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Analyzing the firing of Jack Capuano as New York Islanders head coach

Jack Capuano (Getty Images)

Jack Capuano (Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Islanders announced that Jack Capuano has been relieved of his duties as head coach. Assistant General Manager and Assistant Coach Doug Weight will step in as Interim Head Coach.

Capuano was in the middle of his seventh season as the Isles’ head coach, a job that started as an interim position early in the 2010-11 campaign. In 482 games as coach, Capuano had a record of 227-192-64. “Cappy” coached the Islanders to two consecutive 100-point seasons (2014-15 and 2015-16) as well as leading the squad to its first playoff series win since 1993. Capuano is second all-time for games coached and wins (227) for the Islanders, behind only Al Arbor.

The firing of Jack Capuano comes the day after the Isles shutout the Bruins in Boston 4-0, the first time the franchise was able to shut out the Bruins in Boston. Capuano has had problems all season trying to find the right line combinations after the losses of Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin to the free agency market. While General Manager Garth Snow signed Andrew Ladd to replace Okposo on the top line with John Tavares, the move simply did not work out, as Ladd has been shuffled all season long to find the right linemates. Despite the troubles the Islanders face this season while in last place, the team is 17-17-8, a .500-record.

Firing Jack Capuano does not solve a thing. Relieving Cappy of his duties does not bring in an elite player to play alongside John Tavares; the move does not address the lack of a solid utility player like Frans Nielsen missing from the lineup, a guy who kills penalties, plays on the power play, and can be relied upon in all sorts of situations, and a guy who made the cut for the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles, CA. When push comes to shove, the moves (and the lack thereof) that Garth Snow made in the offseason are the reasons why the Islanders are struggling so badly this season.

Despite not being the perfect guy to play with Tavares, Okposo still established some good chemistry with the Isles’ captain – enough certainly to win a playoff series. While Snow made the right move in letting him walk for the price he commanded in Buffalo, Snow failed to adequately fill the void in Okposo’s absence. Whatever Nielsen makes in Detroit, Snow should have coughed-up the dough. Nielsen is worth every penny. Snow also failed to provide a sufficient substitute for the Danish forward.

Sure, relieving Mike Johnston of his duties as Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins worked wonders. Mike Sullivan was named Head Coach in December 2015, and the Penguins got hot and went on the win the Stanley Cup in 2016. Please also note the long list of talented players that wore a Penguins jersey last season. If you’re hoping a coaching change magically sends the Isles into playoff position, I’m afraid that will not be the case here.

Garth Snow provided Capuano with Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuck a couple of season ago. That was a great start. But let’s face it: these two defensemen are top-4, yes, but are not one and two for any perennial playoff squad (neither is Travis Hamonic or Thomas Hickey). Leddy and Boychuck have not met expectations on the man-advantage which ranks an abysmal 26th in the NHL at 13.6%. I have already bashed the power play set up for the Isles (December 8th article titled “Eastern Conference Remains a Tight Race; Plus More From Around the NHL”), and I will admit that some of this does fall on Capuano. However, as assistant coach, it was really Weight’s job to run an effective power play as such a job is generally reserved for assistant coaches. But, neither Weight nor Capuano had the correct tools to work with. Perhaps with the right players, the set up I despise could even thrive. And it has; back in 2011-12, the Isles ranked eighth on the man-advantage, and tied for tenth the following year. What changed? Mark Streit was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in June of 2013.

Garth Snow failed to replace Streit with another power play quarterback. The Isles’ man-advantage failed to rank above average ever since. Does this mean the Isles should never have gotten rid of Streit? That is not the case; Snow was building his team on youth with a couple of veterans with much left in the tank. Plus, it was time for Tavares to become the undisputed team Captain. But, once Streit was gone, Snow left a void on the power play that was never really quite filled.

We are seeing a pattern here. Garth Snow either trades a player or lets a player walk. Snow then fails to replace or substitute said player for another adequate option. And it’s happened since the Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek days. Snow fails to assemble a team with sufficient personnel at every position after key players leave. So what happens next? Well, he fires the coach, of course! Snow further added that the franchise had no plans to bring Capuano back after the expiration of his contract, anyway. Ouch!

