The Islanders made a coaching change yesterday, relieving Scott Gordon of his coaching duties and replacing him on an interim basis with Jack Capuano, who has been the coach of their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.
From the perspective of GM Garth Snow, this is a move that had to be made. The team is mired in an 0-9-1 slump and now has the worst record in the NHL. Some kind of a move was necessary even if the best the Isles can reasonably hope for is a brief spark due to the change at the helm.
It is quite unfair to lay the blame for the Islanders poor record at Scott Gordon’s feet. Gordon didn’t look like a future Hall of Famer behind the bench, but let’s face it: the problems the Islanders are having run much deeper than anything Gordon or anybody else could fix. It is doubtful any coach could make these Islander teams champions, not even Al Arbour, Toe Blake or Scotty Bowman. The problem doesn’t lie with strategy or motivation; it goes straight up to the ownership level.
The Islanders are in what feels like a permanent purgatory. The team hasn’t won a playoff round since 1993. Back then, Arbour was still the coach and Bill Clinton was just starting his first term as president. It doesn’t look like that statistic will be changing this year, either.
Right now, the problem is one that only the club’s owner, Charles Wang, can fix. It is completely true that Wang saved the franchise when he bought it. Without Wang, there would no longer be a New York Islanders, they would probably have moved long ago. But the team’s present situation can only be changed by Wang either selling the club or changing the way he presently operates it.
Wang has been trying to get a renovated Nassau Coliseum as part of the Lighthouse Project for almost 10 years. It would be a very lucrative deal for the Islanders owner and make up for the huge losses he has been hit with since taking control of the franchise. Right now, the Town of Hempstead has stalled the project and seriously trying to reduce its scope.
With the Lighthouse on hold, the Islanders are stuck in what seems to be a vicious cycle. The team is barely spending to the floor of the salary cap. With a losing team, an antiquated building and no big free-agent signings coming, there is little chance of bringing in big-ticket free agents and of a quick turnaround on the ice. Frustrated fans are keeping their distance. Attendance remains among the lowest in the league.
Wang started out trying to bring in higher-priced stars like Mike Peca, Alexei Yashin and Ryan Smyth, but Peca and Yashin didn’t play up to their salaries and Smyth refused to stay with the team despite being offered more money to do so. The strategy blew up in his face, more likely because of the specific players who were acquired by a certain former GM who will remain nameless [OK, Mike Milbury], rather than the soundness of the idea. So Wang has taken a lower-key approach to spending, at least until the Lighthouse is approved. This makes the Isles a “small market” club despite playing in the biggest media market in the country.
GM Garth Snow has done everything he can with this difficult situation. He has taken the only track available to him, build primarily through the draft and add a sprinkling of mid-level free agents who are willing to come to Long Island for whatever reason. There is little room for error in drafting or in the free agents they sign. And because they have little money to spend and can’t afford to make mistakes, the franchise has less depth than most of their NHL competition. That’s why the injuries that hit the team early this season can result in such a devastating losing streak.
Perhaps from a business standpoint, Wang’s current strategy of refusing to spend excess money on his team until he knows he can recoup his investment makes sense. No go-ahead on the Lighthouse, no high spending on his hockey team. But from a hockey standpoint, however — and perhaps from a long-term business perspective — putting a consistent winner on the ice might be the best thing he could do. That puts more fans in the seats, and gets the community behind the team and doing what needs to be done to keep the franchise on Long Island, which puts more pressure on local politicians.
Creating demand would be a good first step. Right now, the Isles still have their diehard fans, but even their patience is being tried after all these years. Investing in the Islanders may mean bigger losses in the short term, but more positive results over the long haul.
Right now, the Islanders are stuck on a treadmill. They won’t get off until the Lighthouse is built or the team is sold. A sale, however, may mean the end of the franchise’s stay on Long Island.
In the meantime, the Islanders have a new interim coach, the 12th since Arbour retired in 1994. Since then, they’ve made the playoffs only four times and have not won a round.
It’s a sad state for a once proud franchise and it’s one that will take more than a new coach to change.