While it may be tough for some fans to admit, the time has come to give some respect to New York Islanders head coach Jack Capuano. While nobody is going to confuse Cappy with Scotty Bowman or Al Arbour just yet, his list of accomplishments continues to grow and he has shown himself to be the right man to lead this team.
Capuano’s resume is becoming more impressive. Among his accomplishments:
He has become the first coach since the dynasty years to lead the Islanders to back-to-back 100-point seasons.
He has led the Islanders to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. The only time the team missed the playoffs during that time, captain John Tavares and several other key players missed significant time due to injuries.
He led the Islanders to a playoff series win, something the franchise hadn’t accomplished in 23 years. Since then, well known coaches like Peter Laviolette, Butch Goring, Mike Milbury and Ted Nolan have tried and failed to win a playoff round. Capuano did.
Capuano has been able to lead the team through some difficult times. Since he took over behind the Islanders’ bench early in the 2010-11 season, the Islanders have endured arena issues, ownership that spent barely over the salary cap floor, career-ending injuries to the team’s franchise goalie and a move to a new home. Through it all, he’s remained dedicated to his players and his philosophy.
Throughout his tenure on Long Island, the one constant has been that the players have bought into Capuano’s system. Very often, the answers the players give to reporters’ questions after games echo their coach’s.
Capuano always says his team needs to play “a certain way” to be successful, and that way is to run his system, use their speed and pressure the puck. It takes all 20 players to be on the same page. While the team struggled at times this season, they finished strong despite losing starting goalie Jaroslav Halak for the final two months of the season and starting the playoffs without Halak and forward Anders Lee.
He likes to let the leaders in his locker room lead. Whether it’s Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy or Cal Clutterbuck, Capuano likes to put his leaders out front and let them influence the locker room. He knows, for example, that Tavares will lead by example and doesn’t try to make him into a vocal, rah-rah type, which doesn’t really fit his personality.
Capuano rarely promotes himself, instead giving credit to his players and assistants. After a video review overturned a goal that would have put the Panthers up 3-0 in Game 3 of the series, he gave credit to an assistant coach in the press box. When special teams are clicking, he credits assistant Doug Weight. When players perform well after they are called up from Bridgeport, he credits the Sound Tigers coaching staff.
After the Islanders eliminated the Panthers, again, Capuano was quick to deflect attention away from himself when he was asked what the victory meant to him.
“That’s what coaching and teaching is all about, watching your players grow and succeed,” Capuano said. “You try and guide them in the right way, with the right framework. I think our guys have done that. We’ve gone through so much that for me what it means is that the guys battled. The last two months of the season we lost a lot of players, and it didn’t matter who we put in the lineup, they found a way.”
Capuano isn’t afraid to make lineup changes. When his team is struggling, he mixes up the lines mid-game. If something isn’t working, he’ll adjust and change things up. For example, early in the series with Florida, he put together a line of John Tavares, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo in an attempt to generate offense. While the top trio was productive, it left the team without scoring depth, a problem the Islanders have struggled with all season. So, mid-series, Capuano moved Nielsen back to center and moved Alan Quine alongside Tavares and Okposo. Quine performed well on the top line while putting Nielsen back on the second line gave the lineup some more balance.
Most importantly, the Islanders never quit under Capuano. Even if they get off to poor starts or have the occasional bad period, they put forth a strong effort and often came back to win or force overtime during the regular season. In fact, the playoff series against Florida, the Panthers scored first in five of the six games of the series but the Islanders came back to win four of those games and advance.
Fans tend to be critical of coaches while they are behind the bench and social media has been filled with people questioning Capuano’s moves, his lineups, line combinations and overall coaching ability. Yet, it is likely fans won’t fully appreciate Capuano until he’s gone.
Right now, Capuano has accomplished more than any other coach the Isles have had since the legendary Al Arbour. If the Isles find a way to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the next round, he and the team will part of something special. And he’s not done yet.