By Jeff Capellini
Don’t look so down, Jack. You get to keep your job. You have basically been cleared of wrongdoing. Garth Snow, of all people, jumped on the grenade.
Whether Jack Capuano is to blame for a large percentage of the Islanders’ failures during the 2013-14 season will remain a running debate among the irate in the fan base for some time. From gauging the reaction to Monday’s announcement that the seventh longest-tenured coach in the NHL will return, it’s fairly obvious to me that Capuano will not get an overall pass until he’s being hailed for a lot more than simply a playoff berth.
Capuano had a very difficult time this season, mostly because he never found a way to get all of his players to believe they could be more, which, ironically, he did with gusto during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. The Islanders started slowly and then went completely into reverse during November. And if that sounds fairly familiar to you it’s because this team always seems to fall on its face in November, only to follow that horrid month up with decent enough play to convince a lot of people that it is better than the sum of its parts.
The Islanders are not better than the sum of their parts.
But is this the case because of the coach, the general manager, the owner or all three? I tend to think it’s on many levels a combination of Capuano, Snow and Charles Wang, but when push comes to shove the Isles are where they are — watching the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven seasons — because of the owner-imparted franchise-building philosophy.
When one compares and contrasts fan patience with expectations, and then adds in a dose of reality, the open-ended rebuild idea has run its course. You could make the argument it was old and busted heading into last summer, after the Islanders surprised the NHL by not only making the playoffs, but also being a goaltender away from upsetting top-seeded Pittsburgh.
But, alas, last summer proved to be an unmitigated disaster. The Islanders were only better on paper if you subscribe to the theory of young player maturation, and even then it was a crapshoot. The failure to get the No. 1 goalie, solid defenseman and finisher for the top line loomed large all season, even though Snow, at Wang’s urging, pulled off the daring-yet-not-well-thought-out trade for sniper Thomas Vanek.
Odds are, when July 1 rolls around this time the Islanders will have the same needs they had a year previous, barring pre-free agency trades, including one that has been discussed ad nauseam online and revolves around a certain goaltender up in Toronto who is being run out of town.
But in the event the Islanders don’t trade for a guy like James Reimer to be their No. 1 goalie next season, they have literally no choice but to get someone better than aging Evgeni Nabokov and the mostly lackluster combination of Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson. If that means paying top dollar or more on the open market for a Jaroslav Halak or Jonas Hiller, it simply has to be done.
Nabokov, who will soon be 39, makes a lot of sense as the backup next season, for he proved he can still be solid for short stretches. But will Nabokov accept probably a massive cut in pay when he can test the open market? I’d certainly let him do what he feels he must, but the odds of him landing a starting gig are long.
However, if no trades are made and the Islanders turn around one minute after free agency opens and announce yet again that Nabokov has been re-signed for another $3.25 million or so, the Internet could suffer a tragic meltdown and never be seen again.
While goaltending remains the overall glaring need, the Isles will also have to address their defensive corps, and that’s regardless of presumed can’t-miss guys like Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock being extremely close to NHL-ready.
The Isles had one of the worst defenses in the league as far as goals allowed goes, and it was not all because of the men in net. This team has puck-moving defensemen, but lack a veteran stay-at-home type who can make life easier for whomever the goaltenders end up being. These guys are probably the hardest to find because they are rarely traded and usually command insane dollars on the open market. Making matters worse is the fact that there will be scant few available this summer in free agency, assuming a guy like Brooks Orpik, among others, does little for you.
If there is a sort of saving grace, I believe the Isles should not be in desperation mode for that top-line wing. Why? Because after they sign restricted free agent Anders Lee to a fair deal they will have one. Lee has shown enough with his rough-and-tumble, power-forward play to warrant at least an extended look alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.
What’s more, the development of players like Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome has resulted in them now being considered not only mainstays with the big club, but players that should be counted on going forward for significant production. Add those five players to a group consisting of Frans Nielsen, who is coming off the best season of his life, enigmatic-yet-dangerous Michael Grabner and antagonistic Cal Clutterbuck, and the Isles have basically three lines that should be counted on night after night.
The fourth line could very well go back to being what has worked in the past — Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald.
As for disappointing Josh Bailey, he of the eight goals in 77 games, he will remain the fans’ whipping boy until he proves that he’s more than a garbage-time assist man. It will end when he not only starts shooting more and showing off his vast repertoire of skills with actual production, but also when he starts showing something resembling consistency.
Obviously, if the Isles are to make trades this summer, Bailey’s name is the first that comes to mind, but between his horrid season and inflated contract — he’s due $3.3 million for each of the next four seasons — he likely has a lot less value than other players’ teams could target. What’s more, if you have learned anything about the Islanders over the last seven years, they do not give up on young talent. And since Bailey is 24, I’d be shocked if Snow moves him.
Now as far as Capuano is concerned, by bringing him back Snow is doing two things. First, he’s acknowledging that the overall disappointment of the 2013-14 season was more the failures of the front office than it was any one shortcoming in the coach’s approach. Second, Snow is rewarding Capuano for taking the mess that was on the veteran acquisition and injury fronts and moving the kids along at a pace that likely means far less of an overhaul than previously thought necessary. The fact remains that Capuano knows how to develop young players. The improvement shown by guys like Lee, Nelson, Strome, and defensemen Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey shows for every bad apple like Bailey, there’s a bunch who grab the reins.
However, if Snow does his job and brings in the help that is needed this summer — which will remain a big if due to the stigma that seems to follow the Islanders around — the pressure will be on Capuano to show that he’s more than a molder of young players. If the Isles get the goalie and the defenseman, coupled with the return of Tavares from injury and all of the other young players showing that they are ready, this coach is going to have to get results — immediately.
If the Isles play .500 in October and then even begin to show a hint of going south yet again in November, Capuano should be shown the door.
The nonsense level has reached ludicrous speed with this franchise. It’s time to act on many levels. It’s time to overpay if the player is viewed as a difference-maker. It’s time to trade young assets to get know-how veterans who will take this team to the next level.
It’s just time.
If the idea is to hit Brooklyn running with purpose, there’s simply no time left to waste.
And waste is a lot of what the Islanders have produced for far too long.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter @GreenLanternJet
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