HARD HITS: Snow to blame for Islanders mess


With Jack Capuano finally relieved of his coaching duties, the focus is on GM Garth Snow for this Islanders mess. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NBC Sports.

It only took 42 games. But the Islanders finally fired coach Jack Capuano. A day after the team went into Boston and shut the Bruins out 4-0, they decided to send Capuano his walking papers. So after nearly seven years behind the bench, the embattled coach is finally out. In a way, it’s kind of a relief. His press conferences were tough to watch after losses. At least he can have some peace.

As for the team performance, let’s just say it’s not all Capuano’s fault. It starts at the top. It would be an understatement to conclude that Islanders Team President and GM Garth Snow has had a lousy year. Stemming from a terrible off-season in which he and new ownership let Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin go, his replacements have been underwhelming. The Islanders currently sit dead last with 42 points in the Metropolitan Division. The worst total in the East trailing the rebuilding Sabres by one.

Jason Chimera and most notably Andrew Ladd have been big disappointments. While Chimera’s totals of eight goals and eight assists aren’t bad for his age, it in no way makes up for the departure of Nielsen to Detroit. He hasn’t lit the world on fire either with 25 points (9-16-25) on a low scoring Red Wings roster that seems destined to finally miss the playoffs. But the two-way pivot was a great fit on the Islanders. He could be counted on to play any situation and provided solid scoring behind captain John Tavares and Okposo.

Regarding Okposo, he has fit in well with Buffalo pacing them in goals (12) and tied for the team lead in points (28). That he got the same length in contract as Ladd and was paid just a tad more with an average cap hit of $6 million per year compared to $5.5 million shows Snow’s ineptitude. You’re telling me they couldn’t just keep a cohesive player who was a splendid fit with Tavares? No one expected Ladd to have only eight goals and four assists with just 64 shots and a minus-10 rating at the halfway point of the season. He’s a better player than that. If he doesn’t improve, that contract could be an albatross over the next six years.

Anytime you commit that many years and salary to a player who’s entering their 30’s, there’s a risk factor. I’m no fan of long-term contracts. All one has to do is look on the Manhattan side of New York City to see why. Ladd is 31. He has won two Stanley Cups and has a good resume. How he performs under interim coach Doug Weight in the second half could determine if he can turn it around. For whatever reason, he didn’t mesh with Tavares. Capuano instead found that Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson were better fits. Bailey is second in team scoring with a club best 23 assists and trails Tavares by three points with 29. Nelson ranks third with 23 (9-14-23).

Capuano tried different combos. He was desperate to find the right one. It was like throwing a square peg in a round hole. Sometimes, when a team makes changes to a roster that finally won their first playoff series since ’93, it’s a huge miscalculation. By not keeping core guys who fit the system, they took a risk. So far, the results have been disappointing. The Islanders are currently 17-17-8 and sit eight points behind second wildcard Philadelphia. They’ll have to climb over so many teams and do so in the league’s toughest division.

No one expected Snow to retain Martin, who got four years and an AAV of $2.5 million from the Maple Leafs. For the season, he has two goals and two assists with 154 hits which ranks second in the NHL. His 77 penalty minutes lead Toronto. The 27-year old is a nuts and bolts guy who drives the opposition nuts with his physicality. In a recent win over the Rangers, he certainly got under their skin. Even if it’s hard to justify his contract, Islander fans would agree that Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck were a tough checking line that injected energy into the team and building. That in your face style is gone.

The Isles have changed in ’16-17. And not for the better. They aren’t as hard to play against. How inconsistent have they been? This is a team that can beat quality opponents such as the Capitals, Rangers, Bruins and even the Penguins. But they’re also the same team that scored one goal in frustrating consecutive losses to the lowly Avalanche and Coyotes. They then lost at home by an identical 2-1 score to the Panthers. Right there is where I would’ve pulled the plug on Capuano.

Prior to recording his sixth career hat trick to reach 501 career points in a 5-2 win at Florida, Tavares had only 11 goals in his first 39 games. That right there tells the story. Snow has failed to provide one of the game’s premier scorers with a strong supporting cast. He deserves the blame for this mess. He made some horrible decisions. How much of a role new owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin have is hard to say. Former owner Charles Wang was more hands on. But he let Snow run the team.

