Despite the uncertainty still facing the New York Islanders this season, Garth Snow should get a tiny bit of credit.
Garth Snow might be one of the most frustrating general managers in hockey – or at least he is to New York Islanders fans. His head-scratching commitment to Jack Capuano and seeming acceptance of mediocrity or at the very least, status quo are just a couple questionable examples on his résumé.
We could be here for a long time listing more but just utter Josh Bailey’s name and the hellfire that starts is a good example.
Snow’s done some good things, though, all while faced with stingy ownership and an organization whose very brand has suffered hit after hit over the last 20 years. I’m pretty sure the Rangers logo sold Jimmy Vesey more than the actual team or its prospects for the future.
Snow’s not only had to rebuild a hockey team to put on the ice, but the organization’s credibility and stability, which is still taking hits. So sure, let’s get excited about moving to Queens or back to Long Island, when the reality of what that picture paints is continued instability and question marks for the future.
That looks great to potential free agents, yup. But I digress.
In the midst of organizational uncertainty and instability, Snow has rebuilt the system, stocked some pretty grand prospects (Vesey might have cracked the top 5 on that list), and built a team that’s at least making the playoffs on a consistent basis – for now. The good that Snow’s done is pretty tangible.
The Clutterbuck Factor
While the majority may look at this trade as a negative because of the talent sent the other way to Minnesota, it’s not. Nino Niederreiter wasn’t going to play for the Islanders. The Islanders could have sat on him but at the time needed immediate help.
Cal Clutterbuck was that help. He didn’t bring the same level of talent to the team, but he became a guy who wanted to be in that room. That was something Niederreiter never would have been and good riddance to that kind of rubbish.
Here’s the thing. Clutterbuck’s talent is nothing to shake a stick at. He scored 15 goals while averaging less than 12 minutes a game, on a fourth line that included Matt Martin – A+ physical guy, but hardly an offensive weapon. He scored a chunk of important goals in 2015-16, including a team leading five game winners (tied with John Tavares).
He was a leader on the penalty kill and an overall leader on the team. He might very well be the reason the Islanders fourth line was possibly the best in hockey and could be argued that he doesn’t belong on a fourth line at all.
The Vanek Experiment
This is probably going to be my most controversial addition to this list but I’m going to make it short and fairly (bitter)sweet. Thomas Vanek was an absolute aberration in a fairly long list of more shrewd, cap-friendly moves for Snow because of the risk.
Trading fan favorite Matt Moulson was a strike right off the bat. The reality, though, is Vanek’s talent eclipsed Moulson’s and he had the ability to elevate Tavares (and he DID) in ways our beloved 26 couldn’t. Snow pursued him but was rejected (in retrospect, thankfully).
Vanek’s since been bought out and is attempting to rejuvenate his career in Detroit. Moulson is in the midst of a contract that would probably have fans on Long Island screaming about now.
The first round draft pick was a tipping point and the Islanders lost this particular trade on paper. The risk is what’s key here. Hold onto the notion that Snow will take a risk because we’ve got to cross our fingers that we could see a more daring move in the near future to bring a big talent back that will actually help complete a team on the fence.
The Free Agent Alternative
For too many years the free agent market has not successfully extended to Long Island. Snow hasn’t been able to take advantage of it for a number of reasons including his own cash-strapped hands and the down-trodden creature the Islanders organization had become.
The light at the end of the tunnel had been the guys who came by force of trade but stayed willingly. It’s something Snow has had to build.
Many are in agreement that Jaroslav Halak is not the goaltender that will take the Islanders to the next level. When Garth Snow acquired his rights and then signed him, however, it was a big move and Halak was a big goalie for the majority of 2014-15.
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He filled an immediate need but has fallen into the ‘what have you done for me lately’ category. We’re moving into year three of his contract and if he is what the Islanders are going with, he has to return to the level of play he showed during the months of October, November, and December of 2014.
Enter Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. When Snow overpaid to sign these two guys, it was a good move. It was understood that they were overpaid, but pulling in capable and moderately talented free agents was necessary. The Islanders depth chart necessitated it.
While Grabovski battled injuries, he and Kulemin still had solid first Islander seasons that made the signings successful. While both players’ salaries are currently an albatross around Snow’s neck, they still broke the mold of players willingly coming to Long Island.
The Defensemen Expansion
Just three seasons ago the Islanders top defensive pair was Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald. The rest of the defense was virtually a revolving door involving Lubomir Visnovsky, Brian Strait, Calvin de Haan, and Matt Carkner, just to name a few. It was sad times, people.
Then the magic happened. Nick Leddy and Boychuk were coups. Maybe Ville Pokka becomes a successful player for the Chicago Blackhawks, but Leddy has a lot of smooth skating, D-activating years for the Islanders. Boychuk brought stability, leadership, physicality, and a genuine likability that has made him invaluable to this team.
But let’s talk about Thomas Hickey. He’s a first rounder that Snow grabbed off of waivers. He’s one of those diamond-in-the-rough pick ups and has become a steady defenseman for the Islanders. He’s not going to light the arena on fire night after night but he’s got the best OT goal celly ever and he’s been nothing but capable and reliable for this team.
Ryan Pulock is knocking at the door for a regular roster spot and there are kids in the system that provide depth at the position. This is a tough position to build but over time, Snow has done it.
The Tavares Implementation
If Garth Snow did nothing else right, there is always John Tavares. The idea that it could have been touch-and-go back in 2009 is a scary thought, despite the successes of the top three picks. But Snow picked JT and the course of the franchise changed despite the efforts of Murphy’s Law to keep it down.
This could very easily turn into a love letter to Tavares but that’s better saved for another time – for when he signs that contract extension next summer.
Instead, it’s this. Statistically speaking Tavares has never lit the world on fire like Crosby, but he has been everything for the fans of this team who needed to hold onto hope that there is a future.
He’s scored immeasurably big goals, given the people a concrete reason to shell out their money and show up, and he’s done it with the kind of grace, aplomb, and admirability that no other player could have. He has overcome the organization’s downward trajectory, the barely-breathing brand, and he brought it back to life.
Snow and the organization have been careful with him, have handed over responsibility in increments and every now and then, Tavares takes the league spotlight and shows everyone else what every Islander fan already knows: he’s the only one who could have done exactly this.
And Snow has to get a little credit for not only making Tavares his choice, but giving the captain the time and room to groove.
Now he just needs to gives Tavares a true winger with which to really fly.
It’s time to finish it.