Capuano Under Fire. Again.
Not for the first time, New York Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano finds himself under pressure.
After the clubs best start in more than a decade propelled the Islanders to the top of the Metropolitan Division, the side have slumped to three straight defeats and are in the midst of a tough Western road swing.
With fears another epic losing streak, akin to the one the club underwent during the second half of last season, is on the horizon; cries for 48-year old Capuano to be dismissed grow ever louder.
Capuano succeed Scott Gordon as Islanders coach in November 2010. A controversial choice for some, Capuano inherited a roster sporting a sophmore John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and a handful of useful veterans such as P. A. Parenteau – but ultimately it was a squad that lacked depth and had no ‘go to’ goaltender.
Ultimately six different netminders were used that season, and Capuano led the side to a middling 26-29-10 record during his 65 games at the helm. It proved to be enough for Capuano to keep his place behind the bench for the 2011 season though, and the club made a marginal improvement – though still finished 13 points shy of the play-offs.
After a six year absence from the post season, during which the organisation had ‘comfortably’ missed the cut each time, fans were becoming increasingly disgruntled at what seemed to be becoming a perpetual cycle of failure for the organisation.
Capuano and General Manager Garth Snow bore much of the brunt of these frustrations; but a hot streak during the second half of the truncated 2012/13 season saw the Islanders finish 8th in the East, before scaring the powerhouse Penguins in the Conference Quarter Finals.
It led to renewed hope among fans, buoyed by the new found success players like Kyle Okposo and John Tavares seemed to be ushering in – but a calamitous campaign last year brought the club back to Earth with a bump, as the Islanders sank back to the NHL basement.
The controversial deadline day trade of Thomas Vanek, whose arrival earlier in the season saw fan favourite Matt Moulson depart Long Island, simply compounded fans frustration – quickly erasing any memories of the tear he went on along side Tavares and Okposo prior to the Olympic break.
When Tavares injured during the Olympics, the mix turned even more toxic and the inability of the clubs three netminders, Evgeni Nabokov, Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, to pick up the slack led to one of the worst losing streaks in recent memory.
But the club resisted calls to remove Capuano; further reinforcing how unwavering the Islanders faith in ‘their people’ can be at times.
It’s impressive to a fault in many regards, with the club now seemingly bound by the saying ‘stay the course’. Ultimately this faith in ‘their man’ that be all that kept the affable Rhode Island native in a job last summer.
Many concerns began to dissipate during the off-season; as a veritable bevy of free agent signed, including netminder Jaroslav Halak, and a number of the clubs carefully nurtured prospects looked set to make the jump to the NHL.
Once again, there was a sense of excitement surrounding the organisation – one which only mounted as the team won their first four games.
But straight defeats to Winnipeg, Colorado and San Jose have dampened spirits somewhat.
For many, the mood has switched from the ‘glass half full’ view that the team is 6-5-0 and one of the top three teams in the Metro to ‘this team has lost 5 of its last 7 games’.
Years of disappointment have left Isles fans somewhat pessimistic it is fair to say. Once again Capuano’s systems are under question while the penalty kill falters and slumps from Halak and Tavares, who has 1 goal and 2 points in his last 5 games, seem to have people increasingly concerned.
For some, every bump in the road is just another barb to throw at Capuano.
But much of the criticism seems to be tied to a ‘not again’ feeling, rather than a real time assessment of where the club is.
Tavares slump is disappointing – he’s a perennial Hart candidate and the clubs Captain and talisman. And whilst Tavares is undoubtedly capable of scoring at a point per game pace (or better), many forget one inalienable truth – it is bloody hard to perform at that elite level night in, night out. In short, slumps happen.
Likewise Halak, whose arrival was so celebrated, has always been a little sluggish in October – adapting to a new team, a new defensive system, will not have helped in this regard. But the Slovak has already shown more in the first month of the season than the club got from its trio last season. Alongside Chad Johnson, the Islanders have two netminders they can hang their hat on over the long haul.
And while there’s no denying the defence and penalty kill still needs some issues ironing out, particularly the latter, with two new arrivals and injuries to Lubo Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic, there needs to be time for the unit to gel. Rome was not built in a day.
Naturally, it’s not a perfect situation – a losing skid on one of the toughest road trips in the NHL is pretty much the worst scenario a club might find itself in. But it also leads to hyperbole all too often.
It’s understandably to question the handling of Ryan Strome, who seems to have bounced across all four lines thus far, despite a promising start to the season on the second line.
Ironically, the new found depth the Islanders have has almost become a problem at times. The team seemed to have issues re-balancing the lines when Mikhail Grabovski was out, in part leading to Strome’s yo-yo movements up and down the depth chart, while Anders Lee was originally sent down before being brought back up last week.
Maybe that is, somewhat bizarrely perhaps, the biggest black mark against Capuano at the moment – arguably the best roster the Islanders have had in 20 years, but few lines seem settled.
There is depth, and for the first time since Rick DiPietro’s body broke down, a #1 who can steal the Islanders a few games and provide (at least) league average goaltending over the long term. This is perhaps the first time Capuano has ever had a seriously competitive team at his command, and people want his head at the first sign of trouble?
This is the first time this roster has faced adversity this season. It may be a defining moment for them, and Capuano. Can they pull themselves out of the slump and regain that early season panache?
Starting tomorrow in Anaheim, the Islanders have 13 games before the end of November – and perhaps most crucially six games against Divisional opponents to end the month.
It would take an apocalyptic collapse for the team to end the month 6-18-0 – and even if they did, there’s still 58 games in which to secure the other 80-85 points that would normally secure a play-off berth in the East.
Whilst some might like to see changes sooner; Capuano’s fate is almost certainly tied to November’s performances.
An improvement buys him a reprieve. A winning month probably keeps him in the job until seasons end. A losing one, then yes, it is likely time to move on. Whether that be because Capuano isn’t up to the job, or simply to fire a shot across the player bow, the club has as stronger impetus than ever to be, at the very least, competitive with the Barclay Centre now on the horizon. Another losing season isn’t an option for the franchise.
But then the next question opens up – who replaces him?
Dan Bylsma may be a popular choice, but is almost a ‘buzz word’ for any team looking to change its coach. He’s also a man with a CV strong enough that he can wait for a much bigger fish to swim by – because they inevitably will.
If ‘Cappy’ goes, chances are the club simply promotes from within again – and the long awaited ascension of Doug Weight is complete.
But then, there are no guarantees a man who is already part of the coaching staff of a team considered to be ‘faltering’ can turn it around, are there?