Aside from Tavares who is up to a team best 16 goals and 32 points along with Bailey (6-23-29), Anders Lee has 15 goals. It took him a while to get going. But he’s been finishing. The 26-year old former ’09 sixth round pick is a key piece of the future. What it comes down to for players such as Lee and Nelson is consistency. Finding it will help the team grow.

Ryan Strome is perhaps the club’s biggest disappointment. In his third full season, he’s regressed. When Snow took him fifth overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, more was expected. In ’14-15, he looked to be on track posting career highs in goals (17), assists (33), points (50) and games played (81) while contributing two goals and two assists in the first round. But he struggled mightily last season scoring just eight times with 20 helpers in 71 contests. The Isles even sent him down to Bridgeport for a stint. Strome totaled a goal and three assists in eight postseason games last year. Not the most reliable defensive player, he’s continued to struggle offensively with only six goals and eight assists in 39 contests.

Maybe the coaching change will help. It’s odd because the Islanders offense currently ranks eighth in the league averaging 2.83 goals-per-game. A big reason for that is the balanced scoring from the blue line with Nick Leddy leading the way with 21 points including seven goals. Under Capuano, that was one of the team strengths. The back end has a combined 25 goals. That includes Johnny Boychuk with five and the one good Snow move Dennis Seidenberg with four while leading the team in plus/minus (17). Calvin de Haan is a good defensive defenseman whose nine points, plus-seven and 111 blocked shots are solid numbers. Travis Hamonic has been the biggest disappointment with a team worst minus-14 rating.

The biggest issue for the Islanders is their team defense which has nights where they give up too many scoring chances and shots leading to games where they’ve allowed six to seven goals. It happened as recently as 1/14 in a 7-4 loss at Carolina following the 5-2 win at Florida. There’s no consistency. How else to explain chasing Tuukka Rask on Martin Luther King Day in a 4-0 shutout? The first of the season for starter Thomas Greiss. Speaking of him he’s had a good year with 11 wins in 21 games with a 2.41 goals-against-average and .925 save percentage.

One issue which made no sense was Snow’s insistence on keeping three goalies on the roster. Until December 30 when they waived former starter Jaroslav Halak, they were basically holding onto Jean-Francois Berube despite him barely playing. When they picked him up on waivers from the Kings last year, you figured the 25-year old would be in their future plans. They couldn’t send him down without exposing him. At one point when the team had injuries to its blue line, they went with six D. About as perplexing as how long they waited on former 2015 top pick Mathew Barzal before sending him back to Seattle. He had a good World Junior Championship posting eight points (3-5-8) in seven games for Canada, who fell to USA in the gold medal game.

Speaking of poor decisions, how about the contracts Snow handed out to former Leafs Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski? Kulemin gets over $4 million thru 2018 to be a secondary player. Following a decent ’14-15 in which he registered 15 goals and 16 assists, he dropped down to 9-13-22 in ’15-16. Thus far in Year 3, he’s 7-6-13.

As for Grabovski, it’s a shame what’s happened to him. Post-concussion symptoms have his career in jeopardy. After totaling 44 points in 109 combined games due to injuries, he has yet to play this season. The 32-year old from Belarus is a gifted player with skill who has had a solid career with the Leafs, Capitals and Islanders totaling 296 points in 534 career games. He has one more year left on a deal that pays him an average of $5 million per season. Grabovski is on long-term injured reserve. It remains to be seen if he’ll ever play another game.

Sometimes, injuries do play a role in what happens with players. When Snow signed both Kulemin and Grabovski, it was with good intentions. Thinking they could play together and be on a third line, it wasn’t bad by any stretch. But he overpaid.

Snow gets credit for trading Nino Niederreiter for Clutterbuck. El Nino didn’t want to remain an Islander. So, Snow went out and sent him to the Wild for the gritty Clutterbuck, who’s been a good player for the Islanders. He’s hit double digits in goals twice including 15 last year with 23 points to go with two markers and a helper in the playoffs. He continues to be a big hitter with his 137 pacing the club. However, his production has dropped off. With only two goals and a helper, the 29-year old misses sidekick Martin. Along with Cizikas, they were inseparable.

That’s why we have no idea why Snow decided to extend Clutterbuck for five years, $17.5 million. It seems like a stretch to give a grinder who will be 30 in the Fall five more years at $3.5 million on average. The deal made no sense. While it’s true he could’ve become unrestricted this summer, it looked like a panic move by Snow. Not to take away from Clutterbuck, who’s a team guy with character. But that’s a contract that will probably be a bad one.

