Remember way back on October 21st, when the New York Islanders pushed their record to an impressive 4-1-2 despite the preseason losses of number one defenseman Mark Streit and top six forward Kyle Okposo? It sure was starting to look like the can-do Isles might stay on the periphery of the NHL playoff race throughout the 2010-11 campaign with a burgeoning young lineup featuring 2009 first overall pick John Tavares that had been bolstered by smart free agent additions such as former Ducks defenseman James Wisniewski.
Alas, those were the salad days for head coach Scott Gordon and the Islanders, which frankly seem like ages ago now. Gordon was fired today, to be replaced by on an interim basis by Bridgeport's Jack Capuano.
The Islanders' 0-9-1 record since that high water mark definitely looks ugly, no doubt. But fancy to take a guess at the combined record of New York's opposition over that stretch, which included five games against Division-leading teams? It's 98-57-11. Throw in the fact that eight of ten games were on the road as well, including a tough West Coast trip. In that light, though there were a few bad losses, consider that a full half of those contests were tied in the third period, games that could have gone either way. It was as much a stretch of bad luck as bad play, against tough opposition and under tough circumstances.
In fact, even before the Islanders suffered their first key injury this season, Hockey Prospectus 2010-11 expected New York to finish 28th in points, essentially the same as last season. So after losing Streit and Okposo, you could take at least ten goals and a few wins off of that projection, which would have placed the Islanders dead last in the NHL-incidentally right where they are now. It's hard to fault the head coach too much when that was what he was working with.
Many observers, like Dee Karl, Islanders writer at Hockey Buzz, were of the opinion that the first time head coach had been doing an outstanding job with rebuilding and teaching a young Islanders team:
"Scott Gordon was the most cerebral coach I have ever met. He took time with each player to go over their strengths and weaknesses in great video detail. He was always thinking. For those misguided media folks that felt he had no personality, I can say you just didn't know Scott Gordon. He is articulate and witty with an excellent sense of humor and a strong work ethic. In my opinion, his biggest flaw is the talent pool he has been left with due to devastating injury. Certainly a ten game losing streak requires a shake up, however I am not one that believes this move to AHL coach Jack Capuano, who runs the same system as Scott Gordon, is going to get the Islanders expected results of a team over .500."
Chris Hessel of NYI FYI echoed many of Karl's sentiments:
"I liked Scott, and understood what he was trying to do with his style. The Islanders had been transitioning into getting more and more players that fit in, and you could see some of those improvements last season. This season fell apart for a multitude of reasons, the biggest being the injuries…I do not agree with the firing of Gordon, but had a feeling that when the streak got to 10 games he was on the hot seat, regardless of chatter that stated otherwise. Quite simply, Gordon was not put in the best position to succeed given what he had to work with. The fact that he was left in a contract year without an extension was also very dangerous, and despite what's being said by the players I would not be surprised if deep down some tuned him out."
Even if New York's management had many of the same positive feelings towards Gordon as articulated by their media, it's understandable if the Islanders brass and ownership were thinking of a multitude of business consequences that could result from the long swoon. They must have worried about the prospects of soon playing to an empty building if a change was not made.
"I think the longer the losing streak went, the less choice Garth Snow had", surmised Brad Kurtzberg of Inside Hockey. "This was a desperate attempt to try to salvage this season before things got out of hand."
But don't worry about Scott Gordon. Hessel sees the talented young coach landing on his feet in the not too distant future:
"I think he'll get scooped up by someone further along in a rebuild than the Islanders are. He was named an assistant at the Olympics for a reason. Three years ago, the league was moving more towards hiring these younger coaches who had success at the lower levels such as Gordon, Guy Boucher, Cory Clouston and Scott Arniel and that is still going on."
As for the Islanders, perhaps Capuano can make a difference. "The familiarity with the players is certainly there, so perhaps he knows of certain ways to use guys that haven't been tried already", Hessel suggested. "The players also are familiar with the system, although from the sound of it Capuano seems to have a way of simplifying it...Time will tell if this move pays off and Capuano turns out to be a good one".
At the end of the day, regardless of owner Charles Wang's mandate to win now, the New York Islanders would have been much better off with a mindset of rebuilding for one more season. The team has many promising pieces that just need a little more time to develop, at the NHL, minor league and junior levels. Given the right moves, the Islanders certainly could be a playoff team in 2011-12.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics and is co-editor of Hockey Prospectus 2010-11. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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