Head coach Jack Capuano has been a talking point, a scapegoat, a lightning rod, the subject of countless “hot takes” from columnists, bloggers, and fans alike…take your pick; the list goes on. For better or for worse, his name has been at the forefront of the conversation about the 2013-14 New York Islanders.
The Isles are 11-20-7 (27 pts), which puts them at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, nine points out of a playoff spot. They’ve dealt with injuries—most notably to starting netminder Evgeni Nabokov and power play quarterback Lubomir Visnovsky. They’re struggling to regain the identity that struck fear into the heart of the Pittsburgh Penguins last May. Their longest winning streak so far this season was two games.
For the Islanders, this season’s collapse has been nothing short of epic.
But is it solely Capuano’s fault that the team isn’t performing up to expectations? (Expectations that, ohbytheway, may have been inflated by the combination of last season’s lucky playoff berth and a postseason-starved fan base.)
For Capuano, it’s all added up to one of the fastest falls from grace in recent memory. Seven months ago he was receiving Jack Adams Award buzz as the NHL’s best coach. Now, the public is calling for his head. And for all intents and purposes, he’s dealing with the same team he had in the lockout-shorted 2012-13 season. Huh?
So why blame Capuano for all of the team’s problems? Perhaps the coach said it best: “Players win and coaches lose.” And he’s right.
The coach is the team’s figurehead. He absorbs the brunt of the media’s scrutiny when things go south. Why, then, is success is only attributed to the players? It’s a conundrum Capuano has had to deal with in his two-plus seasons behind the bench on Long Island, although the successes have been few and far-between this year.
The Islanders have blown 10 third-period leads this season, seemingly an indicator that the coach isn’t doing his job. Lost in that assumption, however, is that Capuano has done a good enough job coaching his team that they’ve had third-period leads in at least ten games.
The Islanders have proven they’re able to compete with the best teams in the league—Anaheim, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh—but can’t quite play the full 60 minutes required to win against top-flight talent. To his credit, Capuano continually refuses to call out his players by name or sacrifice them to the media for their mistakes that have directly led to losses.
“We believe in the guys that we have in that room,” Capuano said after Saturday night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks, a 5-3 home loss featuring a 3-1 blown third-period lead. “We still have a young back end. I believe in the guys that we have back there that can do the job.”
From what the media is allowed to see, Capuano isn’t a fiery coach in the mold of Detroit’s Mike Babcock or Vancouver’s John Tortorella. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a motivator. The players in the room clearly respect him as a coach and a mentor, which is a long-winded way of saying that Capuano hasn’t lost the team.
He’s implemented a system best suited to the level of talent and experience on his roster, and it’s on the players to perform according to that system. Which, for the most part, they do.
Ask yourself: if the Isles have quit on Capuano—a lazy cliché that’s been parroted time and time again this season—then why are they playing close games night-in and night-out? How can the players lack motivation if they’re giving trouble to the Anaheims and the Pittsburghs of the NHL?
The desire is there; it’s the execution that isn’t.
“That’s battle. That’s winning your shift. That’s making sure that you defend hard, and you can’t take a second off,” Capuano said. “We talk about that all the time. It’s our structure. That’s about the will to compete every single shift and having that desperation to begin with.”
For all the work Capuano and his coaching staff do with the team on a daily basis, it’s out of their hands when the players on the ice make poor clearing attempts, or lose their marks, or decide to pile on top of one another in the crease in the dying seconds of a game.
You can see it on Capuano’s face in his postgame press conferences. He’s more frustrated than anyone with the way his team is performing this year, but there’s no real answer as to why the Islanders have a mental block when it comes to the third period.
And unless you’re a licensed sports psychologist, there might be no figuring it out.
If you have a solution to the Islander’s third-period struggles this season, I’m all ears. Catch up with me on the Twitter (@MichaelWillhoft) and let me know what you think can be done to ensure the team guards a lead rather than give one up.