If there is a bright spot, it’s been the play of rookie Anthony Beauvillier. Also a first round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the 19-year old has shown some glimpses. A good player with superb speed and someone they can plug, he’s done okay with four goals and seven assists in 29 games. If there was one bugaboo with Capuano, it’s that he didn’t play him enough. Beauvillier needs consistent ice-time. He was scratched at times which left Islander fans up in arms. We’ll see what Weight’s plan is.

A big part of the team’s struggles is its special teams. The Islanders rank 26th on the power play (13.6 percent) and are 21st on the penalty kill (80.0 percent). Combined with allowing the second most shots per game giving up a whopping 33.2 which is only ahead of the dreadful Coyotes (33.6), it’s no wonder the team is closer to a lottery pick than the playoffs. Only Arizona (32 points) and Colorado (27) have fewer points than the Islanders (42). Their goal differential is minus-eight with 120 goals for and 128 goals allowed.

If you’re big into puck possession, the Isles don’t have the puck enough. As evidenced by the 29.9 shots they average and over 33 given up, it’s not conducive to winning consistently. It further explains why they are where they are. Most of the teams in the negative shots differential column rank near the bottom overall including the Devils, who allow nearly four more shots than they get. Yet they’re up to 45 points and only five out of a wildcard due to mediocrity in a bunched up conference that has an Atlantic Division with only Montreal and Boston ahead of second wildcard Philadelphia. The Leafs, Senators and Panthers are all tied in points (48) with the Lightning at 46 and the Wings at 44. In the Metro, the Hurricanes are at 49 only one behind the Flyers with three games at hand.

Basically, you can go up in the standings very quickly if you put together a winning streak. That was Snow’s reasoning for the coaching change. It still doesn’t fully explain a tenure that’s seen his team advance past the first round once. It doesn’t explain failing to sign 2008 sixth round selection Jared Spurgeon. A good defenseman who has become a staple on the Wild blue line. Minnesota leads the West with 61 points.

If he doesn’t turn it around, Strome will go down as a bust. He was taken before Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele, Sean Couturier, Dougie Hamilton and J.T. Miller. Other notables include Richard Rakell, Boone Jenner, John GibsonBrandon Saad and Islander killer Nikita Kucherov. If you’re wondering, the last four went after defenseman Scott Mayfield in the second round. Current Islander Shane Prince went number 61 to Ottawa. If you go through the remainder of the 2011 Draft, it doesn’t get any better. They missed out on some good players including Vincent Trocheck and Johnny Gaudreau.

Snow’s best work came in 2009 when he took Tavares first overall and traded up for de Haan. He also grabbed Cizikas and Lee late. It looks like he swung and missed on Josh Ho-Sang, who remains a puzzling player that is late to team meetings at Bridgeport and has only three goals and 13 assists in his first pro season. The jury on Michael Dal Colle remains to be seen. Defenseman Ryan Pulock has potential but must stay healthy. Devon Toews has been good for Bridgeport with 24 points in his first pro year. Unless Berube or Christopher Gibson pan out, the club doesn’t have a goalie for the near future. However, there is 2014 third rounder Ilya Sorokin, who at only 21 has fared well in the KHL with CSKA Moscow posting 21 wins with a 1.54 GAA and .931 save percentage. But how soon will he be ready to come over?

When looking at the Islanders from the outside, it’s hard to believe they’re not further along. Tavares is in his eighth season and has only made the playoffs three times. He’s played in four series posting 11 goals and 11 helpers in 24 games. Coming off last year’s dramatic first round win over the Panthers in which he scored the tying and winning goals at home in an unreal Game 6 at Barclays Center, more was expected from the team. Instead, they have taken a significant step back.

Unless the coaching change works, they’ll miss the postseason for the fifth time in Tavares’ eight-year career. That’s unacceptable. It’s not just the coach here. It’s Snow, who’s been given plenty of time to put together a roster Islander fans could be proud of.

Where’s the identity? Until they clean house entirely, the Islanders remain a franchise in limbo playing in an arena that isn’t great for hockey. Their attendance remains an issue with the team ranking 29th with an 81.1 percentage drawing 12,819 per ESPN.com. Only the Hurricanes rank worse. Moving from Long Island to Brooklyn hasn’t been a smooth transition. The franchise belongs on Long Island.

There is more at stake than just the current roster here. The team’s future remains cloudy. A better product would definitely help. Management must make more changes to restore order.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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