The 4-9-2 record aside for a moment, there will be a more vital indicator this season of the kind of coach Scott Gordon is. It will be evident in how he deals with a skilled but unfinished, struggling prospect like Kyle Okposo.
While the 20-year old has not exactly exploded out of the gate this season – Okposo has just a goal and 3 assists in 15 games - it’s crucial the first-year coach communicates with him on an almost daily basis.
This might sound like master-of-the-obvious stuff, but history gives pause for concern. There are so many coaches in this league who view talented kids as if they were a virus. For many, Barry Melrose’s proclamation in the ESPN studio of “I don’t like prospects…prospects cost coaches jobs” is gospel.
Remember when Alexei Kovalev and Todd Bertuzzi drove their coaches and every fan in New York nuts? NHL head coaches love players like Richard Park, Jay Pandolfo and Blair Betts. They crush on self-motivated athletes who work in straight lines, guys they can simply wind up and, well, never have to coach. The problem with this, of course, is that you and I can coach those guys.
But as the Red Wings proved once again, it takes all kinds to win hockey games and only the coaches that embrace this concept get to stick around a while. Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour are the two obvious examples. Mike Babcock and Ken Hitchcock are a pair of current enlightened ones. Time will tell if Scott Gordon has the flexibility to coach his players to fit his system, as opposed to jamming his system down their throats.
An old team memory on the subject, if you will. In the Islanders’ opening game of the lockout-shortened 1995 season, a whiz kid named Zigmund Palffy scored both goals for the Islanders in a 2-1 win over Florida at the Coliseum. When the team played in the Panthers’ barn ten days later, a buzz spread at the morning skate: Palffy was going to be a healthy scratch. It is coaching moves like this that make it all too easy for fans and media to think they could do the job better.
When he was asked after the skate why Palffy was going to be scratched, head coach Lorne Henning said that he and his staff “didn’t like the matchups.” If you combined the hockey knowledge of everyone in and around the media scrum that morning, it still wouldn’t add up to 1% of Lornie’s knowledge of the game.
Still…let’s just say everyone was as speechless as I am more than a decade later to explain the move. It’s irrelevant that while Ziggy watched from the press box, the Islanders lost to the Panthers 5-1 that night. The decision was wrong that morning.
It is common knowledge, I think, that Ted Nolan wanted absolutely nothing to do with Robert Nilsson. The disconnect between Nolan and Nilsson was the latest example in the Country of Islanders, but there’s a long, painful line of them over the last 20 years. If you’re a kid who believes the best way to make a play doesn’t always involve a straight line to the net, don’t count on becoming a coach’s favorite. Ted was wrong on Nilsson. It would be a mistake to write it off after he has played only 13 games this season, but we’ll know by midseason if he was wrong on Jeff Tambellini.
You wouldn’t expect Gordon’s relationship with Tambellini and Okposo to be an issue. He saw the 24-year old Tambellini score enough goals against his Providence team to know what he is capable of. Okposo is a different sort of talent, a power forward with more upside than Tambellini who makes plays better than he finishes them. They are now Gordon’s responsibility. From what I’ve seen, the coach is doing his best to develop them on the fly.
How he works with the kids through the downs this season will say a lot about Gordon’s ability to coach, teach and lead.
ETC: When the team charter took off for Ottawa this afternoon, there were no roster moves announced.