The Islanders and the Babcock Conundrum

There are not many stories that can capture the attention of the hockey world during the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially during the Conference Finals. But last week,  the news dropped that Mike Babcock, Head Coach of the Detroit Red Wings, was leaving Hockeytown for greener pastures in Toronto.

Babcock spurned offers from franchises like the Buffalo Sabres, while also leaving the city where he had spent the last decade maintaining a playoff caliber squad and taking home the Stanley Cup in 2008.

The key word in that sentence would be “greener;” Babcock signed with Toronto for a record breaking $50 million dollars out over either years. One could make the argument (and it wouldn’t be that hard) that Babcock had better opportunities than what he has signed on for in the hockey capital of the world.

Buffalo certainly had just as deep pockets, as well as a potential franchise changing player in Jack Eichel coming very soon. Fringe contenders such as St. Louis are definitely no slouches when it comes to the quality of their roster, and the same could be said of Babcock’s former home in Detroit. In the end, it seems that the biggest factor was simply the dollar amount.

Once the Babcock signing was announced, and the details came into focus, there were many who asked the question why didn’t “Team X” make an attempt to bring Babcock into the fold? That very question was posited by members of the media that cover the New York Islanders, and upon a cursory glance it seems like a harmless question to speculate over.

But dig deeper, and it strikes a nerve over a issue that divides the Islanders fanbase; what should the team do about Jack Capuano?

At this point in time Capuano is the second most successful head coach in Islanders history. It sounds a little crazy, but a quick look over the numbers and you see: 277 games coached for New York, 118 wins, two playoff appearances and a .496 winning percentage.

Of course, this past season saw Capuano lead the Islanders to their best season since the dynasty years, compiling 101 points from 47 wins, and taking the Washington Capitals to 7 games in the opening round of the playoffs. So from the outside looking in, it seems as if the Islanders have a pretty good thing going on right now; so why the doubt?

There is an idea that is shared throughout all the major sports about coaches; there are those who can win it all, and those who can’t. Talk radio is obsessed with arguments and debate and discussion over whether or the guy behind the bench can bring home a coveted championship, and there is usually a long list of reasons why they can/can’t that follow.

Sometimes a roster just needs that different mentality to come in, and shake up how things are done, and the hope is that the change provides the right kind of motivation.

So, the logic follows, if the Islanders think Jack Capuano isn’t going to be “the guy”, then why don’t they go after a Mike Babock, a Todd McClellan, or Peter Laviolette? Men like them have the sustained success that Capuano doesn’t, and some have their names inscribed on Lord Stanley’s Cup. If that is going to be the end results, then obviously removing Capuano is a slam dunk decision correct?

The simple answer to that question is that nothing in sports is guaranteed. The best coaches do not win every year; Bill Belichek, Bruce Bochy, Greg Poppovich are not winning championship after championship. And, even those great coaches took time to figure out how to win the “Big Game.” Ultimately, that is the great hope for every young coach who struggles; that everything they are experiencing is a great learning opportunity on how to correct it next time.

For the first few years of his career, there was no doubt that the roster available to Capuano and his staff was, shall we say, lacking in talented individuals. General Manager Garth Snow corrected that flaw with his spending spree last summer, and as we have mentioned many times, the team responded with its best overall effort in decades.

This current squad, along with Capuano, had the opportunity to learn many things this season: the grind of an 82 game playoff push, the thrilling highs and crushing lows of a playoff run, what you can and cannot do against the best teams in the NHl, etc.

So heading into the 2015/16 season, Capuano has a great deal to prove. While the team did achieve some great things during the past season, there were some flaws and questionable decision making that gave many some ammunition with the “Fire Capuano” arguments. In particular, there was the late period swoon in which the Islanders lost far too many games in which they had multiple goal leads, gave up home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, as well as their shot at potentially taking home the Metropolitan Division title.

Jack Capuano has grown up as a coach over the past few years, and his talented young team has done the same. I feel that management sees that bond between the coach and the players is something worth continuing to develop; the one thing that many current and ex-players have to say about Capuano is that the locker room respects him, and have worked hard for him no matter the circumstances surrounding the team.

How much leeway that has earned him for next season remains to be seen; but one thing is certain, if Capuano keeps on winning he will not have to worry about his job security.

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