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Jack Capuano: An Uncommon Coach for the Common Player

Jack Capuano wasn’t like other NHL coaches, which is why the Islanders needed to move on.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
A coach for the people
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

NHL coaches in 2017 can be divided into two main camps.

One are the HARD CORE LIFERS, guys who look like they’ve never left the rink, who eat, sleep and shit systems and dry erase markers, and who want desperately to talk about the time they dusted some AHL punk in his first game because the cocky little snot needed to learn a lesson about being a man in The Show. Joel Quenneville is the current leader of the Lifers gang, but others include Willie Desjardins, Lindy Ruff and Darryl Sutter (the mustache is optional).

Then there’s the other camp - the Gentleman Jock, the glasses-wearing, short-haired, nerdy-type that wants the world to know that’s he’s got his shit all worked out. His system is cutting edge - just good old fashioned hard work combined with some fancy new stats and technology that you regular folks just wouldn’t understand. He’s about using modern methods to understand the modern player in these modern times. Rule No. 1: it’s just a game. The Penguins have won two Stanley Cups with Gentleman Jocks behind the bench in Dan Bylsma and Mike Sullivan. Tampa’s Jon Cooper is another one, Calgary’s Glen Gulutzan another.

The Blues are currently running a system with one of each - Ken Hitchcock representing the old school and Mike Yeo wearing the glasses.

Jack Capuano didn’t fit into either camp. When he talked, he gave off the impression of a lifer, and his many AHL years and cup of coffee in the NHL provided the bonafides. But he didn’t have that same hard edge that a Ruff or Sutter has. He seemed less like a drill sergeant and more like a substitute teacher.

He also didn’t give off the nerdy vibe, despite his very contemporary taste in eyewear. Ask any of the many, many Islanders fans praying for Capuano’s ouster and a disturbingly large portion of them would probably point to the coach’s perceived lack of intelligence as the Number One reason a firing was needed.

I never bought that Forrest Gump Theory. But this season, though, it looked like Capuano had simply run out of ideas. More often than not, when confronted with a loss, injury, slump or other issue, he defaulted to what he knew best: playing the players who he knew would play “hahd.”

So 30-year old grinder Cal Clutterbuck gets to play with John Tavares while 23-year old swingman Ryan Strome gets a seat in the press box. Rookies are benched after mistakes while veterans are thrown right back out on the ice. Capuano rewarded the players he thought did the most work. Whether or not that work actually helped the Islanders win games was irrelevant. That’s not unusual for NHL coaches, but when your team doesn’t have the talent of the Blackhawks and Kings, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. And then some dipshit blogger likens your team to The Walking Dead.

In his five-plus years behind the bench, not one player ever spoke out of turn against Capuano, even when put onto lines (or occasional scratches) that didn’t make sense to anyone other than him. Maybe that’s the nature of a tightly-knit team that’s grown up together for a while. Or maybe the players simply thought their coach was doing what he felt was best.

His final week as Islanders coach was a prime example of how his teams operated over the last season and a half. A boring 2-1 loss at home to Florida, a John Tavares-starring 5-2 win at Florida, a sloppy, embarrassing 7-4 loss in Carolina and a solid 4-0 win in Boston, the franchise’s first ever shutout over the Bruins.

That kind of inconsistency has plagued the Islanders for years, despite the playoff appearances and wins the team collected under him. A lot of the blame should also go to Garth Snow, the man who hired and fired Capuano. Until today, the only consistent thing about the team was the guys in charge of it. After firing Capuano, Snow is now talking about the decision not being made by “a dictatorship” and putting the onus on him for the team’s failings. Maybe he feels he’s the next one to go if and when the team adds a president or other suit to their leadership ladder.

As it has with players that don’t follow his designated time schedule or salary structure, Snow’s loyalty to Capuano finally ran out.

And it’s kind of a shame. Had they won more games under him, I think Capuano could have become a folk hero among Islanders fans. He was like a local guy (Okay, sorta local. Maybe like a deckhand from Rhode Island who worked at Moriches Yacht Club over the summer), who got to coach a team in the NHL. For a fanbase that idolizes workman-like dudes who fight, scrap and score goals, Capuano should have been a pet. Instead, he became a pin cushion.

Jack Capuano will get another coaching job, maybe even in the NHL. He’ll probably be the same down-to-Earth, uncommon coach he is now wherever he ends up. He helped the Islanders in a lot of ways. But for the franchise to move forward, his firing was a necessary one.