By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — Who are you and what do you want to become? A simple shrug of the shoulders isn’t good enough anymore.
If you had one fear heading into the 2011-12 season it was that the Islanders would get out of the gates miserably. And while that is every fan’s concern, regardless of the team he or she roots for, on the Island a bad start was tantamount to Armageddon, real end-of-the-world stuff.
The Isles simply couldn’t afford to have the losses mount right off the bat, not with all that is riding on this season. The fourth year of the rebuild was supposed to be magic time, so said the experts on rebuilds, which became all of us because we were told so by so many people we respect. It was supposed to be the season that put many of the previous 20 to bed, or at least banished them from the fan base’s collective consciousness for a while.
Yet inexplicably — and considering all we know it really is as bad as it looks — we are 18 games into the season and the Isles are once again the laughingstocks of the NHL.
It’s simply unbelievable and inexcusable.
For the diehard and optimist what we’ve seen in seven weeks has left us in a sort of no-man’s land clutching our favorite blanket and wishing for a mulligan. This team is dead where it stands, with the ice seemingly titled toward what was once a trio of goaltenders, but is now half a goalie and a kid big enough to be three goalies.
Nothing coach Jack Capuano has tried has worked.
And I’m not even blaming Capuano. There’s been a systemic breakdown here, one that has permeated every last department within the franchise, be it part of the on-ice product or in the front office.
Since starting 3-1, the Isles have won just twice in 14 games. They have scored 35 goals, or 1.94 per game, a statistic that’s absolutely horrifying considering all of the young talent that began to make a serious move last season. Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey have been horrendous. Michael Grabner is learning what life is like when opposing teams make adjustments and take away his open ice. Even John Tavares and Matt Moulson, the two guys you figure would find a way, have been very quiet by their growing standards.
And though there’s still plenty of time for this group of fresh-faced kids sprinkled with respected veterans to turn this thing around, they’ve given you no indication whatsoever that they will or that they even care to.
It’s that bad.
You have to figure the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference will require around a minimum of 90 points. Do you honestly believe this team will somehow get 77 points in its final 64 games? What’s that old saying again about snowballs in hell?
This rebuild was basically the last card the front office had to play. If it doesn’t work I just don’t see how anyone in their right mind would lay in front of a train to keep this team on Long Island. Making the playoffs, or at the very least being competitive, is the only chance this team has of being attractive enough for a municipality to open its doors in these trying economic times to keep it where it belongs, be that on Long Island or nearby.
The clock has been ticking since Nassau County issued its well-documented “no.” The window to get something done basically ends sometime in 2013. It will take a minimum of 18 months to two years to have a new arena ready in time to coincide with the Isles’ lease at Nassau Coliseum expiring at the end of the 2014-15 season.
Perhaps the Isles could extend their lease at the Coliseum one year or play at the Izod Center for a year, but that would only happen if something grandiose was secured, which we know would be like asking NHL Jesus to forgive every last sin this franchise has committed over the last two decades. Brooklyn you say? Find a way to stick 3,000 more seats in the joint and maybe there will be something to talk about.
It just seems like the fans, as usual, are the only ones feeling this sense of urgency. I mean the players care, sure, but they have already admitted the dressing room “feels different” this season, and not in a good way. Then, during one of the intermissions at the Sidney Crosby party in Pittsburgh on Monday night, an absolute shellacking that was predictable and orchestrated, assistant coach Scott Allen basically said in no uncertain terms that the Islanders are a “fragile group of guys,” one that folds its tents at the first sign of adversity.
I mean, you can’t make it up. All of the experience this group gained over the last few seasons has completely disappeared. The players might as well all be prospects again, because they are sure playing like just that.
The part that’s most mind-boggling is the fact that basically the same group of guys played so well during the second half of last season. Prior to a final-week swoon that came as a result of injuries taking their toll once and for all and the reality of being eliminated from postseason contention, the Isles had proven they could play with anyone. Their point total in the beginning of calendar year 2011 gave every indication that there was no way their point total at the end of 2011 could possibly be this bad.
Yet it is.
The Islanders need to answer some questions that ultimately will be asked. It’s just better they address them now because I just don’t see a dramatic reversal of fortune coming.
Even when they lost last season, the Isles made sure the opposition knew they were in a game. That has not been the case for the better part of the beginning of this season. Exhibit A (and it’s really the only example you need): the Isles put together one of their best efforts of the season in a 4-3 victory over the visiting Canadiens last Thursday only to follow it up by being outscored 11-0 in back-to-back losses to the Bruins and Penguins. In both of the latter games they were beaten before they took the ice. Going out and going through the motions was just obligatory.
So on to the questions, of which there are really just two. First, and altogether less pressing, is Capuano the coach that should be entrusted with fixing this mess? My answer? Yes. Mostly because firing him would be a copout and would shed even more light on the second question, which is when should the fan base point fingers at Garth Snow and say his master rebuilding plan failed?
The only reason why Snow is brought up is because this same group was clearly better last season than it is this season. That in turn would suggest Capuano isn’t getting it done. But it seems like Capuano has done everything in his power. He’s made guys earn ice time. He’s benched “stars.” He’s scratched “stars in waiting.” He’s juggled lines. He’s made speeches. He’s called players out. He’s played every goalie he can think of.
Yet none of it has worked.
But that again brings into focus whether or not Snow chose and traded for horses that are only good over half a distance. But it’s not like the general manager didn’t get praise last season from people in the know outside of the organization. To a man, many NHL experts agreed that the Islanders had put together quite the ensemble of young talent, from Tavares all the way down to many of the kids at Bridgeport. He then complimented the young guys with some veterans who, at least prior to coming to Long Island, knew how to play important roles, be them on the power play, man down or on the third and fourth lines.
And that leads me to the ultimate truth behind this whole mess. This is on the players. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to stop making excuses. It’s time to put the double-bladed skates away, let go of daddy’s hand and start skating like men.
Most everyone agrees the talent is there. I’ll take the words of Stan Fischler, Billy Jaffe and Mike Bossy, to name a few, over anyone’s. To a man, they have all said the time is now. The pure skill you see out on the ice every night sure suggests this team should be much better than it is.
Blaming the coach is a joke because it appears Capuano has not lost the locker room, nor has he instructed these players poorly. Pointing a finger at the GM doesn’t work either because, as I stated earlier, this same group of guys got it done over the second half of last season, under the tutelage of the same coach.
It’s simply time to grow up. Are the Islanders NHL players or not? Only they know the answer. All the criticism, poking and prodding, hard practices and lessons learned on the job has to eventually galvanize a group as talented as this one. If they don’t, then why should they even bother? They’re wasting everyone’s time, time this franchise doesn’t have.
And they shouldn’t expect a lifeline from owner Charles Wang either. He’s owner-non-gratis right now, not to mention all the money he’s basically thrown away over the last decade. Fans shouldn’t get mad at him because he’s not spending to fix his team’s problems. He’s lost enough money, don’t you think?
And don’t wait for a lull in the schedule. It’s never going to happen. Every night the Isles will play an opponent at the level of the Penguins, Bruins, Capitals, Rangers, Devils, Sabres and Flyers. There’s no time to breathe. This team did that in the equivalent of the NHL’s womb for far too long.
The only break on the schedule right now is the one the opponents get when they know they are going to the Coliseum or the Islanders are coming to town.
Can these players live with that? It sure seems like it.
My question is, why? Have they no pride? They’re old enough to know what that means, right?
This is a grown-up world, the NHL. It will beat you senseless. Or do the Isles need more of a reminder?
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
How does one fix the Islanders? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.