Did Jack Capuano lose the room? Had the players stopped reacting to him? Did they lose respect for him? At some point, how many times can you yell at the same group that they needed to be better without improving the group itself? Regardless, the struggles of the Islanders had less to do with Jack Capuano and more to do with Snow’s inability to provide the coach with the proper players. I have applauded Snow for his ability to bring the Islanders out of the cellar and into the playoffs. However, it’s become evident that Snow does not have what it takes to maintain the squad as perennial playoff contenders. I find the decision to fire Jack Capuano misguided and diversionary to the real problems facing the Islanders. As per usual, the quick-fix, coaching-change strategy is deployed, all the while ignoring the very source of the problems: Garth Snow himself.

Capuano is a great hockey mind with a traditional hard-working, blue-collar attitude. I have no doubt that he will be back behind the bench soon enough. Nothing has been made public regarding where Capuano would be inclined to take another coaching position in the NHL as of yet. It’s probably too early for that. But, while Bruins’ Head Coach Claude Julien isn’t exactly on the hot seat today, should the Bruins begin to falter and fall in the standings, Julien’s job could be at risk. Capuano is from Rhode Island and speaks with a heavy New England-accent. This could be a good fit for Boston (the Canadiens require a coach who speaks both English and French; shouldn’t the Bruins implement a similar requirement?). Again, though, it is still entirely way too early to speculate where Capuano could end up.

There are some advantages to having Doug Weight as Interim Head Coach. First and foremost, the players are already familiar with him Weight. Second, Weight is a leader, as we have seen both on and off the ice. As a player, he was captain of the Edmonton Oilers and was an integral piece for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 to win the Stanley Cup, despite missing the last two games of the Finals. Weight was named the 12th captain for the New York Islanders in 2009. After injuries plagued the final seasons of his career in New York, upon announcing his retirement in May 2011, Weight was named assistant coach and special advisor to Garth Snow. He has essentially been helping lead the rebuilding squad since he was a player. The downside, however, is that Weight has no coaching experience aside from his role as assistant since 2011. Weight’s career is a sharp contrast to Capuano’s playing career. Capuano spent only a handful a games in the NHL. Time will tell how Weight fares in his new role, if he even coaches a game.

As per Elliotte Friedman via Twitter, apparently the Islanders have been granted permission to talk to former Panthers’ Head Coach, Gerard Gallant. Permission is required here as Gallant is still technically under contract with the Panthers’ organization. Gallant was relieved from his duties earlier this season. Gallant was the Panthers’ Head Coach when the Isles defeated the Panthers in seven games to earn their first playoff series win since 1993. While Gallant is regarded across the hockey community as a brilliant hockey mind, differences in philosophy and direction seem to be the reasons for his being relieved. Gallant was an assistant coach for the Islanders from 2007 to 2009 before becoming Head Coach for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. For the Sea Dogs, Gallant had an impressive 159-34-9 record. If this is true, this shows that Snow had already contemplated hiring Gallant as Head Coach.

In the meantime, if Garth Snow does not act this offseason to put together a playoff-contending squad, John Tavares is as good as gone. And who would blame him? The franchise is at the bottom of the barrel in the Eastern Conference. The Isles’ starting goaltender is now playing in the AHL midway through the season after a fantastic showing at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in September. Joshua Ho-Sang is apparently having issues again within the organization and Snow is evidently open to offers for one of the Isles’ most treasured prospects. The Las Vegas Expansion creates a fog of uncertainty across the NHL before the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and subsequent free agency frenzy. The future of the franchise is in question in terms of where they will call home in the next two or three years. With all of this turmoil, can Garth Snow convince prominent free agents to sign? If he can’t do that, can he really convince John Tavares to sign an extension before he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2018? How much does John Tavares enjoy living in the New York Metropolitan area?

Upon relieving Capuano of his duties, Snow relieved Capuano from the hot seat and effectively sat himself down, while a fire burns under his own derriere. Will Garth Snow be relieved of his duties as GM? If he will be, it likely won’t be until after the season is over. For now, we will look forward to the trade deadline and see what, if anything, Snow has in mind to prepare for the offseason and next season. Hopefully, he does not leave an irreparable void behind the bench as he has done with the players.

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Evan is the Hockey Editor for DoubleGSports.com. He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.

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