By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — When the Islanders come up in conversation most people who have a clue about the NHL usually mention one of two things: rebuilding or no building.
Fans of this still-proud but forever in transition franchise are pretty tired of both discussions. Now in the fourth — and pivotal — season of an extensive youth movement, the Islanders are expected to win and win quite a bit. While no one is suggesting this team is anywhere near ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup, it is supposed to at least be good enough to compete for it come the spring.
Considering where this franchise once was and where it currently is, trust me when I tell you that’s not asking a lot.
Whether competing means sneaking into the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference or challenging 90-plus points, the fans are literally dying for something more than merely anticipation. This is a group of people that has endured more than your average North American fan base. They have been ridiculed to the far reaches of the hockey galaxy, all because they are, by and large, guilty of brand loyalty.
In a world where sticking with your team through thick and thin is increasingly being replaced by bandwagon jumping or abandoning a certain sport altogether, the Islanders fan is unique in that he or she really lives by the old adage “whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.”
While seemingly everyone from marquee free agents to politicians to even their own constituents continue to tell the Islanders “no,” their deserving loyalists have stuck to the dream of hearing someone say “yes.” Getting that nod of approval is no longer about getting a new or refurbished arena. The economy has made sure that’s not happening any time soon. While I still believe the franchise and all the powers that be that control who gets what and when will eventually come to an understanding and the franchise’s long-term outlook will be firmly re-supplanted on Long Island, the only way to sweeten that potential deal is to give the movers and shakers no choice but to demand the team stays.
That window is closing quickly. The team’s lease is up at Nassau Coliseum at the end of the 2014-15 season. That leaves the Islanders in theory four seasons to become all they can be. However, the reality of the logistics involved in securing, planning and actually building somewhere new to play really means the Isles only have a season or two at the most to make a new name for themselves on the ice.
Winning could very well prove to be the elixir that changes their future. The economics of any situation, no matter how dire the climate is, can always be altered by the fear of losing something that makes you proud. If the Islanders, once the talk of the hockey world and the greatest show the Island has ever seen, transform from perennial springtime golfers to championship contenders, the onus will shift to the “no” camp. Those people will then be forced to make a decision that seems easy now, but could turn into Russian Roulette later.
The man charged with making all of this happen is largely an unknown. Jack Capuano earned the right to have the interim tag taken off his head coaching name plate in his office after he guided the Islanders to a more than respectable 26-29-10 record last season in place of fired Scott Gordon. Capuano inherited a team beset by inexperience, lacking any kind of discernible direction on the ice and without the proper training regimen to actually keep the players from being prone off the ice.
Capuano, 45, took over in the midst of what was the franchise’s most recent 10-game-plus losing streak, something that’s become a serious problem over the last few seasons. Now while Capuano’s overall record from last season, on the surface anyway, doesn’t exactly instill a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings, the Islanders for most of the second half were as good as any team this side of eventual Cup champion Boston in the Eastern Conference. His record didn’t dip below .500 until the final week or two of the season when the Isles were finally eliminated from postseason contention and several more players hung up their skates for the season as the final pieces of a team that lost an astonishing 550-plus man-games to injury, a frightening statistic not even remotely challenged by any other team anywhere.
A native of Cranston, R.I., a former NHL defenseman and a man with several years of coaching experience in the minors, Capuano has the requisite experience needed to lead a team at this level. I don’t think anyone who knows the NHL would dispute this fact.
He’s just very hard to read.
Strategically, Capuano will continue to push the Isles to play a fast-paced forechecking and counter-attacking style. He has the weapons to make this approach work. I like to take some cues from the “Hockey Maven” Stan Fischler, who has said on more than one occasion the Islanders’ offense, once it gets revved up, will be “explosive.” In addition, the Islanders are largely thought of as having as talented a young core as any team in the league and a minor league system that has near-NHL ready talent spilling over.
General Manager Garth Snow, the man behind the curtain putting together this team over the last few years with smart drafting, shrewd waiver wire pickups of discarded commodities and thoughtful free agent signings, has amassed a collection of talent that should end the franchise’s playoff drought at four seasons and make a serious run at winning a playoff series for the first time since 1993.
Capuano’s demeanor on the ice appears to be extremely no-nonsense, though he has been known to crack a smile now and then, unlike his predecessor, Gordon, who would likely shrug off winning a $300 million Powerball drawing. “Cappy,” as the diehards like to call him, appears to be a hybrid — not quite a players’ coach but also not a dictator. It’s almost as if Capuano conducts himself like he has known the importance of this season all along. There will be no getting too high after a win or too low after a loss. There simply will be no time for either.
If you needed any fruther indication of just how seriously Capuano takes his job and the responsibility of getting the Islanders off to a good start this season, look no further than Monday’s matchup with Minnesota. Capuano reportedly benched the face of the franchise, John Tavares, for part of the 2-1 win after the star center tried to do too much in the offensive end of the ice on one rush and ended up turning over the puck, leading to the the Wild’s only goal of the game.
There the Isles were in just the second game of the season getting a warning shot fired across their bow. Capuano sent a message to the entire team. Tavares is now in his third season and expected to make that ascension from a budding superstar to the genuine article, but none of that mattered to Capuano. Kudos should be given to a basically neophyte coach for putting everyone on notice. If you deviate from the plan or try to be a hero, you’ll sit. It’s that simple.
Also, conventional wisdom suggests due to his obscene contract Rick DiPietro will be afforded every opportunity to start a ton of games for this team. Capuano appears to be of a different mindset entirely. I have advocated the starting job be Al Montoya’s to lose because he more than earned it last season, but with three goalies on the roster, including enigmatic Evgeni Nabokov, all will play until one separates himself from the rest. Capuano rightly started Montoya in the team’s first two games and appears ready to make the other two guys earn any time between the pipes they get.
That’s the type of coaching this franchise has lacked for too long to count.
And those decisions will likely be the types of moves that make the difference on a team that may be talented, but still has little to no margin for error on a nightly basis.
I like to believe Capuano isn’t here merely as a financial stopgap, though many would have you believe just that because the Islanders are perenially swimming in red ink. I think Snow and owner Charles Wang feel a measure of comfort with this man because of his familiarity with the system and because of his integrity. Now, does that mean Capuano has what it takes to bring the very best out of this bunch? We’ll see.
But I do think Islanders fans will be okay with the mistakes he’ll make, mostly because all coaches make them and this fan base is savvy enough to understand that the war isn’t won any given night.
Islanders fans have fought out of corners much of their lives. At least this time, for the first time in a long time, they know who their allies are.
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