If you don’t pay attention to New York Islanders hockey, well, for the time being you may be a lucky person. The team hasn’t finished out of the bottom five in the entire league in five years. They have stated that playoffs are the goal almost every year, and they would have to play very well to finish out the year to accomplish that in this shortened season. Die-hard fans are holding out hope that at some point, a roster move will be made.
However, the culture of the hockey club is something that lends itself to anything but improvement. One player two years ago equated the atmosphere around the team to a country club. Accountability is something you will rarely see, from the top of the organization to the bottom. Starting at the top, Garth Snow and owner Charles Wang are never asked any hard questions. The media coverage of the team is small, with only one full-time writer for any newspaper, and very few attending press conferences or interviewing players. No questioning of the coach why players such as Joe Finley and Marty Reasoner continue to be played instead of making a move, even if it’s as small as calling up somebody like Brock Nelson.
This lack of coverage is exactly what Charles Wang wants.
Looking back at the Islander’s history, it’s staggering to see the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The following is a quote from winger Matt Martin in December of 2010: “Everyone hates losing. But we say we’re going to do better, we say we’re going to do things differently, but it never seems to happen. Enough talking. It’s time to take action.”
Similar words were being spoken after 7-0 and 3-1 losses mid-February, this time coming from John Tavares: “Extremely disappointing. To play like that is unacceptable; we can’t have efforts like that. It’s not good enough.” Additionally, Evgeni Nabokov weighed in: “we should be hungry… I don’t have an answer for why we aren’t.”
Now, I’d like to make it clear that Nabokov, Tavares, and Martin are three players that genuinely care about the outcome, work hard, are good leaders, and always give their full effort. However, the result is usually the same regardless of what year it is.
It all comes from the top. Garth Snow was quoted in a Newsday article published February 20th, 2013:
“As I’ve said many times, if there’s an opportunity to upgrade our roster and make the team better, we’ll do it, but not at the expense of our young guys or prospects,” Snow told Newsday. “We’re not going to mortgage our future to make a quick fix. That’s not our plan.”
Now, this may sound familiar, because it is. In an interview with The Hockey News in 2010, when asked at what point will the “rebuild” translate to on- ice success, Snow said “Obviously, we’d rather have it be sooner than later. We’re trying to develop our players as quickly as possible. We’re going to do it the right way, there won’t be any quick fixes. We don’t want to compromise our goals. We have to make the right draft picks, develop those draft picks and stick with the right free agents.”
Improving the roster mid-season is something that Snow hasn’t probably even thought about in years, since the team traded for Ryan Smyth in 2007. That was the type of move that he has to make now- packaging a couple of prospects and possibly a roster player for a veteran who could provide actual skill, as opposed to the Marty Reasoner’s and Brian Rolston’s of the world. He has grown increasingly gun-shy and afraid to trade any of his prized prospects. The only trade that he seems to make is for draft picks, which don’t do anything to improve the team in the short-term and probably the long-term either, considering the success rate of 2nd-7th round picks in the NHL. The Tim Thomas trade, giving the team “roster flexibility,” is a perfect opportunity for Snow to dump veterans at the deadline if he deems it necessary.
Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The organizational philosophy of a “rebuild” surrounding the “young core” with “the right free agents” is nothing more than an attempt to spend as little as possible. The team is in a holding pattern before Brooklyn, and there’s nobody to hold them accountable—or just nobody that cares enough to.
It must be made clear that I’m not calling for a Mike Milbury-esque trade, which Islanders fans know all too much about. We do not have to ruin our team in the short term to help in the long term, there is a medium that can be achieved through creativity. Penguins GM Ray Shero is a master at it, although it’s clear that they are at a better stage in their run for a championship than Garth Snow’s team. For example, gauging interest from the LA Kings on defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit might be a good start. If one of them can be moved, along with a prospect and/or pick, for goaltender Jonathan Bernier, it would be a perfect example of helping the team in the long term without hurting them as presently constituted. Evgeni Nabokov is aging and hasn’t played as well this season, and young goaltenders Anders Nilsson and Kevin Poulin are nothing more than giant question marks at this time.
There are things that could be done to improve this team even within such a strict budget. Having the payroll so low can lead any GM into believing their hands are tied, but more should be done. Fans haven’t seen the type of creativity necessary from Snow in a long time, perhaps since Ryan Smyth was acquired at the 2007 deadline.
Garth Snow hides behind words like “rash” and phrases like “no quick fixes” because he can’t say what he is really up to—just icing as cheap of a team as possible. There is nothing rash about a rational, well-thought out trade to improve the team. A “quick fix” doesn’t have to be looked at as a negative. Evaluating a prospect’s value and trading away a couple of them for a proven player is not a quick fix; it will help the team in the short run and in the long run. Perhaps Snow is afraid to become the next Mike Milbury, giving up on prospects too early and making absolutely awful trades just for the sake of making a trade. However, this has caused him to go too far in the opposite direction. The middle ground would be the perfect solution. Of course he has his limitations, working for Charles Wang, but the man needs to step up, acknowledge that this team is not good enough, and make a move. A real culture change is needed, which would come from a sale of the team. There have been rumors and it may happen as the Islanders moves. For now though, there needs to at least be minor moves made to help the team out. After yet another bad homestand, including losing 3 in a row, and with the trade deadline upcoming, this might be the perfect time.