Snow, Capuano and a Slow Rebuild Paying Off For the New York Islanders

Only six current NHL head coaches have been in their current position for more than four years. More than half of the other 24 have been hired in the past two seasons. Meanwhile, 17 NHL general managers have been in their positions for less than five years. Only eight were hired more than nine years ago. The NHL is a win-now league. Excuses are rarely made for coaches or GMs when evaluating performance and the “axe” is rarely far away. That is why the approach that the New York Islanders have adopted is impressive. 

Among the six longest tenured NHL head coaches, and among the nine longest serving are Islanders’ duo Jack Capuano and Garth Snow; in spite of the fact that the Long Island franchise has made the playoffs just twice in the past eight seasons, and each time they were an eighth seed and got bounced out of the first round. There are now signs that the franchise’s patient approach is paying off. The Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan division 50 games into the 2014-15 season.

The team’s roster is highlighted by the emergence of an exceptionally talented young core including; John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Travis Hamonic, Calvin De Haan and Thomas Hickey. A dynamic and deep offense has been at the core of New York’s success; they rank fourth in the NHL averaging 3.08 goals per game.

For all the credit that the players get (and deserve) and for all the importance that building a strong core has been given. Perhaps of equal importance has been the willingness and trust that the Islanders have shown in their GM and head coach. It goes against current trends in the NHL and professional sports in general, and it is starting to reap clear rewards.

Head coach Capuano deserves a lot of credit for the growth of this team’s young players. Capuano first joined the Islanders’ organization for the 2005-06 season as an assistant coach. He would find his way to the team’s AHL affiliate’s (Bridgeport Sound Tigers) head coaching role before replacing Scott Gordon in New York early in the 2010-11 season. His record since (shown below) is one that few coaches could survive.

Year
Games
Wins
Losses
OT/SO
Finish
Playoffs
2010-11
65
26
29
10
5th Atlantic
DNQ
2011-12
82
34
37
11
5th Atlantic
DNQ
2012-13
48
24
17
7
3rd Atlantic
Lost 1st round
2013-14
82
34
37
11
8th Metropolitan
DNQ

Despite starting 2014-15 with a career NHL coaching record below .500, Capuano is in elite company in terms of the league’s longest tenured coaches. Only Dave Tippett (Phoenix/Arizona), Todd McLellan (San Jose), Joel Quenneville (Chicago), Claude Julien (Boston) and Mike Babcock (Detroit) had been with their respective teams for longer. Quenneville, Babcock and Julien have all won Stanley Cups, Tippett has helped to keep the Phoenix/Arizona franchise alive, while McLellan has a fantastic regular season record in San Jose. In fact, Capuano is one of only three current NHL head coaches with a career record below .500 (before start of 2014-15).

The reality is that Capuano’s coaching record is a reflection of Islanders’ rosters that have lacked balance and depth. He has played a critical role in balancing team competitiveness with the development of emerging young stars like Strome, Lee and Nelson. He also deserves credit for the long-term development of players like Okposo and Josh Bailey, who many coaches would have given up on after indifferent starts to their careers.

Capuano has found the balance between holding players accountable for mistakes and not throwing players under the bus. He has protected his developing roster from criticism during the longer losing streaks and has successfully played the delicate development-balancing act. The fruits of that labor are clearly seen in this season’s line-up.

The 48-year old’s success has come while implementing an offensive-minded system that relies upon fore-checking, physical play and a fast-moving skating game. Capuano’s style has grown as a head coach and Islanders’ fans can be pleased that he is clearly not satisfied with his team’s position. Puck management and the team’s play away from the puck are still of particular concern.

Capuano has been afforded a patience that is rare in the NHL. Credit goes to GM Garth Snow on that count. He has treated his bench boss with fairness and shown faith in a coach who he trusts and believes in.

The former NHL goaltender, Snow, is also in some pretty impressive company when it comes to length of time on the job. Only Lou Lamoreillo, Ken Holland, David Poile, Glen Sather, Doug Wilson, Dean Lombardi and Peter Chiarelli have held their roles for longer. Chiarelli and Lombardi each have recent Stanley Cup victories, Holland and Lamoriello have marshaled dynasty eras for their respective franchises, Poile is the only GM Nashville has known, while Sather and Wilson have built teams that have enjoyed impressive levels of regular season success.

Snow hung up the skates after 11 NHL seasons spent with the Flyers, Canucks, Penguins and eventually the Islanders. He retired after the 2005-06 season and moved straight into the front office as Islanders’ GM. It wasn’t long before Snow realized that New York’s “other franchise” needed a full rebuild. Snow has stuck to his guns and stayed loyal to the organization’s top prospects. It has worked well. A long-term vision and plenty of high draft picks are a big part of today’s success.

Not only is the NHL roster loaded with young, promising talent already proving its worth at the top level, but the Islanders also possess one of the more impressive prospect pools in the league. In particular, there is a healthy stock of defensemen including Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech.

Of course there have been mistakes made during Snow’s stint as well, the Thomas Vanek debacle being a good example. At times the vision in terms of building veteran talent into the team has been confusing. This season’s success can also be attributed to Snow’s ability to finally get that talent balance right adding Jaroslav Halak in net, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy to the blue-line, and Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin to the forward group.

It’s worth remembering that Snow inherited a team that had suffered from years of mismanagement. His predecessor’s (Mike Milbury) spell in charge had been characterized by a lack of patience and over commitment to winning as soon as possible. It didn’t work as New York managed to reach the playoffs just three times between 1995 and 2006, losing in the first round each time. It is famously a period where the Islanders traded away talents such as Zdeno Chara, Roberto Luongo, Olli Jokinen, Sami Salo, Bryan McCabe and Todd Bertuzzi. The prospect cupboard was also left bare.

After 43 years playing at the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders will make their way to a new home, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, starting in September. It’s an exciting time for a franchise that has an opportunity to exploit a new market and, the combination of Snow and Capuano should ensure that the new era begins on a high. Perhaps a fan base damaged by years of mismanagement and a lack of competitiveness can allow themselves to hope for their Islanders again. Maybe a few other franchises could learn from the Isles example.