By Daniel Friedman
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Losers of nine consecutive games, the New York Islanders are approaching a point of no return and watching their playoff aspirations slip away.
When you start losing games, people start asking questions. And right now, there are several valid questions to ask — including whether or not the head coach will be fired. In the Islanders’ case, they haven’t just been coming up short; they’ve been imploding in spectacular fashion. So it’s not all that surprising that Jack Capuano’s job security has recently become a topic of conversation.
But there’s another, far more exciting question that can be asked:
What if Doug Weight is the right man for the job?
If the Islanders were to make a coaching change, there are two obvious routes they can take. They can either bring in a known commodity like Peter Laviolette (definitely the popular choice among fans), or they might promote current assistant coach Doug Weight.
A Laviolette-type could be just what the doctor ordered and from a logical perspective, I think that would be the smartest option. That having been said, I think there’s a real strong case to be made for Weight, too.
“I’ve gotten better at it (coaching) and I feel like I have the fire to do it,” Weight told reporters in St. Louis last week. “I have a lot of ideas about it and it’s fun. You see what the teams are doing and you find ways to tweak it and you find ways most importantly to touch these individuals.You try to get them better. You try to get these kids better. You try to get them confident. You get their respect. You get to make them accountable and you have their respect at the same time. That’s a great challenge.”
Ideally, he would serve as an assistant coach for another few years, but traditions don’t always necessarily have to be followed just for the sake of honoring standard procedure. The idea that he’s not ready or wouldn’t be a good NHL coach is mostly based on pure skepticism — which I can appreciate — but there’s legitimate evidence to suggest he’d be a good coach.
What I’d like to do here is introduce this idea to you from a perspective that perhaps you haven’t yet seen and, in order to do that, I’m going to focus on the character traits of an NHL head coach and then show how Weight demonstrates each of those traits.
Let’s start with the first intangible, which is knowing what it takes to win.
Weight has been in the trenches before; he played in the postseason 13 times during his illustrious NHL-career and won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. He represented the United States in three Olympic tournaments and helped his country earn a silver medal in 2002.
He’s also a proven leader and captained both the Edmonton Oilers and the Islanders during his time as a player.
By contrast, Jack Capuano played just half-a-dozen games in the NHL and none in the playoffs. For all of his coaching experience (and he has plenty), there’s only so much you can know about going deep into the playoffs and winning the Cup if you’ve never been in those kinds of situations.
Capuano did help the Isles reach the playoffs and take the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games, but in my opinion he was out-coached by Bylsma in that series.
If you’re looking for a candidate who knows how to win, I can guarantee you that Weight’s pretty well-versed in that department. The Islanders are very fortunate to have someone as accomplished as Weight in their organization.
The next “it” factor is being able to connect with your players and have them respond to you. We know of at least two specific examples where Weight has shown he possesses the ability to do these things.
On February 11th, 2011, the Islanders hosted the Los Angeles Kings. They were outshot 12-4 in the second period and let the Kings tie the game, 1-1. Weight gave the team some words of wisdom in between periods and, just like that, the Isles’ fortunes were reversed. They kept the score tied and then Mark Streit won it in overtime.
Last season, in a game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Isles wound up falling behind 2-0 in that first period. Newsday’s Arthur Staple reported at the end of the game that Isles’ players said Weight gave them a “blistering” speech during the first intermission. Frans Nielsen was quoted as saying “we deserved it, and we needed it.”
What happened during the second period was that the Isles completely erased the 2-0 deficit by scoring three goals within seven and a half minutes in the middle frame. They eventually won the game in a shootout.
Even after that victory over the Blueshirts, the Islanders were still tied for last place in the Eastern Conference, but from that point they surged forward and eventually made the playoffs. Later on in the year, Nielsen said this game was the turning point in their season.
Weight knows when to stay calm but also when to show emotion on the bench, which I think people wish they saw Capuano do more often. I think that’s an important part of the job and it shows the kind of passion this sport requires if it’s going to be played or coached at the highest level.
Over a year ago, Weight sat down with the team’s radio play-by-play man, Chris King, for an Islanders TV feature. During the Q&A session, he opened up about the transition process and what he’d learned about coaching to that point:
“The best coaches at this level certainly know their X’s and O’s,” Weight articulated. “But you need to know how to communicate, you need to be honest, you need to be forthright and you need to be strong. I learned that over the course of that (first) season .”
