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Islanders, Uncertainties Aside, Ready to Compete in 2011-2012

Head Coach Capuano: Fans Want a Hard-Working Team

While the future of the New York Islanders’ franchise might be on thin ice, it was business as usual for head coach Jack Capuano at the team’s annual prospects mini-camp at the Nassau Coliseum on July 14.

Nassau County residents, who will have the chance to approve a $400 million bond on Aug. 1 to finance a new arena for the team, could possibly help remedy some of the uncertainty. Team owner Charles Wang publicly stated it’s unlikely the Islanders will remain in Uniondale beyond 2015 – when the current building lease expires – if a new arena isn’t approved.

The Islanders, who finished with the National Hockey League’s fourth-worst record in 2010-2011, were without cornerstone players Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo for most of the year, not to mention a resident injury bug and a coaching change.

Former bench boss Scott Gordon, who had coached the team for the previous two seasons, was fired after a 4-10-3 start in the first 17 games last year but remained with the team as a special advisor to general manager Garth Snow. Capuano replaced Gordon as the interim head coach and finished with a record of 26-29-10 in 65 games, good enough to drop the “interim” tag for the upcoming season.  

As far as injuries for the upcoming season, Capuano explained, “The last update that I received from our medical staff is that all of our guys are right on schedule to be ready when training camp starts. We’ve got some key guys coming back from injury last year and that’s going to be instant leadership for our hockey team.”

According to The Globe and Mail, the team had the most man-games lost to injury with 512 (the next closest team was Colorado with 385); however, injuries opened roster spots for a handful of younger players to contribute. John Tavares, the highly touted Canadian prospect taken with first overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, led the team with 67 points and line-mates PA Parenteau and Matt Moulson tallied 53 points each. Speedy forward Michael Grabner, who was claimed off waivers at the beginning of the season, was a rookie of the year finalist after tallying 34 goals – eighth best in the NHL – and 18 assists for 52 points. 

“I will say that we were very pleased with the second half of last year and the progress that we made. We’ve got a lot of good young players and there’s no reason to think that we can’t start like we finished last year,” said Capuano, whose son, Max, was invited to the prospects mini-camp.

For the second year in a row, the team selected fifth overall in the NHL’s Entry Draft, and they decided on another crafty Canadian center, Ryan Strome. The 18-year-old will likely need another year of junior hockey before joining the Islanders, but Capuano sees a bright future for the young man.

“Hands are a big asset for Ryan, his puck-handling skills and his skill set in general. Today I saw him shoot the puck a bit more, obviously he’s got a quick release; he shoots in stride and his head is always up. There are a lot of things he does that make you forget what age he’s at right now,” Capuano explained.

Another young player, Brock Nelson, was selected at the end of the first round last year and came to camp this year turning a few heads in the process.

“Brock Nelson, I think he put on 12 pounds after his freshman year at North Dakota. You can see a little bit more power in his stride and where he came from in a full year, he’s only going to get better. He’s one of the guys if you asked me who sticks out a little bit, I can see that for sure,” added Capuano.

Taken with the 12th overall selection in 2009, defenseman Calvin de Haan overcame a shoulder injury and may be ready for his first stint in the NHL.

“Calvin’s at a point now where he’s a confident player. He went through some injuries and battled back and he’s going to use this mini-camp as a time where he can use this next month and a half to get ready for September. I like Calvin’s attitude where he is mentally; physically he’s in good shape. He wants to make a statement and come September he’s going to have that opportunity.”

Capuano, who said he relies heavily on his scouts for reports on amateur players, offered his take on the state of the game here on Long Island as several local players were invited to camp.

“It goes to show you that in this area obviously the youth hockey coaches and high school coaches have done a great job with the kids. There’s a lot of hockey on the Island and they should be proud of that,” the coach said.

And while the Aug. 1 vote will further reveal the state of hockey on Long Island moving forward, Capuano spoke highly of his time spent in Uniondale with the team and with its loyal fan base.

“It’s been great. I was here six years ago as an assistant coach and spent a lot of time in Bridgeport. I like it because of the fans; obviously they’re passionate people and so am I, so there’s a lot in common.

“They want a hardworking team. They want a team that win, lose or draw, they’re going to play hard every single night and give the effort. That’s something that we owe the fans. I love Long Island and I can’t say enough about it. Well the traffic is tough at times, but other than that, I really enjoy it,” said Capuano.