Friday, November 14, 2014

Learning Curve

Following a Hand Of Frans-touched shootout victory against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings and a shutout in Arizona against the Coyotes, dare I say that not only is optimism high in IslanderLand, but so is confidence.

The successful West Coast Trip Of Death, in which the Isles won 3 of 5 games, was followed by a 6-0 drubbing of the faltering Colorado Avalanche.  When the sun rose on Wednesday morning, the team was second in the division with an impressive 10 wins in 15 games.  This was far better than the acceptable 8-7 record that I (and many other fans) was willing to accept at this point in the season.

Head coach Jack Capuano has been on quite the roller coaster ride of perception since the start of the year.  Admittedly, I was among those questioning his ability to coach a deeper team with actual NHL players on it.  In the midst of the three consecutive losses that preceded the current four game winning streak, Capuano's coaching tendencies became a focal point.  So much so that #IslesTwitter seemed to care about nothing else.  The coach's habitual use of the 4th line after a goal (either for or against), his ice-time delegation and personnel choices were all placed squarely in the crosshairs.  The loss to San Jose was a well-played effort, the details of which were ignored by fans with pitchforks and torches heading down Hempstead Turnpike.  Luckily for Coach Cappy, he was 3,000 miles away.

Personally, I focused on his use of the "fourth" line.  Full of fan favorites Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald, that group has provided plenty of energy in recent seasons.  McDonald was regularly used in years prior but was scratched often this season and finally waived following that other losing streak (all of two games in late October). Other guys like Eric Boulton and Mike Halmo also got their extended share of ice time in seasons past.  However, as we fans pointed out ad nauseum on Twitter during the losses two weeks ago, "energy" doesn't equal competitive hockey.  To me, it sure seemed Capuano was deathly afraid of the dreaded "momentum swing".  Whether it was a goal for ("let's keep this energy up!") or a goal against ("Let's get some energy back!"), those guys were his crutches.  It's not hard to understand why.  Without the roster depth to sustain (or swing) momentum using secondary scoring, Capuano used what he could.  And to the credit of those players, they are good at what they do.  However, on a truly deep NHL team what they do isn't really needed for more than a handful of minutes a night.  The other forward groups can take on the full responsibility of scoring and - in the case of the prototypical "third" line - defending the opposition's top players.  The Islander teams of recent years (even the playoff team in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season) were - and this won't shock anyone to hear - not deep teams.  Hence the reliance on those guys by their long-time coach.

This year's squad is deep.  The deepest one in many years.  For some reason, Capuano couldn't (or wouldn't) learn that he could lean on secondary scoring and depth to push the team.  When he wanted to nudge, out went those guys.  After the loss in Denver, it started to dawn on me that maybe he just wasn't going to adjust his player usage, no matter how loud everyone around him was screaming about how terrible it was.  Cizikas had been given more minutes than Nikolay Kulemin.  Both Martin and Cory Conacher - who hasn't been very good since the first week of the season - both played over 12 minutes each.  Brian Strait was still a thing that happened for over 16 minutes.  He had become our Lloyd Christmas trying to triple stamp the TOI chart with no backsies.

The loss in San Jose showed signs of a change in attitude, but I wasn't confident the adjustments would stick since the team lost anyway.  Then the team announced that Cizikas was being scratched for the Anaheim game and things got interesting.  We already know how that game went and even though Cizikas returned the next game (with Conacher sitting), the "fourth" line - Cizikas, Martin, Boulton - all played well under 10 minutes.  While the winning result wasn't achieved purely on the reduced ice time of those forwards, it continued the nice trend.  In the Arizona game, Cizikas played a little over 10 minutes (due to his PK duties).  Martin and Boulton again played well under that magic 10-minute number.  Which leads us to the best game of the young season, the home game against the Avs.  Boulton was scratched again and while Cizikas, Martin and Conacher all played their 10 minutes, some of that was actually enhanced by score effects.

"Here's a little nugget for you guys, some late PP time in a blowout."

Had it been a closer game, chances are good that Capuano would've given those guys much less time.  I think Capuano has changed his ways and stopped leaning on the "energy" guys.  I don't know what brought on this positive change since there was ample evidence indicating he would continue to be quite stubborn about when and who he gave shifts to.  Without another explanation, I'll just call it:

At the beginning of the year, many fans were focused on how the players would adjust (and hopefully grow) with a deeper roster.  How far this team would go was reliant on players - young and old - learning and becoming better NHL players as a group.  What came to light for me was just how much growing Jack Capuano needed to do.  I myself didn't even think of how important that was going to be.  In the course of two weeks, I saw a maturation of Capuano The Coach that has become as big a factor of this team's success as the players scoring and saving pucks.  Chalk it up on the list of good things to happen so far in this transformative season and another reason that confidence is up.


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