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Islanders have chance to build new identity

New York with opportunity for fresh start after firing Jack Capuano

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The New York Islanders fired Jack Capuano on Tuesday for the most basic and common of reasons: They were struggling, they had to change something and the easiest thing to change was the coach.

General manager Garth Snow said management decided Capuano likely would not return next season, so they made assistant coach Doug Weight an interim coach so they could start the search for a permanent coach.

For now, with their next game against the Dallas Stars at Barclays Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, FS-SW+), not much will change. The big question is what the Islanders do next: Whom do they hire as coach? Do they make other moves within the organization?

"I don't know that Jack fell short of expectations," Snow said. "I think when you're a head coach in this league, sometimes you're a victim of different circumstances, situations. It might be health. It might be a bad goal here, there. It might be a missed assignment on a backcheck."

It might be the roster.

Capuano led the Islanders to the Stanley Cup Playoffs three times in the past four seasons, after they had missed the playoffs five straight seasons. They earned their first series victory since 1993 when they defeated the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference First Round last spring.

But he lost forwards Matt Martin, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo in free agency in the offseason, and he gained Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd.

Nielsen, one of the most underrated centers in the League, a contributor in all situations, will represent the Detroit Red Wings at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles on Jan. 29. Okposo, a talented right wing, will represent the Buffalo Sabres.

Let's just say Ladd and Chimera aren't going to L.A.

Is it any wonder the Islanders are last in the Eastern Conference? Capuano isn't blameless, but he doesn't shoulder all of the blame.

"The old saying is that you have 23 players on your roster, and it's hard to make moves obviously in a salary-cap world," Snow said. "You don't see much movement during the season. Unfortunately the coaches bear the brunt of those decisions."

Asked how much responsibility he took, Snow, the GM since 2006, said: "One hundred percent."

Capuano was a scrappy, underdog coach for a scrappy, underdog franchise. As a player, he worked his way from college to the minors to the NHL, playing six games in the show as a defenseman -- one with the Toronto Maple Leafs, three for the Vancouver Canucks and two for the Boston Bruins. As a coach, he worked his way up from the minors too.

He was hardnosed, literally. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning last year, a deflected puck rocketed into the Islanders bench and struck him. He went to the dressing room, and Weight took over. But Capuano came back as if he were a player, and in the postgame press conference, he acted as if nothing had happened, a cut and a bruise on his nose.

"You want to get back out there," he said.

His players loved him for stuff like that, for his common touch, for his talk of the "brotherhood."

"He's great a communicating I think with the guys and kind of getting the feel of the locker room," Islanders captain John Tavares once said. "He can come in and crack a few jokes here and there, and you still understand his demands, what has to be brought to the table when we practice, when we play. It's a tough quality as a head coach, to try to understand your players and be personable but also to be hard on us and to understand the expectations that are needed from a group of over 20 people."

Video: NYI@CAR: Tavares opens scoring with nice tip-in

Capuano never had the resources and the personnel of the NHL's elite teams and did well under the circumstances.

"We owe a ton of gratitude for the work that Jack did," Snow said.

But now that the Islanders have new ownership and will have a new coach, they have a chance to stop being a scrappy, underdog franchise and build a new identity. They need to take advantage of it. It's not about coming back to make the playoffs this season when they're eight points out of a wild card spot. It's about building a first-class winner. It's about signing Tavares, whose contract expires after next season, and surrounding him with the talent to win the Cup.

"We need to turn the ship around," Snow said. "I have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and our players. It starts with our next game Thursday."

And goes far beyond.

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