The reason I asked to meet with the first-year head coach was my curiosity about his plans for the Islanders' style of play going-forward. But first, a three-paragraph review of how we got here:
When he was hired last August, Gordon brought a specific system to the Islanders from Providence of the AHL. Garth Snow's belief in his strategy was a big factor in the coach getting his first NHL opportunity. Despite being predicted to finish last in the league by many experts, the Islanders may not have set the league on fire but they were a fun watch and stayed competitive at 10-12-2. Gordon received some raves. The Canucks invented the term "pre-pinch" and discussed how difficult the Islanders were to play against. Then the roof caved in - Rick DiPietro was lost for the season, an injury epidemic hit. There was plenty of poor play and, yes, some imperfect coaching.
There were two signature moments of the collapse. A 9-2 embarrassment in Pittsburgh on Dec. 11 was a seismic jolt to the Islanders' confidence. After an overtime loss to Washington on Dec. 16, Brendan Witt shared with Greg Logan of Newsday his lack of faith in Gordon's ultra-aggressive system. From the beginning of December through January 19, the Islanders won two games.
Around the start of a brutal five-game homestand in mid-January, Gordon tinkered more and more with his system. As a result, the Islanders looked sharper while undermanned in tight losses to the Rangers, Boston, New Jersey and Washington. They proceeded to win four games in a row. Yesterday's win in front of a sold-out crowd at home erased some of the pain of the 9-2 blowout by Pittsburgh and was the latest example of Gordon's changes keeping the Islanders competitive.
sleep 5So here's where we are today:
If Gordon was so confident in his highly-aggressive style of play that he brought to the Island, should we assume he'll go completely back to it when he feels he has more players to execute it?
I posed the question to Gordon in the cramped quarters of the coaches' change room at Iceworks. As he does sometimes, he quietly sent a challenge volley: "What are we doing differently"?
I provided my take, that his Islanders appear to be playing more of a 1-1-3 now. That Gordon at times is keeping a left wing or right wing in the neutral zone that I hadn't seen until about a month ago. I mentioned that it looked like his team was more cautious on faceoff plays, that they were still aggressive but not always go-go-go, not always pre-pinching. I told him that a few of his players shared with me their surprise when he entered the home team locker room with an alteration a few weeks ago at the second intermission when his team had the lead. (They won the game). I figured I was about 50% right, but now I was 100% out of material. So I asked him, "Is this a test, Scott"?
He said, "No," and with that got up from his locker stall and went to the dry-erase board. As I tried to follow along with my Nassau CC/La Salle U education, the head coach drew up a few examples of what he has changed, what's gone right and what's gone wrong. While Gordon didn't make a point of saying any of his chalk talk was off-the-record, I'm keeping it there for two reasons:
1. Whether I was the former PR person or a current blogger, I'm from the Bill Belichick school of believing most strategy stays in the room. Since Gordon fanatically is too, he probably meant to keep it there.
2. Even with the coach generously taking the time to draw it up for me, I still have no clue what they're doing differently after neutral-zone faceoffs.
"Sometimes you're dealt a hand," said Gordon, referring to his league-trouncing statistic of man-games lost to injury. "Sometimes you have to make adjustments. But I don't think you'll find anyone who'll say we're still not playing a very aggressive system."
This is true. I called up a few scouts that attended the Islanders' shootout loss to Los Angeles last Tuesday. They concurred. "You have to understand where Gordon's coming from," said one. "His team had nights when they were getting their doors blown off. He believes in his system and I'm sure when he gets the horses he'll go most of the way back to it. But as much as it may have killed him, he had to do something to prevent the occasional blowout and third period collapse. His lineup was decimated. His team's psyche had to hurt from the long losing streaks. The coach did the right thing."
Okay, I asked the scout. Does that mean if Gordon made the adjustments earlier, the Islanders might be pushing for 8th place instead of Tavheduch?
"Let's not get carried away," the scout said, laughing. "That team is really, really thin and with guys like DiPietro and Weight and all the dmen out, forget about it. They're still going to lose games. You can break up your system to stay competitive, but no - they could have played an all-out trap and would still be out of it. You do what Gordon did to keep the games close and get the occasional win."
sleep 5Like yesterday over the Penguins. Although I knew Gordon wouldn't pull a Bill Stewart "Did you see our lineup?" I tried to press him about needing more players with the skill-set to play his system. The coach wouldn't go there, but emphasized that his style of play demands effort more than speed.
"When we have failed, it's not because the player lacked the speed to make the play," said Gordon. "It's because he either didn't execute properly or he didn't make the effort."
To use a Gordon phrase, here's my "take-away" from our conversation:
It's possible he may not be the stubborn, inflexible, go-go-system-crazed coach that I and maybe other writers have made him out to be. Let's give that one some more time.
And if it's not about speed and quickness but a desire to go hard for 60 minutes and to commit to Scott Gordon's system, the Islanders need to find about ten new players for season 2 of his NHL coaching career.
I'll have more on Scott Gordon in the weeks ahead about other aspects of his coaching, but felt it was important to address the system issue now. Talk about it in Comments. In case you missed it, please note details below on Point Blank Night II.