Commentary

With Nolan move, Isles go from feel-good story to laughingstock

Updated: July 14, 2008, 8:17 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Funny how this kind of thing rarely happens with good teams.

Funny how it's always bad teams -- poorly constructed, poorly run -- that end up running into philosophical differences with their coaches, general managers, trainers and towel boys. Guess it's always harder to get along when you're a bottom-feeder.

On Monday, Islanders GM Garth Snow and coach Ted Nolan decided to part ways because of "philosophical differences." It turned one of the NHL's great feel-good stories from two seasons ago into just another power struggle, leaving the erstwhile coach and Snow more than a little soiled and making the team the butt of jokes around the hockey world -- again.

[+] EnlargeTed Nolan
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images for Toronto Globe and MailTed Nolan had a 74-68-21 record over his two seasons with the Islanders.

"Cirque d'Isles," one NHL executive quipped to ESPN.com on Monday.

Remember when Nolan made Snow, the former backup netminder thrust awkwardly into the GM role by bizarro owner Charles Wang, look like a genius in the waning seconds of the 2006-07 season? With backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz (now playing in Europe) playing the hero, the ragtag Islanders defeated the New Jersey Devils on the final afternoon of the regular season in a shootout and stole the final Eastern Conference playoff berth from the Toronto Maple Leafs. It mattered little that the Isles were then dispatched in five games by Buffalo.

Nolan, who was brought into the organization from exile, proved he remained a master motivator and coach with NHL smarts. He took an Islanders club most assumed would be a lottery team and made it competitive. The Isles played hard most nights and were well-prepared. Nolan got more out of the bunch of castoffs and leftovers than anyone had a right to expect. Snow, to his credit, saw the Isles had created a long-absent buzz and went out and acquired Ryan Smyth at the 2007 trade deadline while keeping some of his veterans. It cost him some future picks, but it was a bold move for a team that had been long on bored and short on bold for a long time.

Last season, no one gave the Islanders much of a chance again, but they earned more respect, for whatever that's worth. But the bloom was off the rose for Snow and Nolan, who warred over how the team should be run. Injuries and simple logic (the Islanders aren't a very good team) caught up with them, and the Isles finished 13th in the Eastern Conference with 79 points, 13 fewer than the previous season. They finished 23rd in goals allowed per game and dead last in goals per game. Not a good recipe for advancement.

For some odd reason -- and let's hope it's not Snow just sticking it to Nolan -- it took the Islanders GM three full months to figure out he didn't want Nolan back behind the bench.

This will do little to dispel the long-held notion that Nolan is difficult to deal with. He was coach of the year in 1997 in Buffalo, but a feud with then-GM John Muckler exploded and cost both men their jobs. Nolan was out of the game for nine years before the Isles opened the door. Whatever the truth is of this nasty little piece of business, it no doubt will give other GMs pause when considering Nolan even though the on-ice results were impressive.

As for the Islanders, they are now looking for their seventh coach since Wang took over ownership in 2000 after Butch Goring, Lorne Henning (interim head coach after Goring was fired), Peter Laviolette, Steve Stirling, Brad Shaw and Nolan failed to pass muster. Snow represents the third GM over that period of time, following Mike Milbury and Neil Smith, who were brushed aside in pursuit of … well, what we're not exactly sure.

Snow said Monday that he will immediately begin looking for Nolan's replacement. One assumes he'll be making a call to his old buddy and former Stanley Cup-winning coach Bob Hartley, who might be able to replicate Nolan's success at getting blood from the proverbial hockey stone. One thing seems certain: Snow will need to find someone who isn't afraid to coach the kids; that was reportedly the tipping point for Snow, who didn't see eye to eye with Nolan on using the Isles' youngsters. And whomever Snow tabs, it'd better be someone prepared for some tough times before things improve.

One wonders whether Snow waited this long to dismiss Nolan so potential free agents wouldn't be put off by the notion that the team was in disarray. Given that Snow managed to lure only defensively challenged defenseman Mark Streit, with a whopper contract, and fading Doug Weight to the fold, it appears he need not have worried.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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