Turning a young team into a winning team takes a delicate hand and a great deal of patience. It takes the right people at the helm, and it takes the right players buying into the right system.
That’s precisely what Jack Capuano and the Islanders did in 2013. The third-year head coach guided a blue-collar team determined to out-battle opponents and bring a physical presence to the rink every night. Capuano helped re-invent “Islanders hockey”.
“It’s in your face, it’s hard-working and gritty,” Capuano said. “When we gave the players questionnaires at the start of the season, we had them write in their own mission statement. That turned out to be a pretty good thing. The answers showed all the common denominators of being a hard-working team, and a lot of similar adjectives. That’s how we have to play. We’re a team that has to play with grit and determination and desperation. How we manage the puck and how we dictate the pace and how we push the pace are all integral parts of our success.”
Islanders hockey under Capuano is also about team speed, with quick transitions from the defensive zone to the attacking end of the ice, as well as an emphasis on capitalizing on turnovers. Playing this style, the Islanders gave Pittsburgh everything they could handle in a back-and-forth, six-game first-round playoff series.
“You can look at our team individually, man-for-man against other teams that we play,” Capuano said. “Maybe we’re not as fast individually, but there’s a certain style. We have to play fast and we have to play on our toes, and I thought we did a good job of that this year.”
But it takes more than X’s and O’s to build a winner. The right focus and mentality has to be present.
Although the Islanders faced a rough stretch in February in which they lost five straight games, at one point slipping to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the players maintained confidence in their coach’s message.
“Every single day, we had the focus and the work ethic, and the right details in practice,” forward John Tavares said. “Guys bought in and were doing the right things. I think early on, we didn’t have the success. There were a lot of ups and downs. But we developed a lot of good habits early in the season during practice as far as how we needed to play, and that kept us going, kept us in the mix, even when things weren’t going well.”
During the up-and-down first half of the season, Capuano’s approach to his players remained the same. He saw players were working the way he wanted them to and promised things would turn around with perseverance.
When times were toughest, Capuano didn’t micro-manage. He didn’t stand on the pulpit and make a dramatic speech. Instead, he let the voices of the players going to battle for one another do the talking. With that came bonding and chemistry within the room.
“He made us a lot more accountable for ourselves this year,” forward Josh Bailey said. “I think that was a big key to some success down the stretch and making the playoffs. Guys held each other accountable, and that’s what you need.”
“At this level, it should come from the guys - you shouldn’t have to have your coach tell you how to play to win,” said forward Colin McDonald, who served as captain of the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers until the NHL season began. “He can point us in the direction or talk to us all he wants, but it has to come from us and from inside that room. It took us a while to realize that and learn. I’m not sure if it was one game, or one shift that made everyone realize, but once we figured it out we were pretty dangerous.”
Of course, the transition wasn’t seamless. The Islanders climbed the standings in the second half of the season, but experienced some tough losses along the way. A three-game skid in mid-March brought the surging Islanders back down to earth, but over the last 17 games, they were one of the hottest teams in the league at 11-2-4, clinching a playoff berth in the third-to-last contest of the regular season.
“I think everybody stepped up,” Capuano said. “It might have been the older guys one game, or it might have been a Colin McDonald, or some of the younger guys on our team. The guys like Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin lead by example. We had great character guys that had a letter, but I thought collectively as a group, even the guys who didn’t play much throughout the year and the playoffs, were really supportive and real strong.”
Early in the offseason, it’s unclear how the makeup of the team will change, though the core of the team will continue to grow together and serve as the backbone of the evolving club.
“We know what it takes on a consistent basis and the focus we need to be successful and how we have to do that,” Tavares said. “It’s difficult to stay at that level for long periods of time. We did it for about a month and a half and got into the playoffs, but it’s going to be a full season again next season and it’s going to be harder. We understand it’s going to take more than what it took this year to get back to the playoffs.”
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