Back in November, two situations seemed unlikely: One, that the Islanders would actually fire coach Jack Capuano and two, that they would get within shouting distance of a playoff berth.
Incredibly, both actually did happen, and heading into Thursday night’s game in Philadelphia, the Islanders trail the Flyers by just three points for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s no guarantee they make it, of course, but they’ve certainly come a long way since earlier in the season when they were dead last in the conference and fans were looking at what players could be unloaded at the trade deadline.
Since taking over for Capuano, interim coach Doug Weight has made a few on ice tweaks that have helped his team to go 6-1-2. But the biggest change for those of us that aren’t in the locker room has been how the new boss communicates in an almost disarmingly candid way that his predecessor did not.
In his most recent 30 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman got some quotes from Weight about his approach to his new job(s). Instead of deflecting or giving some plain vanilla answer about focusing on the next game, Weight was honest about how he’s feeling things out right now behind the bench.
19. Doug Weight has a unique title as far as the NHL goes: interim head coach and assistant general manager. Which route does he prefer long-term? “I have an idea in my head,” he replied on Monday, hours before the Islanders beat Toronto in a wildly entertaining game. “Not to avoid your question, but it would really depend on the situation. Who would I be working with? What are the expectations? To be honest, I’ve enjoyed coaching more than I thought I would. But I haven’t been smacked in the face yet.” New York is 6-1-2 since he took over.
That’s a more nuanced version of what Weight had previously told Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post just a day after his first win as a head coach.
There are 30 head-coaching jobs in the NHL, and they are the most coveted coaching jobs in hockey. Doug Weight now has one of them with the Islanders, and as appreciative as he is for the opportunity, he doesn’t know how much he wants it.
“Do I want it? Every two weeks you guys should ask me that, because I’ll tell you how I’m feeling,” Weight told The Post before his debut on Thursday night, a 3-0 win over the Stars at Barclays Center that began his run as the interim coach following Jack Capuano’s firing on Tuesday. “I want to win tonight, I want to help our organization, I want to help our owners, our fans, our players. I want them to have success.
The Post’s headline read, Islanders’ New Coach Isn’t So Sure He Wants the Job, which might have scared longtime fans who remembered the infamous and short-lived Bill Stewart era. Instead, Weight was just being himself, following the advice he’s gotten from former teammates Rod Brind’Amour, Trent Klatt, Kelly Buchburger and Bill Guerin.
After 1,200 games in the NHL, a thousand-plus points and one Stanley Cup, Weight is naturally confident in his abilities and knowledge of the game. Being a head coach (or assistant GM/head coach) is a ton of work which, also naturally, he hasn’t shied away from, either.
“It began [Tuesday] with 60 pages of notes, things I wanted us to be about,” Weight said. “Whether it’s the standings, meeting times, on the ice, to how we treat the bus drivers, the hotel staff where we stay, making sure we say hello and thank you — this is what’s important to me and it has to be important to them.”
To be fair, we have no idea how or how often Capuano spoke to players, nor what he said. Cappy was universally acknowledged as a “player’s coach” and both current and former Islanders have said they enjoyed playing for him.
There’s also no doubt he was hard-worker as well.
Cone of Silence
John Tavares says in the same above story that he couldn’t, “count the number of times Cappy slept on the couch in his office, breaking down video all night.” And John Tortorella, who had Capuano on his staff with Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, raved about his preparation while also intimating that he might have been trying a little too hard.
“I try to impress upon him, sometimes you can’t give the team all the info you have. I think that’s important,” Tortorella said. “You can have all the info, but how much gets to the player can be too much at times.”
From our end, Capuano used the same half dozen or so canned catchphrases so often that this very website produced not one but two (since discontinued) t-shirts dedicated to them. From the time he was named to the job in 2010, Capuano said the words, “Battle Level,” “Smaht,” “Hahd,” “Meetings” and “Passengers” to the point that they seemed to lose meaning. During the Evgeni Nabokov era, he often declined to “talk about the goaltending,” presumably out of respect for a veteran goalie who knew full well when he had laid an egg out there. Generalities like “activating the defense” and “not sitting back” were about as close to in-game strategy as you’d get out of Cappy.
Weight’s comments are almost completely different. He talks plainly about strategy (using centers lower in the defensive zone, having wingers focused on board play and having centers sit in on meetings with the defense), openly discusses with the players where the team is in the standings (something Capuano famously didn’t do) and, as seen above, examines his new role and his comfort level with it on a day-by-day basis.
He’s even got jokes!
“We pulled the casino rules, turned the air all the way up, make it nice and cool in the room and we spent 20-30 minutes on the computer, watching the games, watching our structure and walking through it,” Weight said. “Everyone’s talking.”
Perhaps most importantly, we know a little more about how Weight communicates with individual players than we did with Capuano. In The Post, Zach Braziller noted that Weight didn’t wait (!) before having, “four or five uncomfortable meetings” with players he felt needed them. We don’t know who they were, but Anders Lee was quoted as saying they were beneficial for everybody.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Ryan Strome might have had one of those “uncomfortable” meetings, too. The 23-year-old had been struggling through another mostly unproductive season under Capuano and had been subject to still more healthy scratches. It’s a small (and home-heavy) sample, but Strome has six points in his last five games (2g, 4a) and his underlying stats have seen a bump recently. He’s probably the player that most bears watching as Weight’s tenure continues.
Ryan strome's numbers had gotten better at the end of Cappy's tenure (last 10 games: 49.3%). Now at 52.6% - very encouraging— garik16 (@garik16) February 8, 2017
Finally, Friedman includes the following note about another key cog in the Islanders gameplan, Nick Leddy:
22. Finally on Weight and the Islanders: “The first player I met with was Nick Leddy. I told him he needs to be our second-best player every night.” Leddy is really good but it’s been a hard season for him.
Since the change, garik reports that Leddy’s corsi for has taken a noticeable jump as well, from below what’s acceptable to closer to where he was during his breakout 2014-15 season.
Nick leddy was incredibly awful under Cappy: 44.9% Corsi in last ten. Under weight he's been the best defenseman again: 56.5%— garik16 (@garik16) February 8, 2017
Lines are Open
None of this is to make the case that Weight is some kind of hidden coaching savant or even the best coach for the Islanders moving forward past this season. Since his hiring, proven coaches like Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien have been fired and GM Garth Snow would be remiss if he didn’t at least talk to the two Cup winners to gauge their thoughts about potentially coming to the Islanders. (Breaking: Remiss, it is then. For now. Sure glad I waited to publish this.)
Even Weight admits (once again) that he hasn’t, “been smacked in the face yet,” which I assume means facing serious adversity, aside from back-to-back sloppy, unlucky loses against Detroit and Carolina. While this little run has been nice, should the last few games of this season come off the rails, Weight’s outlook on the job and our outlook on him might change.
The point is more to illustrate why Weight has been a breath of fresh air for what had become in many ways a stale, predicable operation. It’s nice to actually want to hear what a coach has to say after a game because it might be something we’ve haven’t heard before. We might even like it.
(FF to 8:27 for hilarity)