Jack Capuano: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

It’s good to root for the New York Islanders now.  The team is humming along at 19-7-0, atop the Metropolitan Division, one point off the top of the league.  Even the most optimistic of Islander fans could not have predicted this tear the team has been on.  It’s been a fun two-month ride to start the season, a feeling that has been absent all too often in recent years.

While people have (rightfully) given large amounts of credit for their success to new-comers like Jaroslav Halak, Nick Leddy, and Johnny Boychuk, is it time to finally give coach Jack Capuano (or Cappy, as he's affectionately known) a little love?

It’s no secret that Capuano was not the first choice of coaches most Islander fans wanted behind the bench when the season began.  While he couldn’t be blamed for the roster he was given, Capuano didn’t do himself any favors with his obsessive use of the fourth line, questionable lineup decisions, his neglect of timeouts, or the team’s penchant for blowing third period leads in previous seasons.  Couple those items with his cartoonish appearance and most non-hockey fans would have pegged him as a guy who collects debts for a bookie than a hockey coach.

Despite this, general manager Garth Snow demonstrated extreme patience with Capuano, tacitly acknowledging that he wasn’t giving his main chef the proper ingredients to cook with.  However, so far he has been rewarded for sticking with Capuano where most believed a change was necessary.

Yes, no coach would be a “good” coach if he didn’t have quality players surrounding him, and it’s fair to say most would admit that as well.  Whereas last year the goaltending, defense, and forward depth was questionable at best, this year’s team has been bolstered with quality from outside the organization to pair with the development of the team’s younger players.  No doubt this has been the biggest reason for Capuano’s new found success.

But is it fair to say that’s the only thing?  Last season the team won a shockingly pathetic 55.6% of the games it led after two period, worst in the league.  To gauge how terrible that was, the difference between the Islanders win percentage and the Sabres (66.7%) who were 29th in the league was greater than the difference between the team with the best winning percentage after two periods and the 19th best squad.  Suffice to say, the team was horrific in those situations, surely a sign the talent was subpar, but also a sign that the coaching staff struggled to make adjustments when they were most likely needed. 

This season though?  The team is winning these games at a cool 100% clip.   In case you aren’t a math major, that means they haven’t lost yet.  Personnel changes helping?  Absolutely.  Better coaching and adjustments?  No question.

The team defense and possession overall has been better this year as well.  Whether you enjoy advanced stats (52.9 CF%, 54.7 FF% at five on five, both among league leaders) or more traditional stats (28.1 shots allowed per game, eighth best in league), the team defense has improved drastically, and it goes beyond the new acquisitions.  All five guys on the ice are buying into the defensive structure and the results have led to a significant decrease in goals allowed.  The team isn’t perfect, but it keeps improving. 

Capuano has also been better with his lineup decisions.  Yes, there was no reason to start Cory Conacher on the top line this year with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.  But he learned, and quickly ended the experiment as Conacher was moved down to the fourth line and eventually, the press box.  He has formed a “kid” line with Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee that has been arguably the team’s best over the past few weeks in the offensive zone.  He sent Brian Strait to the press box, although he’s been in the lineup recently due to injuries.  It’s taken Cappy until his fourth full season (fifth overall), but it finally appears like he has learned from his previous mistakes and is doing a better job overall of putting his players in a position to succeed.

Listen, no one is going to confuse him with Al Arbour (although Cappy is the second most successful coach in team history, sadly enough).  But at this current time, with the team playing as well as anyone in the league and receiving contributions from everyone, it’s tough to argue he isn’t the right choice for this current group.  There is plenty of room for improvement, especially with special teams, but it’s fair to assume that the units will improve as the players continue to play with each other and get healthy. 

There’s still plenty of season left, but Cappy has held the team together so far.  Their 11-3 record in November was a far cry from year’s past when they would routinely endure nine or ten game losing streaks.   Considering they were a combined 9-24-6 in their previous three November’s, the team had to have been hearing the whispers after they dropped a game on November 1st.  While many fans began to feel sick over what would occur, the team proceeded to play its best hockey.  It’d be unfair to suggest that this was all in spite of Cappy.  While I have been critical of him in the past, I also have to give credit when it’s deserved.  And right now, it’s well deserved.

It’s an odd time in Islander-land.  Where us fans used to have plenty to complain about, that well has dried up significantly early this season.  And while we all laughed at Cappy in the past for his coaching ability, his hair, the superstitious tie, and everything else one can imagine, he very well may get the last laugh.  Time to give the man his due.

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and be sure to follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.