Five years ago, it was difficult for New York Islanders fans to remain hopeful about the future of their team. The organization effectively blew up its structure—and its overall philosophy—when it announced it would embark on a full-scale, scorched-earth, tear-it-all-down rebuild after the 2008-09 season.
As with any long-term project in professional sports, the creation of a Stanley Cup-contending NHL club takes a fair amount of planning and faith—often in equal parts.
The planning is the responsibility of the team’s leadership; the owner, general manager, coaching staff and scouting department have to be on the same page as far as the overall vision is concerned. The faith, on the other hand, is the fans’ job; if the fan base doesn’t trust the franchise’s plan for the future, a rebuild like the one being undertaken on Long Island can crash and burn before it even gets started.
Luckily for Islanders fans, team owner Charles Wang and general manager Garth Snow are the men in charge of tearing things down and building them up again. The fans’ faith has certainly been tested during the rebuild, but never broken.
Because Snow’s steady, methodical accumulation of minor-league prospects under Wang’s watchful eye hasn’t been flashy, it was initially difficult for the fans to appreciate how well Snow had done his job after taking over as GM in 2006. But looking back now, the quality of players in the Isles’ farm system is unparalleled by any other team the league.
When it comes to Wang, he runs the Isles in the same manner he operates many of his other business ventures, favoring profitability over public appeasement. He’s never been one to make a move because of public outcry, and with good reason. Since taking control of the team, he’s lost a reported $20 million per season. It’s hard to blame him for wanting to stick to a plan that will ensure profitability rather than throw more money at what—until recently—equated to a failed investment.
In an era when the fans expect owners and general managers—even ones whose teams are operating at a deficit—to assemble fantasy teams that win and win now, Wang and Snow have brought a refreshing concept to the business of constructing a team: patience.
Today’s professional sports landscape is littered with owners and general managers that fall victim to the pitfall of spending for immediate gratification, rather than building for long-term success. And with fans demanding instant gratification and displaying a constant “look-at-what-that-other-team-has” attitude, building for the long run is nearly impossible.
To a championship-starved fan base, “the long run” is a mythical ideal employed by a front office to placate an angry horde demanding immediate results. We, as fans, want as many Stanley Cups as possible as quickly as possible because in the long run, we’ll all be dead.
Despite the complaints of the fans, over the past five-plus years Wang and Snow have announced their unwavering commitment to staying the course. Slowly but surely, Isles fans have bought in.
And so have the players.
Newly named captain of the Islanders, John Tavares, is signed through the 2017-18 to an exceptionally cap-friendly deal (cap hit: $5.5 million). He was a finalist for the Hart Trophy last season. He’s on the short list of the NHL’s best forwards. And he only just turned 23 years old last week.
The Tavares contract is one of many that Snow has handed out to the team’s young core, all of which are reasonably priced.
Travis Hamonic—also 23 years old—is signed through 2019-20 to a bargain contract (cap hit: $3.86 million). Josh Bailey—23—has an equitable deal stretching through 2017-18 (cap hit: $3.3 million). Cal Clutterbuck is an elder statesman at 25 years old, but is signed through 2016-17 at only $2.75 million per season.
All told, the Islanders have nine players on their roster signed through the 2015-16 season—none of them to bank-breaking deals—thanks to Snow’s commitment to fielding a team of players whose main goal is not to destroy the organization’s pay structure.
Due to Wang’s internally mandated spending limits (as a means of mitigating his losses) and Snow’s ability to truly foster a team culture in Uniondale, the team is well-stocked with talent and has approximately $15.6 million in salary cap space this season, the most of any team in the NHL by approximately $2.4 million.
Compare that to teams like the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins—both of which are operating at $1.1 million above the salary cap—or the crosstown rival New York Rangers, a team with only $2.1 million in cap space this season and struggling to re-sign Derek Stepan as a result.
These are teams building for today, while the Islanders continue to build for tomorrow…and the day after, and the day after, and the day after.
As the Isles continue to look to the future, Wang and Snow will continue to employ the same tactics they’ve utilized to put this team in a position to challenge for the Stanley Cup for years. A young, talented core and plenty of cap space have left Islanders fans with visions of multiple championships as this team grows into a perennial contender.
By remaining steadfast in their shared vision for the franchise, Wang and Snow have earned the trust of the fans, even if that trust was painfully earned. Remember: the goal of the Isles’ front office has always been to build a sustainable model, in opposition to the rest of the league’s insistence that lockout-inducing contracts be handed out like party favors.
At the Barclays Center media day Sept. 12, Wang, seated between Snow and head coach Jack Capuano, looked out at the reporters in the press room and smiled:
“If life was such that you could only go up…boy, what a different world we’d live in. There’s going to be bumps in the road,” he said. “Over a period of time, we know what we have. I think it’s going to work.
“My heart’s in it. You guys have seen some of the results already and I believe we’re just beginning now.”
As always, thanks for reading us at Eyes On Isles. Make sure to follow me on the Twitter (@MichaelWillhoft) so we can talk Islanders, NHL salary cap, or economic theory. (Just kidding about the economics part. I’m barely qualified to write words on the Internet, let alone engage in conversation about economic principles.)