By Stu Hackel
A new, albeit interim, NHL head coach steps behind the bench tonight when Jack Capuano guides the Islanders against the Lightning at Nassau Coliseum. But no matter GM Garth Snow’s stated goal for the season, you can’t expect this young, struggling squad to be transformed into a playoff team, not in the short term.
First off, who is this guy? Capuano was coach of the Isles’ AHL Bridgeport affiliate for the past four seasons and he coached in the ECHL prior to that. He’s done a credible job. All of his teams (save for one short stint as a late season replacement) finished better than .500 and most of them made the playoffs.
Justin Bourne, who played for Capuano in Bridgeport, wrote in USA Today that he’s “a happy, funny man to play for. You get the feeling that not only would he be a blast to go for drinks with, but he seems to be a really good person at his core. He speaks a lot about his family and generally makes you feel like a part of his.”
And that’s good, because after losing 10 straight, the guys who play for “Cappy” are going to need a few laughs.
Bourne warns that Capuano also is something of a snap artist who will be patient for a long time, but when he has had enough, he just goes off and the scene becomes “unrelenting chaos,” one in which “nobody could do any right…a markedly unique trait to find in a player’s coach.”
Of course, if Snow decides to hire a permanent head coach (Ken Hitchcock, Craig MacTavish, John Stevens and Michel Therrien are all available), the Isles may never get to see the snappy Cappy. But would any of those “name” coaches even want to come to the island? The perpetually mired and decidedly low-profile franchise is hardly a favored destination for solid, established talent.
And if all the Isles get to see is the happy Cappy, that certainly won’t hurt. The mood in their dressing room can’t be great. Scott Gordon was a demanding guy, and when teams change coaches, they often like to change the mood as well. You just can’t follow one disciplinarian with another — unless you’re the Calgary Flames, that outpost of NHL merriment.
As for how Capuano stacks up against other NHL coaches, Bourne calls him “capable, but I’m not sure that he matches up with the premier coaches out there.” One then suspects that he might have his hands full right out of the box against Tampa Bay’s Guy Boucher (who Michael Farber wrote about on SI.com last month).
How well Capuano manages the Isles’ bench, however, will be a moot point. It almost doesn’t matter who runs this team, at least in the short term. The Islanders’ talented players (mostly at forward) are still a bit too young and their mature players (mostly the defense corps) aren’t especially talented. It was a tribute to Gordon and these players that they were able to get off to a good start without their top defenseman, Mark Streit, and one of their top young forwards, Kyle Okposo — both are gone for extended periods due to shoulder surgery — but they were going to need everyone healthy to have even a fighting chance at a playoff spot this season.
Factor in some very leaky goaltending by Rick DiPietro (4.21 GAA and .854 save percentage) and it was inevitable that sometime in the first few months this club would embark on its seemingly annual swoon in which it drops a chunk of games in succession and falls out of sight in the standings.
The good news for the Isles is that they have more fine young talent in the pipeline — winger Nino Niederreiter (the fifth overall pick last June) and defenseman Calvin de Haan (12th overall in 2009) are the most highly-touted — but the bad news is that they are still trying to compete in this league with the lowest actual payroll of the 30 teams ($37,865,500 — making the cap floor of $43.4 million because they are still being charged $4,755,067 this year for buying out Alexei Yashin, and $1,333,333 for Brendan Witt). With the decrepit Coliseum only half to three-quarters filled for most games and no replacement in sight, owner Charles Wang isn’t going to be confused with the Steinbrenners any time soon.
But apart from Wang’s never-ending quest to put his team on a firmer financial foundation, the Islanders have been haunted by poor personnel decisions that date back to Mike Milbury’s error-filled tenure as GM — and it’s a ridiculously long list. Add a revolving door of coaches Capuano is the Isles’ eighth in the last 10 years) and GMs (Neil Smith lasted less than six weeks in 2006, departing amid a power struggle), Wang’s desire to erect the Lighthouse Project, a huge complex that includes a modern arena in an already congested and politically charged area, and the ongoing wrangling over the future of the club on Long Island, and you’ve got one very substantial mess that changing coaches yet again isn’t going to resolve any time soon. But at least the mood will be lighter in the dressing room … for a while at least.
Still, one can hear the sound of a clock — or is that a time bomb? — ticking.
Dean Warren, the former referee whose Ontario Labor Relations Board case had Campbell’s damaging e-mails as evidence, is now appealing the OLRB ruling against him in court, Robert Crib of The Toronto Star reports.
A tough day for the Senators. They attended this morning’s memorial service for Daron Richardson. The 14-year-old daughter of assistant coach Luke Richardson committed suicide on Saturday, and now they have to regroup, get on a flight and head south to play Carolina tonight.
And finally: He’s 40 years old, but timeless Nick Lidstrom is tied for the scoring lead among NHL defenseman. John Niyo in The Detroit News has a good piece on the Red Wings captain today. “The worst thing you can say about him, I suppose, is he’s not still the best defenseman in the NHL,” writes Niyo. “Yet a month into his 19th season with the Red Wings, finding someone to say that is harder than you’d think. And it’s next to impossible if you ask the people who work with him. ‘Well, I think he is,’ general manager Ken Holland said. ‘I watch him every night, and I’m biased. But I had that same conversation with Steve Yzerman yesterday, and Steve Yzerman thinks the same thing.’”