By Daniel Friedman
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The Islanders are 4-1-1 and in the midst of a four-game winning streak.
They’ve scored 18 goals in that span and have beaten some real solid teams (Predators, Sharks and Jets). They lit up superstar goalie Pekka Rinne like a Christmas tree. They put the final nail in Todd Richards’ coffin before he was ousted as Columbus’s bench boss and replaced by John Tortorella.
Both Nashville and Winnipeg were previously unbeaten before coming into Brooklyn. San Jose is atop the Pacific Division right now and was defeated pretty soundly.
I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing Jack Capuano, but I must say, there are things he deserves some credit for here in the early going.
The team has had to make a transition to a new arena and a new environment. Players have had to embrace new routines and get used to the rink at Barclays Center. He’s held this group together, to his credit.
In fact, he’s kept the Islanders together through all of the arena-related distractions and controversy over the years, both at Nassau County and in Brooklyn.
That’s not something to disregard; it’s a bigger deal than people think. Sure, these players are professionals, but they’re also humans. They’re not robots. Nobody likes playing in front of sparse crowds and people worry about certain things when moving somewhere new.
The Islanders have gotten better on faceoffs, which means they’ve been working on it (and they needed to). Currently, they rank third in the NHL in faceoff win-percentage (53.4 percent). Last season, they finished 18th, and were 26th the season before that.
The forward lines look good, and I’ve always said I like Capuano’s offensive systems because I think they suit this team perfectly — making good use of the abundance of speed and playmaking forwards on the roster.
He’s asked for more secondary scoring and his players have responded. Brock Nelson has five points, Nikolay Kulemin has four. Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Mikhail Grabovski have pitched in. As a result, the Islanders have averaged 3.50 goals per game (fourth-best in the NHL).
I like that he was even-keeled after the win against Nashville.
“We didn’t play extremely well,” he said. “At the end of the day, our goalie made some big saves when he had to.”
This was a welcome change from the norm, considering he’s been known to say something to the effect of “I think we played pretty well” after 6-2 losses in the past.
Now, this is not to suggest that Capuano is suddenly the right coach for the Islanders. I haven’t changed my stance and still do believe he should’ve been replaced. I also think he needs to prove that he’s turned the corner for much longer than six games.
That said, I respect some of the things he’s done here and have to give credit where it’s due.
Still, there are questions surrounding Capuano. Can he step up and adjust in big moments, especially in the playoffs? The lines are good now, but will he tinker with them too much, as he’s shown tendency to do?
I still don’t love his in-game management and response to situations, though his comments about the coach’s challenge seem to echo what I’ve heard throughout the league — it was the video coach that made the decision, it was the last five minutes of the game so we might as well do it, etc. Like other coaches, he’s still trying to figure this new thing out, too. It’ll take time.
Hopefully he’s better at it than he is at calling timeouts when he should, because that’s been an issue in the past. We’ll see if that’s still the case going forward.
I also think he’s fiercely loyal to his players, which is generally a good thing, but can sometimes backfire.
I can’t criticize him for going with Brian Strait while Thomas Hickey was out of the lineup. I understand why he didn’t want to start Ryan Pulock on his opposite side, though maybe I would’ve tried to get him in the lineup once or twice.
I also wouldn’t have kept Pulock up here just to be a placeholder, but maybe they see value in having him practice with the team since they plan on having him up here at some point this season.
It wasn’t the end of the world, but you tend to look at it a certain way since we’ve seen Capuano make mistakes with other young players in the past.
The communication could’ve been better. I wish he would’ve just come out and said something to the affect of “we have Pulock up here because we just want him to get some exposure to our practices and get used to practicing with these players, and then we’re gonna send him back down as soon as Hickey is ready to go,” though he had no obligation to do so.
If someone on Pulock’s side gets injured and they bring him up but still scratch him, that’s when you’ll know there’s an issue with Capuano here. But for now, I’ll give him a pass.
For a seventh defenseman, Strait played the way you’d expect any seventh defenseman to play. Considering his role, he played the part — he was okay and made some mistakes. He’s a healthy scratch by trade; he’s not supposed to be good.
There’s plenty of hockey left and I still have my doubts about Capuano, but he’s here and he’s done some good things in the early going. This is likely his last chance to prove he can get the Islanders across the finish line, so that’ll have to continue.
Let’s see what he’s got.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI