has Snow "blocked" his own kids with those vets? Or in cases where prospects are arguably being blocked, is it really Capuano doing the blocking? Or a combination of both?

Who Ordered the Code Martinek?

You can probably dig up examples of all scenarios: Most recently, Mark Streit was allowed to walk as a free agent with Matt Donovan's promotion assumed; Donovan got that promotion this fall, but was never used even in Streit's PP1 role and has now been returned to Bridgeport for more seasoning, or to "regain confidence" in the touch that helped him excel in the AHL.

Do you see any obvious examples where Capuano and Snow have different views of a player's role?

Meanwhile, the Isles even re-signed Radek Martinek, who has proven a step slow and a decision short in virtually every appearance this season, though they waited until into the season to return to that tired well. Even with injuries considered (including in Bridgeport, whose blueline has also been hit), Martinek's signing looked like a lack of confidence in the prospects. Snow signed him; Capuano uses him, often while sitting Donovan or fellow youngster Aaron Ness.

When Snow swapped Donovan to Bridgeport for Calvin de Haan, how much was based on Donovan's play, and how much was based on thinking of his development under a coach who essentially blamed the player's turnover for the latest loss?

Sometimes there is tension, a situation can often be summed up simply: Where a GM may see a better overall player, a coach may see a youngster who's next mistake will cost him a job.

A few years ago, Marty Reasoner was signed to a two-year contract, essentially to replace Zenon Konopka and his specialized defensive zone draw role -- though Reasoner was not always used that way and certainly did not always perform as intended when signed. You can argue Reasoner was blocking Casey Cizikas, though Cizikas ultimately was recalled (GM's move) and won the role (coach's move) before Reasoner's contract lapsed.

Perverse theory: I'm going to give you a veteran, but only one who's eminently cuttable so that you ultimately play my kid anyway. 

In previous years, Brian Rolston was swapped in for Trent Hunter, with Rolston's one-year cap mule use being preferred to Hunter's two remaining contract years. But Rolston got actual playing time -- many Isles fans would argue far too much -- before Snow flipped him to Boston late in the season.

So while each situation is different, a simple summation is: Coaches and GMs don't always agree on which players should get more of a chance, but they have to work together to facilitate options for each. They discuss it and trade notes, but the day-to-day deployment is ultimately in the coach's hands (e.g. this year scratching "core" players the GM signed to long-term deals like Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey), while the day-to-day and long-term personnel control rightly remains in the GM's hands.

That's not to say they are always in conflict; it's to say that some conflict is to be expected. The coach's ammo in this conflict is the daily lineup and usage; the GM's is the roster construction itself.

That's how you get Nino Niederreiter making a roster he wasn't ready for, and/or staying there despite Capuano not showing much interest in using him in any significant role. (Granted, with the Islanders, budget/payroll is always a third rail in sorting out these decisions. And in Nino's case, injuries and a hyperactive agent also factor in.)

It's also how you get what Friedman suggests could happen with McPhee: A GM physically removing a player to force a coach's hand.

Comeau: Both Heads Fed Up?

Has Snow ever forced Capuano's hand that way?

That probably wasn't the case with Blake Comeau in 2011, though he represents the best player Snow has let go outside of free agency departures. Earlier that summer, Snow resisted giving Comeau a multi-year deal, then waived him after watching Capuano use him in increasingly less significant roles. The end came via waiver wire after Comeau had just eight shifts for 6:45 in his final game as an Islander.

The puzzle for the outsider is to sort out when the GM is bending to the coach's preference (Martinek?) and vice versa

(It's also possible the Isles hoped to slap Comeau with a waiver without losing him. But even if that were the case, that known risk is inherent in the decision.) Comeau appeared to be a case where both GM and coach had reservations about the player, and those reservations fed each other until he was cast away.

Anyway, Snow and Capuano no doubt do not always agree, but it's part of every coach-GM relationship to share insights, opinions, and goals, while leaving each the room to do his job with the tools he has. The puzzle for the outsider is to sort out when the GM is bending to the coach's preference (Martinek?) and vice versa, as well as pondering when, if the GM is bending to the coach's will, an outside veteran like Ron Hainsey or Tom Gilbert might have been a better insurance option. (The perverse theory: I'm going to give you a veteran, but only one who's eminently cuttable so that you ultimately play my kid anyway.)

In Sync until You Aren't?

From the outside though, it still appears Snow and Capuano are generally in sync, as most of the roster shuffling this season has come via injury on the blueline and position-for-position swaps like Matt Moulson for Thomas Vanek and Donovan for de Haan. Snow hasn't taken a player away to force a different one to move up the depth chart. They clearly discuss usage and roles, including when players are recalled, and Capuano clearly has the freedom to morph that usage according to his own in-game preferences.

Further, Capuano will rarely mention the threat of recalls in post-games -- but almost universally as a volley at underperforming players rather than a transparent cry for help that frustrated coaches sometimes do (usually as their last gasps on the way out the door).

Aside: We may see a test of things depending on what the Islanders do with Andrew MacDonald, pending unrestricted free agent. MacDonald draws the most minutes under Capuano and even takes the blueline spot on the power play in Lubomir Visnovsky's absence. Will Snow implicitly endorse that usage by re-signing AMac?

If Snow were fed up with how Capuano has used the players he gave him, the current losing streak amid raised expectations would have provided cover to make a coaching change. That hasn't happened, so we can conclude Snow still believes in this coach and pins more of the blame for this slump on his players, and he at least hopes to ride this bad string out.

Of course, as always, conditions can change. Losing breeds desperation. Though the Isles have hardly had luck on their side during this winless streak, more tough times loom: They have a meeting with the Penguins Tuesday followed by a brutal Western swing to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Phoenix.

There are rumors of goalie shopping and a big month in the AHL for Ryan Strome. If the losing continues, more changes will be made somewhere, and the GM will be the one driving them.