Not to be confused with an endorsement for head coach Jack Capuano, this is a look beyond the immediately obvious at a lingering problem. It existed before Capuano came aboard, and will very likely remain in some capacity after he’s gone. The contention here is that more so than merely the coaching staff or even the players, the system is broken. Or, it might be more accurate to say, the team itself is broken.
On the heels of another decisive loss, exasperation and unanswered questions will swirl. The most obvious – what’s wrong with the team? – has been asked, analyzed, and agonized over. There is almost always a decisive turning point, an almost audible snap which signals the beginning stages of the bottom dropping out. Injuries have sucked the life out of the team, no question, but what’s left isn’t bad at all. A look down through the relative strength of the remaining roster raises the strong possibility that the problem may be the team itself.
Calvin de Haan, Anders Nilsson, Matt Donovan, Brock Nelson and Aaron Ness are all top prospects who have performed well during the course of the season. The Islanders haven’t won a game in three weeks and have scored just fourteen goals over that stretch, so the offensive numbers haven’t exactly been stellar. On the other hand, it’s a rare rookie who is expected to step in and dominate the scoring race, so their lack of huge numbers isn’t the end of the world.
The inevitable question, of course, is this: would they thrive in a better learning environment? Does winning beget winning? Does losing create an atmosphere of lowered expectations?
There is no question that a good system and a winning attitude can go a long way toward making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The Isles teams from ‘92 to ’94 were actually a prime example of this theory. They were mostly a collection of underachievers and castoffs who bought into the philosophy, and thrived. The Buffalo Sabres’ edition of Pierre Turgeon was nicknamed “the tin man”, based on a perceived lack of heart. Steve Thomas, despite showing flashes of brilliance, was an inconsistent depth winger. Speedy Benoit Hogue, same thing. Ray Ferraro, a skilled but unsettled journeyman. Together, however, the sum was far greater than the parts, and it worked, plain and simple.
On the flipside to this scenario is the current incarnation of the Islanders. Last spring’s incredible run aside, there has been an aura of defeat swirling around the team for a number of years. If a team loses consistently for long enough, eventually on some level it begins to permeate the dressing room and affect the on-ice product. Even for those not present through the worst times; young prospects coming in will pick up on some of the subtleties of the perpetually downtrodden, and unwittingly absorb them.
Which is not to say a loser is always a loser, nor does it make losing an excuse for losing. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophesy, and it’s not an unbreakable cycle. With strong leadership and a solid game plan, coupled with a good player base and a network of blue chip prospects, a mediocre team can be good, and a good team can be great. Conversely, even the best team is doomed to failure without the proper building blocks in place.
So what does any of this mean for the Islanders? At this point it has become obvious that regardless of the individual performances of any of the roster, left to their own devices they will inevitably fail. While the entire blame cannot be shifted away from the on-ice product, in the case of the Isles there is an excellent chance there would be much less blame to sling around with a different approach to the game. An approach that begins with a new game plan, a new system, and a new attitude.