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.
5th Atlantic
5th Atlantic
3rd Atlantic
Lost 1st round
8th Metropolitan
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.

Richards Demoted, What’s Wrong With The Los Angeles Kings?

Mike Richards is 29 years old. He has two Stanley Cup rings, captained another team to a Finals appearance and has four 60+ point NHL seasons. He has engraved his name as an integral part of the history of two franchises. Despite all of that, Mike Richards will be suiting up for the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs this weekend after passing through waivers unclaimed on Tuesday. His fall serves as just another example that professional sports can be a brutal business. It also shows that the defending champion Los Angeles Kings have lost patience with an under-performing veteran and a roster that has looked sluggish in the first half of this season.
Kings’ GM Dean Lombardi broke it down with a baseball batting average analogy, but for a player like Richards, you can bet passing through waivers unclaimed was emotional and personal. The Kenora, Ontario native has long had a reputation for being a fierce leader who leaves everything out on the ice. It’s why the Philadelphia Flyers signed him to a 12-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.75m and then appointed him as captain in 2008.
Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren decided at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft that his then-captain was not indispensable. He dealt Richards to LA as a part of the cap clearance required to acquire goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.
Richards hasn’t been the same player offensively since his trade to the Kings, but his leadership, experience and all-round game have undoubtedly been a valuable part of the their recent postseason success.
Even offensively, where a best performance of 12 goals and 32 points in 48 games during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season is underwhelming, it felt like Richards was always able to step up his game when it was needed most. He had 15 points in 20 games during the Stanley Cup winning 2012 playoff run and he grabbed 12 points in 15 games in 2013 when the Kings fell to the Blackhawks in the Western conference finals. Even last season, Richards’ playoff performance playing with the team’s younger forwards was a factor in a second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons.
Richards’ NHL career should not be over, let’s be clear about that, but the lack of a waiver pickup is an indication that his length of contract and cap hit are not desirable for what teams believe he can offer.
His offensive production, which had been pretty consistent in Philadelphia where reeled off seasons of 75, 80, 62 and 66 points, has taken an understandable hit in the defense first, second and third system run by Darryl Sutter. However, an 11-goal season followed by just 15 points in the first 47 games in 2014-15 is representative of a player in decline.
It’s not just his offensive game that has suffered though. Richards hasn’t been the same two-way force, losing more board battles and clearly lacking a skating step that he once had. He has always played a North-South style relying upon his physical attributes at both ends of the ice.
It’s possible that the concussions suffered during his career are now slowing Richards down, or that the effect of 61 playoff games over the last three seasons is finally taking a toll (though there are a few Kings’ players who have experienced the same). It’s probable that if Richards only had one or two years left on his contract he would have been claimed off of waivers. He may not have even been sent down if his cap hit was $2.75m rather than $5.75m.
As much as leadership, experience and a terrific package of intangibles make Mike Richards a valuable player, they don’t add up to $5.75 million. Teams aren’t likely to invest in the veteran center without believing that he’s capable of producing and playing a strong two-way game.
Lombardi might be ruing not taking his chance to buy out Richards’ contract last summer, a time when he could have done so with no salary cap repercussions. Richards may come to rue that decision as well. Wade Redden was demoted to the AHL by the New York Rangers in 2010 and didn’t return to the NHL until 2013, in part because of his hit against the cap. Richards’ contract doesn’t expire until the 2019-20 season.
Richards might be a “.280 batter hitting only .200”, but the Kings look like an ace whose lost 5 mph off his fastball. LA trails Calgary and Vancouver by one point for the final Wildcard spot and third place in the Pacific division. They stumbled into the All-Star break going 3-4-5 post Christmas.
For all of the discussion of Richards and his lack of offensive contributions over the past few days, LA’s biggest problem this season hasn’t been a lack of goal scoring. Sutter’s team has struggled to play the tight and physical game that they perfected on three consecutive playoff runs. The numbers offer a pretty clear indication that this team is no longer doing what it previously did best. The table below shows LA’s regular season goals per game and goals against per game and how they ranked over the past four years.
NHL Rank
NHL Rank
Ranking 12th in terms of goals conceded per game is hardly a disaster. However, it’s significant in relation to the identity of the Kings. The two years in which they won the Stanley Cup, they entered the postseason as the eighth and sixth seeds in the Western conference playoffs, but finished with the 2nd and best goals against average per game respectively.
This year has been a different story. It’s difficult to work out the precise reason for that drop.
Jonathan Quick, a somewhat difficult goaltender to assess at times, hasn’t been at his sharpest posting a mediocre .910 save percentage and 2.48 GAA. Quick faced some similar struggles after the 2012 Stanley Cup victory. He hasn’t been helped by a heavy workload enforced by a lack of full trust in Martin Jones and the team’s precarious position in the playoff race. Quick has produced his best hockey at the business end of the hockey season in the past and he’ll need to do the same again over the next few months for his team to enjoy success.
The blue line hasn’t been stable either. Matt Greene has clearly lost a step and Brayden McNabb has been guilty of a few too many breakdowns. Robyn Regehr has been in and out of the lineup recently. Slava Voynov’s suspension and ongoing legal difficulties are a major problem. Voynov played a vital role in the Kings’ transition and puck possession game. In his absence, Sutter has relied more heavily upon his top four and LA’s blue-line has looked a little flat-footed.  
The Kings are still in position to reach the playoffs. They’re chasing a young Flames lineup and a couple of unproven teams in the Canucks and Jets. However, if they are going to pull off another deep playoff run, they’ll need to re-discover that lockdown style and edge to their game. Lombardi’s demotion of Richards was brutal, he’ll hope that the rest of the roster starts playing with the brutality that they’ve shown in past years.
For Richards, the path back into another NHL playoff race is with the Monarchs. It’s a level of adversity that he hasn’t had to deal with before, but given his character and past achievements, it’d be dangerous to count Richards out from having an impact on this year’s playoff race.