Today's subject is assistant coaches. The premise: it's unfair to make the special teams failings of the Islanders or any other team all about one or two assistant coaches.
But I'd like to start by asking you rabid hockey fans to rack your brains for a moment.
For as long as you have been following the NHL, can you think of ANY assistant coach who was or is regarded as an absolute special teams genius, a maestro of the power play or penalty kill?
To be clear, what I'm looking for are names of NHL assistants associated with either of the special teams who had consistent success with the teams they worked for.
It could, of course, be someone who was so amazing as an assistant with special teams that he graduated to head coaching jobs in the NHL.
After all this time, wouldn't you think there would be at least one guy in the NHL who can run a power play or penalty kill that every coach would kill to have on his staff?
(Okay, put your nominees in the Comments section. I'm sure you've got some).
The first brand-name NHL assistant coach I could think of was Larry Robinson, the Canadiens Hall of Fame defenseman who had a great run as a Devils' assistant. However, Robinson's impeccable reputation was for his work tutoring defenders.
Probably the most widely-respected assistant of the last 30 years was Craig Ramsay, who won a Cup under John Tortorella in Tampa Bay and always got another job whenever he was let go. Ramsay was known for drawing up some good penalty killing schemes, but it would be a stretch to say his teams were always effective on the PK.
When I sent off a few texts to former players last night, among the names that came up were Jacques Martin, now winning Cups with the Penguins in a long and distinguished coaching career; Rick Wilson, who got his start with the Islanders in 1989 and has worked steadily (often under Ken Hitchcock) ever since; and Mike Sullivan for his work as an aide to Tortorella. In Islanders' lore, the great Lorne Henning was praised for his work under Al Arbour during the dynasty - back when teams had just one or two assistant coaches - and was adored by the '92-93 team for his smarts, leadership and class.
But I'm unaware of any of the above being doctors of regularly great power plays or penalty kills.
I thought of this last night while the Islanders went 0-4 on the power play and gave up goals both times they were shorthanded in their 4-3 overtime loss in Pittsburgh.
The poor PK is such a stain that Doug Weight was well aware of the current slump minutes after the loss.
"We've given up 9 (goals) in the last 16 chances," Weight told MSG Network's Shannon Hogan after the game.
Whatever ails them - and it appears to be a mix of shaky goaltending, poor decision-making, some soft play and a little bad luck - it's on general manager Garth Snow and Weight to figure out the personnel, all of the coaches to make sure the right players are out there, and it's on the players to execute.
Weight decided to bring in some of his own guys as assistants this year, and we'll see how that works out in the long run. But to think the responsibility and blame should fall on just Luke Richardson or Kelly Buchberger or Scott Gomez or holdover Greg Cronin is wrong. Teams swap out assistants from time to time in hopes of fixing their special teams, but it rarely works. Why? Because no one person has all the answers. No one has the trademark as NHL professor of the penalty kill.
No one ever has.
When Peter Laviolette was head coach of the Islanders, his assistant Kelly Miller was ripped by fans for the Islanders' power play struggles. That really bothered Laviolette, who started making clear that the responsibility ultimately fell on him. In later years, I would suggest to Peter's successors that they might be better off not publicly labeling one assistant as the power play coach or another as the PK coach.
That same season of 2001-02, the Islanders' penalty killing unit led the league. You know who was in charge of it? Greg Cronin. Mike Peca, Shawn Bates, Jason Blake and Claude Lapointe made for a quality two forward units, but I doubt Cronin - despite debating some of the merits Corsi in his time in Toronto - has gotten dumber over these 16 years.
Weight has been around long enough to know improving special teams has to be an organization-wide collaboration. After the game last night, he was very direct in making his point to Hogan.
"As a group of eight, and a group pf 25, we've got to dig in and figure it out," said Weight.
As you know, special teams success tends to be cyclical during the long season. After last night's oh-fer, the power play is 11th in the league despite the horrific start. The Islanders' penalty killing unit ranks 30th, ahead of only Edmonton.
Weight is right. If the Islanders want to create some breathing room in the Metropolitan division's crowded top-six, it sure would help if they all figured it out.