GORDON'S LEARNING CURVEAdversity-filled season a lesson for The Coach

 

 

When they write the history of mankind in the 20th and 21st centuries, it will be determined that when adult men fought with each other, it was only over 3 things:

 

1. Money

2. Women

3. Losing a whole lot of hockey games

 

No. 3, in a nutshell, is what I believe led to the deterioration of the working relationship and friendship – yes, friendship – of Islanders head coach Scott Gordon and Islanders captain Bill Guerin. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

When Gordon decided at midseason to publicly accentuate the development of his team’s younger players and chip away at the PT of his veterans, it was all downhill from there. In Greg Logan’s article of two weeks ago about Gordon’s relationship with a few of his veterans, Guerin said, “Let’s just say we’re both very passionate people.” The captain couldn’t have put it any better. Losing stinks, and when you’re losing at the rate the Islanders were from the beginning of December to mid-January, it also turns ugly. If everyone was happy, then something would really be wrong.

 

I’m told Gordon and Guerin had some brief, friendly post-trade communication and wished each other well. Perhaps the fracture won’t heal immediately, but the hockey world is a small one. Maybe they’ll work together again someday. At the very least, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them a few years from now sitting at a bar, wise-Massin’ to each other like Damon and Wahlberg in The Departed. Distance from all that losing tends to ease the wounds.

 

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After Brendan Witt shed some doubt on Gordon’s system of play in a Newsday article in November, I wrote that you better believe Witt was not alone. I set the over/under for one-time Gordon grumblers in 2009 training camp at one.

 

The player I thought would be back? Brendan Witt, who now shares a stronger bond with the coach after the two reached an understanding.

 

The player most likely to be gone? Chris Campoli.

 

There’s no doubt in my mind Gordon’s preference was to work issues out with Campoli, as he has with others – most notably Sean Bergenheim. Gordon was wistful discussing the defenseman after he was dealt, as if he failed to make Campoli the player he thought he could be.

 

Campoli did not like his place behind Mark Streit and Doug Weight on the power play. It was clear for months that Chris wasn’t happy with a lot. He pushed hard for a trade, so now Gordon someday gets to work with the 18-year old the Islanders draft late in the first round in June.

 

That’s two from Gordon’s doghouse. The others were Mike Comrie, the worst fit possible for the Go-Go approach, and Jon Sim, unhappy with his playing time even as he cleared waivers twice. While Sim has admirably committed to the Sound Tigers cause, he may get to re-connect with Gordon in the final year of his contract in ’09-10.

 

Here are the facts of hockey life. Since the Campoli and Comrie trade, the Islanders are 6-2-1. No one is saying the deal was the magic elixir, but the improvements in the locker room atmosphere and in the team’s play are not coincidences. It took a while, but Scott Gordon is starting to find his team.

 

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Scott Gordon is in his first season as any kind of coach in the National Hockey League. Prior to getting the Islanders head coaching job, he spent more than a decade coaching minor league clubs in Atlanta, Quebec, Roanoke and Providence. This is not to undermine his credentials – he rose to the top the right way – but simply to illustrate where he has been.

 

This is the 46-year old Gordon’s first year in New York, first full season as a player or coach in the NHL, first experience relating to NHL players of various age, experience, temperaments and bank accounts. One cannot overestimate the difficulty of such a career transition. Nevertheless, Gordon shows the potential to be a top NHL coach. He has been superlative in many ways. During the recent homestand, there was tangible evidence of the culture he is trying to build. You also never heard a word about his team being too burnt out to excel in the third period.

 

Although he is reluctant to acknowledge his mistakes publicly – then again, what determined leaders do? – Gordon has not been perfect. His missteps have been primarily in his communication with his players, and also with his team’s fans through the media. The latter is far less crucial and more easily learned. Lately, the head coach has shown a better understanding of the team-media-fans game.

 

Of course, his communication with his athletes is what really matters. Gordon has every right to look at the development of his young players and want to shout, “See! that’s why they brought me here”! An early-season meeting with Kyle Okposo in which the coach told the player he “looks like he’s just happy to be out there” brought immediate results. Frans Nielsen, a deft playmaker, is improving as an all-zone center.

 

With Gordon’s guidance, 19-year old Josh Bailey may not be soaring, but he’s learning. His recent play shows Bailey is better for the experience. Jack Hillen, in his first full season of pro, is ahead of the curve. The coaching staff glows over the attitude and approach of the young players. The kids respect their coach, as David Krecji, Matt Hunwick and Kris Versteeg appreciated their mentor in Providence.

 

But any questions hanging over Gordon’s head about his ability to deal with veterans – or any players not buying in – do not vanish with the departure of Comrie, Campoli and Guerin, plus the waiving and demotion of Sim.

 

Trent Hunter, 29 in July, is not going to be the oldest Islander next season, or the one after that. Every year there will be 30-something warhorses. And not all of them are going to be Richard Park and Dean McAmmond; to think otherwise is naive. There will always be players who don’t believe in the coach or his system, at least at the start.

 

Gordon has built a bit of a reputation for being tough on some of his older players, but the irony is he might have been too gentle. Toronto’s Ron Wilson, with two decades of success on his resume, roasted Jason Blake and didn’t think twice about it. Florida rookie coach Peter DeBoer benched Nick Boynton and other veterans. Gordon never healthy-scratched Comrie. At most, he cut Guerin’s minutes from about 19 to 15 and never took him off the power play. When Sim cleared waivers the first time, he wasn’t sent to Bridgeport. The coach probably thought he was being respectful, but where did it get him?

 

Fortunately for Gordon, he works for a general manager and team owner dedicated to a step-by-step rebuild. Gordon will get the opportunity to continue the process, no matter how this season ends. But here’s where he would be foolish: if Gordon chooses to stick his head in the sand and not learn from the adversity of the last six months, it would be a wasted rookie season for the coach.

 

Mutual friends of ours say Gordon is a terrific person. They say the edginess we see before the camera belies the integrity and decency of the real man. They believe he’s not stubborn, just passionate about the direction he wants to take the team. My take: at times this season Gordon got stuck in the Eric Mangini mold. He may want to emulate Bill Belichick, but boy does it look bad when you’re not winning. You want this to be Belichick in New England, not Cleveland.

 

Funny how the coach’s true strengths are starting to become visible now, with a few wins and a few player departures. For his Islanders to take the next step, Scott Gordon needs to learn from this season just like fellow upstarts Okposo and Bailey, Nielsen and the rest – from the failures as much as the successes.

 

 

 

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