Not that Weight was able to do that right from the get-go, but as he told King, that’s changed.
“It was hard for me. I was very close friends to these guys and then I go behind (the bench) where I’ve gotta bring ‘em in and give ‘em a little heat at times. It’s a slippery slope. The great thing is that we have great kids on this team that have made it easy for me — starting with John (Tavares) — to give ‘em heat and go at ‘em a little bit, even in front of the guys. I try to pat on the back and I try to show as many good things as I do things that we have to work on. You have to make sure you get the point across. If you get yelled at, it’s about how you react.”
So we have factual evidence of this team actively responding to Weight and, ultimately, that’s one of the most important keys to being a good coach; whether or not your players care what you have to say, whether or not they’ll buy in. The guys in that locker room have shown they’ll do it. Weight has held the players accountable and, clearly, they’ve gotten the message when he’s sent one.
Another obvious requirement is that you must produce results. As far as execution goes, Doug Weight comes through once again. One needn’t look any further than the job he’s done with the Isles’ power play since taking charge of it in 2011-12.
That year, the team was tied for seventh-best in the NHL with the man advantage and the following season, they were tied for 10th.
Now, 2013-14 hasn’t been up to par by any stretch, but I’d say 98 percent of that can be attributed to Lubomir Visnovsky’s absence. He’s their best puck-mover by far, not to mention their best transition defenseman. A power play unit without a quarterback isn’t going to have much success.
Either way, the overall body of work is impressive. I’d tend to focus more on the two years their power play was in the league’s top-10 and less on the one season in which there have been underlying factors in their struggles.
It also shows that Weight has a knack for forming the right line combinations. The biggest part of having a strong power play unit is making sure the right players are on the ice together and that they’re in the right positions. He’s always been able to send the best combination of forwards and defensemen over the boards in those situations.
Weight understands player chemistry and can recognize it when he sees it. That’s a “must have” for an NHL coach and he clearly has it.
He just seems to be dialed-in. When Doug Weight talks about a hockey player, he knows everything there is to know about that player’s game, his tendencies and his personality. It also helps that he was one not too long ago. Weight acknowledged this in his sit-down with King: “A benefit for me of having been a player for so long is that I was in their shoes.”
I also wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the fact that he wouldn’t change much about the current system. To be perfectly honest, the system isn’t the problem here and when the Islanders actually play it the right way, it gives opposing teams nightmares.
Thomas Hickey leaving his man wide open in front of the net has absolutely nothing to do with the system that’s in place.
Every coach has their own tweaks, so I would expect Weight might make a few adjustments. But the system wouldn’t be vastly different and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Conversely, there are other things that do need to change, but those aren’t directly-tied to the system.
Weight’s age isn’t that much of a concern for me, either. He’s 42-years-old, but other coaches have actually burst onto the scene when they were younger than that. Dan Bylsma was 38 when he became Pittsburgh’s head coach. Minnesota Wild bench boss Mike Yeo is 40.
Age is just a number when you have other qualifications and redeeming qualities. I think it’s safe to say that Weight does.
Lastly, an NHL coach needs to be someone who is driven to succeed — someone who’ll do whatever it takes to win — and you can see the competitive fire in Doug Weight’s eyes from a mile away.
“It’s time for us as an organization, as a coaching staff and as players to expect to be in the playoffs and to do it,” said Weight. “So, as much as we’re excited about these prospects we talk about a lot, we need to be a team that the core is gonna lead us game-in-game-out. It’s about confidence and playing every game with consistency. Those two C’s are two big words, and they’re gonna have to be a big part of our hockey club if we’re gonna make the playoffs. I fully expect to.”
Tell me that isn’t the mantra you want the Islanders to follow. I double-dare you.
It’s what Doug Weight believes in whole-heartedly and is constantly working towards. The man knows what he’s talking about and has “winner” written all over him. It’s just a matter of time.
Mark my words: Whether it happens now or in three years, it’s going to happen. And once it does, the New York Islanders will never look back.
The only question left to ask now is, when?
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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