UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Former University of Maine standout Jack Capuano was rewarded Tuesday by the New York Islanders, who removed the interim tag from their head coach after he led a second-half improvement in an otherwise disappointing season.
New York (30-39-13) finished last in the Atlantic Division for the fourth straight season and were 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference. But under Capuano, who took over for fired coach Scott Gordon on Nov. 15, the Islanders went 26-29-10, including a 25-21-8 mark over the final 54 games.
“It was almost a tale of two seasons,” general manager Garth Snow said. “He took over a team that was really down in the dumps emotionally, mentally. He did an excellent job getting the best out of our players. You could see it in the way our team played from December on.
“As our players gained confidence and performed at a high level, and our team started having success on the ice, it became apparent to me that Jack is the right coach for this team.”
Capuano, who has a home in Bangor, played at Maine during the 1985-86, ’86-87 and ’87-88 seasons and notched 32 goals and 89 assists for 121 points in 124 games. He was a first team All-American defenseman in 1988 along with his younger brother and teammate David.
Snow, also a former UMaine star, declined to reveal the length or financial terms of Capuano’s contract.
The Islanders were hit by injuries, although that alone did not account for a season in which they missed the playoffs for a fourth straight year. They finished with 73 points, six fewer than last season, and only three teams had fewer points.
But Capuano and Snow believe this team has a real chance to make the playoffs as soon as next season.
“I feel very strongly moving forward,” Capuano said. “We have a young group of guys, and if we continue to make the strides that we’re going to make, there is no question I think we can be a postseason team.”
This season was ultimately doomed during a stretch from Oct. 23 until Dec. 13 when the Islanders lost 20 of 21 games and picked up only five of 42 points (1-17-3). That sealed the fate for Gordon, in his third season.
Capuano brought a gregarious personality and open lines of communication, a marked change from Gordon’s more rigid structure.
“The guys loosened up a little bit and were able to play a little more freely,” forward Kyle Okposo said. “We were able to communicate some things to Cappy. It’s never an easy situation when somebody leaves, especially a coach, but I thought the guys handled it very well and Cappy did a great job.”
Capuano, an NHL head coach for the first time, was 133-100-8-14 in four seasons at Bridgeport. He did well with the Islanders’ young roster, leading many players that he also coached in the minors.
That familiarity convinced Snow that Capuano was the right man.
“Jack had a big role in getting the best out of this group,” Snow said. “When you watched how our team played, it was a team that played with a lot of passion, a lot of structure, they played for each other. That gives a lot of credence to how well Jack has done.”
Capuano was originally hired by the Islanders as an assistant coach for the 2005-06 season. Before coming to New York he was general manager of the ECHL’s Pee Dee Pride, and coached the team, as well, several times.
The Islanders were undercut by a slew of ailments that began even before the season started. Capuano insists that is no excuse.
“It was my goal to move forward and try to win hockey games and get this team in the postseason,” he said. “I am not happy that we fell short of that.”
Okposo and top defenseman Mark Streit sustained devastating shoulder injuries in the preseason. Okposo made it back in late January, but never reached his usual high level of play. Streit missed the entire season and led a long list of defensemen who were nicked up all year.
“We’re in the process of evaluating why those injuries happen,” Snow said. “It’s going to take some time. I firmly believe that we had a team that would’ve been in the playoffs if we didn’t sustain the injuries that we had. It’s when our depth started sustaining injuries that it became more and more difficult for our team to gain wins.”