By Jeff Capellini
Garth Snow has spent the last five months building the Islanders like he’s filling an arc.
The long-beleaguered general manager has added two of just about everything during his quest to put a playoff-ready team on the ice for what is sure to be an emotional final season for the franchise at Nassau Coliseum before next season’s voyage to Brooklyn.
There’s really no arguing the job he’s done as the Isles head into their season opener Friday night in Carolina with the talent and depth to make a serious run in the Metropolitan Division. It’s amazing that they are finally in this position. But it’s a credit to Snow for ignoring his many critics, sticking to his plan and — more importantly — sticking to the timetable he set to execute the plan.
As a result, the question now has more to do with head coach Jack Capuano’s ability to handle prosperity. He’s going to be expected to not only make the playoffs, but guide the Islanders to their first playoff series victory since 1993.
While not exceptional in any one area, the Islanders’ roster is, if nothing else, solid and deep from top to bottom. The problems of the past, and you know them as well as I, will likely be hardly a bother this time around.
It’s a far cry from what Capuano is used to.
I readily admit that I’ve been an apologist of sorts for Capuano over the years, because it just seems like fans’ frustration with ownership was the real reason why there was so much anger during his first four seasons on the bench. The Islanders really didn’t start getting equipped to win games until this past offseason. Before then it was mostly a case of rolling out young player after young player, taking low-end risks on the waiver wire and praying a 30-something veteran in desperate need of a job still had some gas left in the tank. I’m sorry, but no coach — perhaps not even the great Al Arbour himself — was winning with those types of rosters.
Due to clear financial concerns surrounding the Coliseum and its absurd lease, owner Charles Wang didn’t spend for a long time. A few seasons ago he started loosening the purse strings a little bit and gradually the Isles went from doing nothing during free agency to getting rejected during free agency, which for them was big-time progress.
But it wasn’t until this past summer — following an extremely disappointing season that was set up for failure during the previous offseason and then exacerbated by daring-yet-failed in-season maneuvers (See: Vanek, Thomas) — that the hockey gods finally decided Snow had served his time for whatever penalties he had committed earlier in his life.
The Islanders started hearing the word “yes” from actual free agents with talent. This shocking turn of events coincided, ironically, with Wang agreeing to sell the team after it was learned that Barclays Center would be guaranteeing the club some unbelievable sum of revenue on a yearly basis.
It was like the Islanders fan had won the lottery after years of getting his butt kicked and his lunch money stolen on the playground. It was hard to fathom, because fans of this franchise had grown accustomed to not being allowed to have nice things.
But there was Snow — following up his trading for and then signing of goaltender Jaroslav Halak — with the additions of goalie Chad Johnson and two productive forwards in Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin by the end of the second full day of free agency. The fan base was fairly ecstatic at that point, but it became apparent that the defense, which was among the worst in the NHL last season, wasn’t going to fix itself.
Snow waited and waited for the salary-cap situations of several teams to come into focus. Then, with the Isles strongly considering starting the season with several kids rotating on their blue line, he struck two deals that may ultimately determine where the Islanders end up this season. He hijacked Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy in a pair of trades that may one day result in a proclamation making Oct. 4 a national sports holiday on Long Island.
Now it’s on Capuano.
He’s got a healthy superstar in John Tavares, possibly a point-per-game player in Kyle Okposo and maybe the best center depth in the division, meaning he can roll four lines with impunity. Secondary scoring, long a problem for this team, was likely solved when Snow signed Grabovski and Kulemin to complement several talented kids who appear ready to take that next step. He now has three solid defense pairings and two goalies that would have been good for five to seven more wins before the trades for Boychuk and Leddy were even a thought in Snow’s mind.
But what Capuano does with this windfall will remain the question.
As I said earlier, putting demands on him over his first couple of seasons was unfair because the talent level he had to work with just wasn’t acceptable. But last season all bets seemed to be off. His critics acknowledged that the defense and goaltending were woefully substandard, but they still felt that — had Capuano excelled in certain areas — the Islanders could have been better than the club that missed the playoffs a season after making the postseason for the first time in six years. I don’t necessarily agree, but in fairness it would be wrong to not at least look at the complaints.
Capuano took hits over his defensive philosophies, mostly the matchups he employed, and the over-aggressiveness of pinching defensemen. He was also ripped for his use of goaltenders, because he either stuck with one too long or not long enough. I saw a lot of people upset with the ice time — or lack thereof — given to some younger players, with the common complaint on Twitter being something like: “How will we ever know what these guys are if they aren’t given the opportunity to show us what they have?”
And the criticisms didn’t stop there. He was taken to task over his use of timeouts, his juggling of lines and his postgame press conferences, which became somewhat Bill Belichick-esque, depending on who you talk to.
Was Capuano the perfect coach during the painful stages of the rebuild? No. But find me one who would have been. The Islanders went through some really dark times, but they got through them by sticking to their core philosophy of the draft and development. They then, perhaps later than some would have liked, started augmenting the roster by dealing from strength and spending some money.
The end result is a 2014-15 roster that may very well go a long way toward easing some of the pain of the last 20 years.
But Capuano likely will not be given an entire season to prove himself should the Islanders do what they’ve done in the past, namely disappear for long stretches before the New Year. If another November swoon derails another season, Capuano could find himself looking for a job over the holidays, and no one will feel sorry for him. That explains the hiring of assistant Greg Cronin, who enjoyed success as the head man at the Islanders’ affiliate at Bridgeport and Northeastern University before spending the last few seasons with the Maple Leafs as an assistant.
If Capuano doesn’t get it done, odds are Cronin would be the fallback option, should the Isles choose to stay in-house.
Maybe Jack Capuano has taken the Islanders as far as he can. We’re going to find out. The truth is he has the best roster of his professional coaching life; finally a little margin for error, but certainly no room for excuses. It’s now on him to take this once-great franchise back to the next level.
A place that once upon a time defined the Islanders.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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