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New Islanders coach Doug Weight leads with his heart

New York Islanders interim head coach Doug Weight

New York Islanders interim head coach Doug Weight looks on against the Los Angeles Kings during the second period of an NHL hockey game at Barclays Center on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Doug Weight stuck around Boston after the Islanders’ 4-0 win over the Bruins on Jan. 16 to take in a college hockey game. He happened to see old Oilers teammate Kelly Buchberger, now an Edmonton executive.

They went out for a drink and Buchberger, an assistant coach with the Oilers the past six years, talked with his old friend about coaching and the possibility of Weight becoming a head coach someday.

“He was just saying how I love the game, how we both know it’s the next-best thing to stepping out of the tunnel onto the ice from playing,” Weight said. “And how important it is to be yourself [as a head coach]. You’ve got to hold them accountable, go with your skill, but in your heart, you have to be who you are, or they’ll know.

“It was pretty ironic to have that conversation right then.”

The next day, Weight accepted the job of Isles interim head coach after general manager Garth Snow fired Jack Capuano. Weight spoke to owner Scott Malkin and Snow, his longtime friend, and took a gig that’s far from enviable.

He replaced Capuano, whom Weight had worked with as an assistant for five-plus years, and moved into a temporary job that could end after a week, a month or some other indeterminate time.

He also found himself attempting to turn around the fortunes of a disappointing team or face his own fate as Malkin and co-owner Jon Ledecky search for a permanent replacement.

But for a 46-year-old who is one of only 85 NHL players with more than 1,000 points, things somehow have felt natural as he adjusts to being the boss — perhaps because all he can do is look to the next game without assurances for the future.

“I don’t think it’s an easy job, but isn’t it easier that way?” he said. “We know why the move was made, because we want to pursue things as an organization. They didn’t have somebody they wanted moving forward, I knew that going in. Am I doing someone a favor? Of course not. The last thing we need is someone who’s not prepared or not qualified. Qualified is someone else’s opinion. But I needed to be prepared, and this is how you have to do it.

“As of now, I have no reason to think [a full-time head-coaching post] will come about, but that doesn’t matter. I’m enjoying it. All these results are from the guys, and I want to help them.”

Weight is 4-0-1 as head coach, and the small changes he’s made have resonated with a group that largely had heard the same voice for many years.

It’s an interesting challenge for Weight, who was an elite player over 1,238 NHL games.

In NHL history, that has never translated into being an elite coach, however. Go down the list of 1,000-point scorers and you see names that had difficult coaching careers. Wayne Gretzky lasted four unsuccessful seasons with the Coyotes. Bryan Trottier and Adam Oates had brief tenures.

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And that’s it.

“I think it’s just that they see the game so differently,” said Weight’s onetime Islanders teammate, Bill Guerin, a close friend who now is in the Penguins’ front office. “I think there can be a frustration level at times in trying to communicate what you know about the game to players with different skill sets.”

“You see a lot more of those elite players going into executive jobs,” John Tavares said, noting the likes of Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis and Brendan Shanahan who run teams from the boardroom, not the bench. “Coaching is a lot of work. I can’t count the number of times Cappy slept on the couch in his office, breaking down video all night. It’s a huge commitment.”

Aside from a few on-ice tweaks to Capuano’s system — Weight wants his centers to play lower in the defensive zone to support the defense and gather speed for a rush, and wants his wingers to play a bit less aggressively at the points to avoid opening up soft spots in the high slot — the biggest change is communication.

“I know that’s going to be his strongest point as a coach, because it was one of the things that made him a great player,” Guerin said. “We’d be on the power play, get to the bench and he’d immediately start breaking it down. ‘If we get back out there, this is what we’ve got to do.’ He’s always had that ability to convey what he’s seeing.”

So Weight has displayed the standings on the smartboard in the team dressing room, he has been critical and direct when necessary, and he has remained a bit more stoic behind the bench than when he was an assistant.

“It began [Tuesday] with 60 pages of notes, things I wanted us to be about,” Weight said. “Whether it’s the standings, meeting times, on the ice, to how we treat the bus drivers, the hotel staff where we stay, making sure we say hello and thank you — this is what’s important to me and it has to be important to them.”

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