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Coaching or Composition: the Islanders’ calamitous conundrum

There’s plenty of blame to go around but it depends on where you want to look (or even if you want to at all).

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins
I don’t think that’s gonna help. But good try.
Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

I regret to inform you all that word of the Islanders’ many, many issues this season has spread beyond our intimate fan community.

On his Hockey PDOcast, Sportsnet’s Dmitri Filipovic dedicated significant parts of two recent episodes to diagnosing the Islanders, once with player-turned-analyst Mike Johnson and then again with Hockeyviz founder Micah Blake McCurdy. On Thursday’s episode of Marek Vs. Wyshynski, Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski were asked what ailed the team and speculated on who might get fired when. Wyshynski also talked about the Islanders on his Puck Soup podcast with Dave Lozo, but I admit I couldn’t find a free 90-plus minutes to listen to it what with the depression and all.

Of course, Islanders fans have been talking about basically nothing else while the team had an excruciating week between games. On the Islanders Point Blank podcast, Brian Compton and Mike Carver were their usual passionate selves, and their guest this week was some dumbass who was way too laid back to keep up. Meanwhile on our very own Islanders Anxiety podcast, Leboff and I chose to stare deeply into the infinite abyss while finding alternative things to watch including other NHL teams and the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (seriously, it’s great).

Of all of them, the M vs W segment goes directly to the heart of the issue: are the Islanders being held back by ineffective coaching by Jack Capuano or an ineffective roster constructed by GM Garth Snow?

I said my piece about Capuano earlier this week, when I likened the team’s playing style to a popular TV show about a zombie apocalypse. That’s an overly snarky way of saying that I feel the team’s passive, shot-bleeding, nearly offensive pressure-free game renders it incapable of winning games regardless of who’s on the roster.

I’m not a huge stats guy mainly because a chart or graph has to really, really simple for my tiny brain to comprehend it. Fortunately, McCurdy has one that sorta puts the Islanders season in a nutshell:

Isles 5v5 Shots/60

The red signifies 5-on-5 shots against per 60 minutes over the team’s 16 games this season. And there’s an awful lot of red there.

By contrast, here are the Capitals, who are much more in the black. While it might be unfair to compare the Islanders at a low point to one of the league’s very best teams, it does illustrate just how wide the gap is within a single division.

Caps shots/60

So, yeah, the Islanders need to (as Honsch correctly added in the comments) start swinging the tide from shots against to shots for or else that red wave will do to them what the tidal wave did to captain Leslie Nielsen’s ocean liner The Poseidon Adventure.

None of that is to absolve Snow, who built the team over the course of eight long, painful years. Snow has made some head-scratching moves that may have only made sense to him at the time. Some have worked out, but with his players struggling mightily in a season in which most expected them to be a playoff team, it’s more than fair to question why, how and how long these guys should remain Islanders.

Personally, as I said on the Point Blank podcast, I put more of the blame on Capuano than Snow at this point because I want to see these same players performing under a different structure than they have been over the last season-plus. I think of the team as a group of stock cars driving behind a pace car. Once that pace car pulls over, some of the racers might fall apart, some might spin out of control and some might crash. But maybe some also achieve great speeds and have a chance at a spot on the podium.

A few of them - specifically the “Kid Line” crew, two thirds of which aren’t really kids anymore, of Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee - have been successful before and could (theoretically, anyway) be successful again. In fairness, Nelson is currently second on the team with 11 points (4 goals, eight assists) and has had an okay start to the season. But “okay” isn’t going to pull the team out of the muck.

This morning, Snow reiterated his faith in his coaches and players, and said he was thankful for the faith ownership has put in him to turn the season around. He also said he hears the cries of his frustrated but passionate fanbase who have supported the team through thick and thin.

"Jack, the coaching staff, our players, I have a lot of confidence in everyone in that room," Snow said during an impromptu press conference at the Islanders' practice facility. "The great part about when you face adversity, [you see] who rises to the top. Although it doesn't always feel easy for our fans, when you go through adversity, it's a great challenge and I always look forward to see who rises to that challenge, and it doesn't matter whether it's a player, coaches, staff … we're all in this together and I've got a lot of belief in everyone in that room."

As expected, Snow also stuck up for free agent acquisition Andrew Ladd, sympathized with unused third goalie Jean-Francois Berube and gave the same “we're always looking to improve our team” line he’s been giving since 2006.

The more I thought about it, though (three days between games really is a killer) the more I realized that the bigger reason I’m reluctant to charge Snow with how this season has gone is a psychological one.

The Islanders are still the Islanders, that curious three-ring circus that many in the hockey world don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. It’s been Snow’s job to erase that stigma over the last ten years and right now, it’s more powerful than ever. A non-playoff season would be bad enough. But a non-competitive, non-playoff year - in which the wheels fell off early and nobody even tried to put them back on - would be a disaster on every level. And probably too much for me to take.

It would mean the last eight years of rebuilding around golden god John Tavares would have gone to waste. It would mean that thousands of hours, not to mention tens of thousands of words spilled at this site and elsewhere, would have all meant absolutely nothing. It would mean that a fun half season in 2014-15 and a seven game playoff series, won mainly by Tavares, Thomas Greiss and few overtime games, would be the lone high points of a stretch of about 700 games. It would mean that the gobs of energy and dedication of a few thousand certifiably insane customers, including myself, would go unrewarded.

I’m not ready to cross that line yet mainly because it scares and saddens me to the point of near-catatonia. I might get there eventually, but right now I don’t want to think about it.

Coaching or construction? Chicken or Egg? Original Recipe or Extra Crispy? The Walking Dead or Fear the Walking Dead? (I’ve never seen Fear the Walking Dead, so that’s probably not a good analogy but you get the point).

The Stanley Cup champion Penguins are in town tonight and a Western road trip looms next week. Unless a consistently competent Islanders team shows up starting now, everything deserves questioning.