He wasn’t a bad coach. I briefly mentioned my past as an isles fan before; essentially a casual until the giant losing streak of 2010-2011. In the middle of that (November 15, 2010), the Islanders put Jack Capuano in charge. I didn’t know who he was, but that had nothing to do with his lack of pedigree. I was a new fan, and didn’t know Peter Laviolette from Randy Carlyle.
I had a belief at the time, originally espoused by some members of the analytics community, that coaching itself was almost inconsequential: the parity in NHL talent was so small that the only thing that mattered were the skill sets of the elite players. Coaches were just there to give some generic soundbites to the media. One was as good as any other, simply an extension of the team. So “Cappy” became my coach. And in 2010-2011, the Islanders started to win. They had the 2nd most wins in the NHL in the second half of the season. That likely had to do with Cappy—he gave the impression of a relaxed guy, the kind of person who just let you do what you wanted. That sense of relaxation embodied the team as well, and it seemed the players had fun playing for him. There was a lightness to their movements, a frantic energy and pace that hadn’t been there before. They were too far out of the playoffs for anything to matter, but who cared. They were having fun. And after such a long season of losing, shouldn’t the point be to play fun hockey?
I wasn’t that involved with looking at hockey systems at the time. If I had been I’m sure I would have noticed the long stretch passes that never worked, the constant icings, the lack of gap control. But I didn’t blame the coach, since the team itself was poor. They used Andrew MacDonald on the first pairing, for crying out loud! That wasn’t on the coach. He wasn’t bad.
2011-2012 was next. The bottom 6 was filled with what I called “Old, Dead Fat”—players that should have retired years ago, yet still kept playing for us. Brian “What’s hitting the net?” Rolston. Marty “Party” Reasoner. Jay “Admit it, you forgot he was on the team” Pandolfo. Cappy gave them lots of ice time. Maybe he could have given them a bit less, but you could only work with what the GM gave you, right? He was given a fresh-faced, cocky young kid named Nino Niederreiter. Cappy put him on the fourth line, teaching him to battle in the corners and learn to grind it out with the best of them. Hindsight is 2020 that it was an awful idea, but it’s not like you could try him with John Tavares with eternal linemate Matt Moulson there, right? The season came and went, largely poor and forgettable. And that was due to a largely poor and forgettable roster. It wasn’t on Cappy. He wasn’t bad.
2013 was next. A shortened season. A coach’s motivational and strategic ability would be needed to help get this team over the hump. They floundered at first, due more to goaltending than poor systemic play. Then they went on a late run, slowly but surely beating every opponent in their way. They earned a matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a bolt of lightning playing against a sonic boom. Zone entries were plenty for both teams. The shot attempts piled up. By every shot metric the scrappy Islanders outplayed the Penguins, but Evgeni Nabokov’s lovable corpse saw to it that the first series win since ’93 would have to wait. The poor goaltending wasn’t on Cappy. He could only work with what he was given. Sure, he scratched Michael Grabner routinely. But that guy only had a torrid outburst once, a few years ago. It’s not like he would ever go on a goalscoring run in the New York area again. Besides, he was an NHL coach. What NHL coach didn’t make odd decisions with their roster now and then?
As 2013-14 approached, Cappy had become an integral part of the Islanders community. Talk of “Battle Level” and “ No Passengers” became commonplace, becoming just as much joke as mantra. And why wouldn’t it? He was a likeable guy with a team on the upswing. The season soon went to hell, but that tends to happen when you have no goaltending, and give Andrew MacDonald a lot of minutes. There were calls to fire Cappy, but it wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t a bad coach.
2014-15. The magical season. Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin. There was an electricity around the Islanders that hadn’t been seen in years. And the team delivered. The first half of the season was a wonderland of shot attempts—the team ended up being 1st in the league in shots, 3rd in goals. The breakouts were crisp, the offense was creative. And that was due to Cappy implementing an offensive system that allowed the team to thrive.
Sure he made some odd moves, like playing Brian Strait—but what coach didn’t? Yes, he hired Greg Cronin to coach the penalty kill which was putrid, but Cronin had coached for years in Toronto, and experience trumps all, right? Sure, the team started to change stylistically, but that’s because Grabovski and Visnovsky were injured, and those two meant a lot to the team. That’s why their possession numbers were dropping. Besides, the team was still solid. Yeah, they blew three-goal leads, but that was due to the goaltending, not the coaching. And they played well against the Capitals, mainly outplaying them most of the series. Sure, Anders Lee was scratched for the pivotal game 6, and then fore game 7, but he hadn’t been playing well. And what coach doesn’t do odd things?
2015-2016. The optimism continued. The possession numbers weren’t strong over the first few games, but no one was worried. It would pick up, after all. Cappy would fix it. The games went on. The team kept getting outshot. Slowly the realization dawned: Cappy wasn’t going to fix it. He didn’t even seem to recognize that something was wrong. The scratches and odd lineup continued, but what were once looked at funny aberrations now became legitimate concerns about talent evaluation. Did Brian Strait really deserve to be playing all the time? He was an icing machine. Why was a skilled player like Ryan Strome scratched? On a team that always dumped and chased he would make smart zone entries and saucer passes that led to scoring chances. Shouldn’t someone like Steve Bernier, who did neither of those things, be scratched instead?
Things got worse. Only excellent goaltending kept the house of card from collapsing. Only John Tavares and Thomas Greiss saved Cappy’s job by winning that series against Florida. Islanders fans cheered the win. We had a good team. And it’s not like the coach was that bad, right?
2016-2017. The system is still poor. The forwards wait by the red line for a tip-in, rarely able to gain possession. They spend most of the time in the defensive zone, the puck only seeing the o-zone when it’s time to change lines. The word “forecheck” has been surgically removed from everyone’s minds. Watching the team’s play is like watching amateurs who have never played together. There was a sparkly of light against the Edmonton Oilers though. There had been a closed-door meeting the game before, and whatever had been said seemed to have an effect. The Islanders had heavy forward support and the breakouts were crisp. They played deeper in the offensive zone, the defensemen pinched aggressively, and they carried in every chance they got. They outshot Edmonton by 10, and it was 2014-2015 all over again. But just for one game. Then Cinderella’s carriage turned back into a pumpkin. The poor play continued in future games, the lines were continually shuffled, and skilled guys like Anthony Beauvillier and Mathew Barzal were scratched in favor of grinders like Jason Chimera. The team sucked. But it wasn’t Cappy’s fault because he wasn’t a bad…
Yeah. He was. He’s a great guy, who fell into the same blind spots that most coaches do: favoring the guys that look like they’re working hard over the guys putting up points. The lunchpailers over the superstars. It’s not an uncommon thing for NHL coaches who have often were the lunchpailers themselves in their playing days. But in the modern NHL, lunch pailers don’t win. Speed and talent do. And we have that in John Tavares, and Ryan Strome, forced to play a chip-and-chase style that hurts them. We have that in Beauvillier, who sniped a shot off the post against Tampa Bay on November 14. He gets less than 8 minutes a night. The personnel is there, and in a season that looks like it’s a lost cause, it’s time for someone else to take the helm.
The truth is, coaching matters a great deal. It’s time to give the team a new structure where they don’t grip their stick so tightly and just skate and play around. Because after such a long season of losing, shouldn’t the point be to play fun hockey?