August 13, 2008
The dots are almost too easy to connect: New York Islanders GM Garth Snow fires Ted Nolan -- an assertive, spotlight hogging veteran coach -- and hires Scott Gordon, a more "manageable" asset and the candidate with the least NHL coaching experience.
If nothing else, Gordon isn't a retread. There's this prevailing optimism about the 45-year-old coach of the year from the AHL Providence Bruins that wouldn't have been there if the name Bob Hartley or Paul Maurice had been announced. Maybe that's the point: One needs only to look at the current political climate to see how much the notion of "change" can counteract any justifiable criticisms.
Gordon is also part of the latest bit of mimicry in the NHL, where managers latch on to the latest tendency sweeping the League. (Remember how every team, post-Lindros, needed a hulking centerman?) Now it's untested head coaches, as Newsday's Greg Logan pointed out to Snow:
Snow's decision to dip into the minor-league ranks could be viewed as part of a growing trend in the NHL. Washington hired Bruce Boudreau out of the AHL last season, and Atlanta tabbed Calder Cup winner John Anderson from the AHL this summer. Florida hired junior coach Peter DeBoer out of the Ontario Hockey League recently, and San Jose gave Detroit assistant Todd McLellan his first head-coaching chance in the NHL.
"I do notice that trend," Snow said, "but the bottom line is that, if you're a good coach, you're going to have success anywhere."
So is Gordon a "good coach?" What makes his hiring such a moment of optimism for the Islanders faithful?
Mark Herrmann of Newsday believes Gordon is nothing less than the second-coming of Peter Laviolette:
By hiring him, the Islanders are trying to erase the mistake they made in firing Laviolette in 2003 - the year Gordon was elevated from assistant to head coach by the Boston Bruins' farm club. At Carolina, Laviolette successfully succeeded Paul Maurice, a finalist for the Islanders job this time around. Small world, isn't it?
It seems Laviolette and Gordon came from the same block. Each was a U.S. Olympian who had a limited NHL career with a cup of coffee in New York (Laviolette played a handful of games for the Rangers, Gordon was in camp with the Islanders).
Each came from the same mold as the man who hired him. Laviolette, like Mike Milbury, was a hard-nosed defenseman from Massachusetts. Gordon, like Snow, is a New England-bred goalie who played for the Quebec Nordiques (21 years ago, they were training camp teammates). More pertinent, Gordon, like Laviolette in 2001, is a neophyte and won't make a GM look over his shoulder.
Asked if it will help to have a coach who understands what he's going through, DiPietro said: "I don't think it can hurt. It's good to have someone who is part of the goalies' union. I've heard great things about him."
One of the best things is Gordon's commitment to playing a tight defensive system. As DiPietro often has pointed out, the Islanders play their best hockey when they concentrate on protecting their defensive zone. "As far as systems go, my job is to stop the hockey puck," DiPietro said. "But as a goalie, you do get the opportunity to see things in front of you. I'm sure he's going to institute a system that fits our team."
Adam Proteau of The Hockey News believes Gordon's hiring sends a wait-and-see signal to the fans, rather than a "win it now" signal like John Tortorella may have. Nemmy over at The 2 Man Advantage seems to like this slow build to success, and is ready to jump on the bandwagon -- even if he's already tired of "Gordon being AHL coach of the year and coming up to coach an AHL roster on the Island" jokes.
Finally, here's former Islanders media relations guru (and Thursday's "5 Ways I'd Change the NHL" author) Chris Botta on the move:
Scott Gordon and Paul Maurice were hands-down the best available candidates for this job. My concerns for Gordon all have to do with his lack of NHL experience, which is why I gave a slight edge to Maurice. The Islanders have young people in the top jobs - Garth Snow in the GM's chair, Ryan Jankowski running the draft. Nothing wrong with that, but I thought the franchise could use someone that might still be young, but has been there and done that.
Also, while we talk a lot about the Islanders' youth movement, let's not lose sight of the fact this is a team with plenty of veterans who define grizzled - Bill Guerin, Mike Sillinger, Doug Weight, Brendan Witt, Richard Park. Sometimes first-year NHL coaches lean on motivational tricks that may have worked in the AHL, but are met with shrugs (or worse) in the big leagues. I've seen the backlash; it's ugly. Gordon really needs to resist the temptation to go there.
One of the interesting aspects of covering Bruce Boudreau with the Washington Capitals this season was seeing the leadership on the team slowly shift away from players like Olaf Kolzig and their veteran free-agent acquisitions. Alexander Ovechkin's role as the team's principal leader grew; Mike Green inspired as much confidence as a veteran like Tom Poti; and the grunts on the team formed a backbone that helped carry them into the postseason.
Perhaps Gordon's greatest task will be creating a transitional environment where the kids slowly take over, but the veterans don't feel alienated.
OK, make that his second greatest task; his greatest will be finding a way not to get pink-slipped before this franchise is ready to contend again.