Garth Snow is a loyal man. I'll give him that.
On Thursday, the New York Islanders general manager ook any suspense out of the off-season when it comes to his coaching staff, confirming that the entire staff would return for the team's inaugural season in Brooklyn.
The retention of Jack Capuano seemed like a foregone conclusion. This past season, the 5th year coach guided the Islanders to their second trip to the NHL playoffs in the last three years. He also had the team atop the Metropolitan division for most of the 2014-15 season.
It's hard to give a head coach his pink slip when the team makes positive progress, from 79 to 101 points, even if it ends in a seven-game first round playoff loss that fell short of the team's own expectations. Despite some head scratching moves, a late season collapse (the Islanders finished 3rd in the Metropolitan Division and 5th in the Eastern Conference -- falling there based on a second tiebreaker with the Capitals -- so don't you dare use "backed into the playoffs") and an awful effort in Game 7 of the first round against the Capitals, Capuano deserved to return.
I know a vocal portion of the fanbase disagrees with the notion, but Capuano earned the right to guide the Islanders to a better season in 2015-16. If he is unable to do that, then Snow can start interviewing his replacement.
The mistake Snow made was showing the same loyalty to his assistant coaching staff. The Islanders' biggest problem last season (believe it or not, it wasn't Brian Strait) was their special teams play. And with each assistant coach being directly responsible for one side of the team's special teams, blame should have been assigned and consequences (as in loss of job) should have been handed out.
If you're looking to take the next step, and willing to do it with "the cup is always half full" Capuano, then you need to have strong assistants supporting him. While Doug Weight is a good hockey guy who knows the game, he apparently knows how to be part of a power play system but not know how to draw one up. And Greg Cronin, who seemed a good fit when he returned to the Islanders last season, failed at one of his chief roles, directing the Islanders penalty kill.
In his post-season interview with Newsday, Snow acknowledged the special teams issues but said he believes they could be addressed, noting apparently strong communication between staff and players:
"Our coaches did a great job, whether it was preparing our players or with the communication between coaches and players, which was outstanding," Snow said. "There were some aspects of our game, whether it was with our penalty-kill that struggled early on and became a strength for us by the end, or our power play, which was a strength at times early on and we didn't have one in the playoffs. That's an area of concern. We'll analyze all different areas of our team and try to get better."
PP: Up, then Down...
The Islanders power play was indeed a strength during a hot start in October. But as the months went by it came down to earth. Overall the team finished 16th in the NHL in power play percentage. To finish fourth overall in the NHL in Goals per Game at 2.99 with a bottom-half-of-the-league power play is both incredible and a sign of a missed opportunity.
The icing on the cake was the team's 0-for-14 performance with the man advantage in the playoffs. No team is going to advance when they can't take advantage of the power play at least a few times. The Islanders couldn't even light the lamp once, including their opportunity to tie the game during the final minutes of their season.
The team has the pieces for a strong power play unit. The problem is the man at the helm and his system. There is too much holding of the puck. Too much waiting and looking for the perfect shot, the perfect lane. The team's power play seemed to work best when Johnny Boychuk was booming shots from the blue line. But too many times a power play would go by without Boychuk ever seeing the ice, or without anyone taking his approach of, well, actually shooting the puck.
PK: Way, Way Down, then...Up?
The penalty kill went the opposite route for the team in 2014-15. It was incredibly putrid to start the season and seemed to only get worse on the way to the All-Star break. The team did finish strong on the penalty kill, and had a decent showing in the playoffs. But even the hot finish couldn't keep the Islanders from finishing in the bottom five of the entire NHL in penalty kill percentage (26th overall at 78%).
The pieces aren't as strong for the Isles' penalty kill as it is for the power play. But even so, the Islanders have some capable penalty killers on their roster. Again the problem seems to be the system, and again the blame can be directed towards the man leading the unit.
Cronin was supposed to come to the Islanders and fix a penalty kill that was next to last in the NHL in percentage in 2013-14. Instead, despite a better goalie and better defenseman, the team finished a tick below what they did in '13-14 (78.0% to 78.1%).
Snow and Weight have been through a lot and Weight has an extra title as adviser, so I figured there was zero chance Weight would be shown the door. But I did hold out hope that Weight would have at least been reassigned to a different position, maybe strictly to the front office.
But the fact that Cronin was retained as well seems laughable, given the rationale for bringing him in last season. Despite better players, the PK performed just as poorly as it did on the penalty kill the prior season. Teams with such a poor penalty kill most of the time find it hard to make the playoffs, let alone advance in them. The Islanders' leaned hard on their other strengths to overcame that.
Without question, the Islanders need to take the next step in 2015-16. For a team that is already strong at 5-on-5, to take that step they need to vastly improve in special teams. The best way to do that seemed to be a change behind the bench. Garth Snow believes otherwise.