Fair to Compare?
Bill Torrey and Garth Snow. One was the original architect; the other has been hired to perform renovations. Fourteen years, many of them forgettable, passed between the time one left and the other came aboard. But there’s a buzz on Long Island these days; more people are optimistic today than in a very long time, and much of the credit is due the current General Manager. Do his contributions to date place him on the same path to greatness that Torrey paved? Or is it an insult to Torrey’s legacy to even suggest such a thing? Let’s take a look.
The Torrey Years: February 1972 – August 1992
From Day One Torrey committed to building through the draft, opting for a gradual climb to excellence rather than quick-fix instant gratification with smaller long-term rewards. Like every GM he picked his share of lemons, but his eye for talent was as sharp as any that ever ran a draft table. His highlights include Potvin, Trottier, Bossy, Gillies, Lafontaine, Nystrom, Langevin, Persson, Morrow, Tonelli, a pair of Sutters, Hrudey, and Flatley, plus numerous others that played lesser roles or were traded for assets. He also snagged a young Billy Smith in his expansion draft.
In his first season at the helm the team went 12-60-6. They improved annually over the next seven straight years and sported winning records every year between 1975 and 1988. They peaked in 1981-82 with a 54-16-10 record, good for 118 points and just six wins shy of the league record. The Torrey-built Islanders rattled off seven 100+ point seasons in a nine-year span, leading the league three times and, of course, winning those four consecutive Stanley Cups.
The second half of the Eighties were less prosperous for the Isles, but Torrey orchestrated a renaissance of sorts in the early 90s. He traded a disgruntled Lafontaine and several other vets in separate deals that brought in such key cogs as Turgeon, Thomas, Krupp and Hogue. Torrey was subsequently forced out in ‘92, but the reformed Islander team he built shocked the hockey world a year later by toppling the two-time defending champion Penguins before succumbing to eventual Cup winners Montreal.
Not quite ready to call it a career, Torrey took his skills to another expansion team in Florida. Three short years later, while the Isles watched from the sidelines, he improbably took his fledgling Panthers to their first (and, to date, last) Cup final.
The Snow Years: July 2006 – Present
Snow didn’t start with an expansion team, though it could be argued what he did inherit wasn’t a great deal ahead of that stage. He also has committed to a rebuild from within, though under somewhat different circumstances. Unlike with Torrey, Snow’s hands are largely tied due to budgetary constraints, and the pricy free agents are largely out of reach. Still, he has displayed an astute eye for talent, drafting such mainstays as Okposo, MacDonald, Bailey, Hamonic, Donovan, Poulin, Tavares, Cizikas and Nelson. Prospects Strome, Reinhart, Pulock, Ness, de Haan, Lee, and others are in various stages of development.
In his first season the team went 40-30-12, a slight improvement from 36-40-6 the previous year. But a rebuild is a painful process, and they struggled the next five seasons, failing to crack the 80-point plateau and missing the playoffs in each season. The shortened 2012-13 campaign saw a return to the post season, and a heartbreaking first-round ouster that left fans deflated, but cautiously optimistic.
The cornerstone is Tavares, a bona fide star in the making. Thus far Snow hasn’t managed to surround him with the same calibre of supporting cast that Torrey assembled, but he has displayed a keen eye for stopgap measures. While waiting for the team to gel, on a shoestring budget he has managed to fill the gaps with short-term journeymen such as Brad Boyes and Mark Streit, and breathe new life into castoff players like Lubomir Visnovsky, Colin McDonald, Evgeni Nabokov and, most recently, Radek Martinek.
It’s an unfair comparison, of course, and one that should be taken in the spirit in which it’s intended. It would be nearly impossible to fairly or accurately compare the two, because we’re really comparing different eras of hockey entirely. Torrey built a championship team in an era when that was possible to do in a relatively short time. There were fewer than half the teams than there are now, and a far larger portion made the post season. Nearly half the league was just a few years removed from being expansion teams. Which is not to take anything away from his accomplishments. Torrey was a hockey genius, plain and simple; nearly unequaled by his contemporaries, and ranks among the best ever.
In an age of league parity and free agency, where players often no longer stay with one team more than a handful of seasons, much less their entire career, Snow has laid the groundwork for a competitive hockey club. How far along the development manages to get remains to be seen, but the foundation, at least, is solid. Some struggles in the early portion of the current season notwithstanding, his patience and diligence have started to pay dividends. If he doesn’t get antsy and sticks to the game plan, his version of the Islanders could turn into something exciting to watch and follow.