The merits of Garth Snow playing hardball with Islanders free agents

Two strengths Garth Snow has exhibited during his rebuild-era tenure as Islanders GM (and wasn't it funny to hear Charles Wang kick himself for "chickening out" by not hiring Snow the first time, instead of Neil Smith?) are his patience and his stubborn adherence to sound salary cap management tactics. (To superficial Isles critics, the DiPietro deal isn't germane to this because it: a) Had Wang's fingerprints, and b) Was before the rebuild.)

While the Islanders are on a restricted budget until at least the Lighthouse project goes through -- and quite possibly long after that -- Snow has managed his young restricted free agents like he'll one day have a bevy of cap-munching stars who will necessitate value players to fill around the edges.

Sean Bergenheim is a special case since he was the first to discover the Wang Rule had teeth (sign a contract before training camp Or Else: Hand, Cut Nose, Spite Face). It is worth noting Bergenheim had a new agent when he signed his current deal: Management 1, Agent 0. But with promising-yet-limited guys like Chris Campoli, Bruno Gervais, Frans Nielsen and now Blake Comeau, Snow has stuck to his guns and not repeated other rebuilding teams' mistakes: Namely, overpaying mid-level players after being seduced by their disproportionate importance to the team.

(In one recent example of this, the rebuilding Blues paid Lee Stempniak for numbers he will likely never replicate, while the rebuilding, Cliff Fletcher-led Leafs took on that deal in hopes that he would, well, replicate.)

Not thinking of Stempniak here, but if a third-line/poor man's second-line NHL player scores 20 goals because he's getting first-line minutes on a bad team, he's still a third-line player and he should be paid accordingly. (Think of it as paying Mike Sillinger like a first-line center after scoring 26 goals in 2006-07.) One of the scarier mistakes a rebuilding team can make -- particularly in the cap era, but also true of pre-cap (re)builders like the Blackhawks and Doug MacLean-era Blue Jackets -- is lavishing money on its "best" players just because they're the best of a marginal lot.

While today's weak-roster teams may do that to get up to the cap floor, those salary slots in later years will be needed (unless your rebuild fails, in which case ... greater mistakes were made). For cap floor purposes, it's much wiser to dump a few necessary millions on short-term deals for veterans with something to prove, as Snow has done repeatedly with guys like Doug Weight, Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko -- and this summer with goalies Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron. While Jon Sim at just $1 million per was cheaper than those three, it's interesting that he got the longest deal and, so far, has been the biggest bust.

As Greg Logan reflected last week, Snow is playing the same "show me what you can do" game with young Comeau, a game he's done before:

Faced with a similar situation last year, forwards Frans Nielsen and Jeff Tambellini took the Islanders' one-way contract offers for the chance to prove themselves. Nielsen signed for a bargain price of $525,000 per year but got the security of a four-year deal. Tambellini got two years at $587,500 per. It's believed the Isles' offer to Comeau is reasonably higher than his qualifying offer of $605,000 that was rejected and would take him up to unrestricted free agency in two years.

Comeau is a guy with hands, speed and good passing vision. He's also a guy whose defensive game still needs significant improvement (If you're not a top-tier scorer, you best master the two-way game, son). Now, I like Comeau and was pleasantly surprised by his hockey sense when he first came up under veteran-loving Ted Nolan. But he also spent the first quarter of last season in the AHL because his style hadn't adapted to Scott Gordon's preaching.

That is not a position of leverage for a restricted free agent, which is a class of poor leverage to begin with. Garth Snow knows it. That's why Snow can stick to his guns while waiting out an agreement. If the Islanders are going to spend their resources (salary, cap room, roster space) to improve Comeau's game so that he reaches his peak just in time for unrestricted free agency, they are wise not to pay him a premium salary now -- which, times two, will be the starting point for UFA negotiations. If he's worth a big pay day when he becomes a UFA, so be it. If not, the Islanders benefit from their prudence.

It's a good and worrisome question whether some young players will be turned off by this miserly approach -- the proverb, "Hockey players have the memory of an elephant" comes to mind. Could the Isles be saving a few hundred thousand now just to be burned by bitter homegrown RFAs-turned-UFAs who flee later? Possibly.

But history tells us when a player reaches unrestricted free agency, he's well-versed in the line, "It's a business." If a guy is working out here, he'll look to sign long term before then. If not, he'll tell us his agent's talking points from Hockey Business 101.

You'll notice that omitted in this discussion is the curious case of one Nate Thompson, who settled for a two-way deal after filing for (but before hitting) arbitration, the hearing for which would have been today. Let's just say that this, from the Isles press release:

"Nate made an immediate impact last season, fitting right into our team system," said Garth Snow, General Manager, New York Islanders.  "He is the type of player every team looks for by giving an extra effort every time he steps on the ice."

...is not something Snow would have said about Thompson during the arbitration hearing. A guy like Thompson is a coach-pleaser -- a hustle guy who lays everything on the line for the team. There is something admirable in that, but there is also a cold reality reflected by it: This yeoman style is the only way a player like Thompson makes, and stays in, the NHL.

It's great that he does it, and fans who love that will love him for it (others will point to 4 points, 43 games). But it's something that, in the cap era of the NHL, you can't cash in for more than peanuts as an RFA.

So Thompson is a role player who (or whose agent) tried to parlay his favor with the coach into a guarantee of a one-way salary or some other form of security. Snow didn't budge, and the Thompson camp wisely settled just before the arbitration hit.

But the other youngsters mentioned are the ones with more upside, and its Snow's handling of them that has been truly impressive. Gervais looks fine when paired with Mark Streit (though his deal was signed before we saw that on-ice pairing); Nielsen could become a fantastic, under-appreciated third-line center. Chris Campoli was Chris Campoli. Comeau may become part-sneaky scorer, part-agitator. All have real strengths and potential. All (until Campoli opted out) are real pieces of the rebuild. But none were going to shove guys out of the way on the depth chart.

And that is why it's good to see Snow playing "It's a business" with them, while saving the back-flipping outlandish commitments for the top-tier talent, which will hopefully one day include John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and at least one or two more studs. It's not fun creating a class structure in your team game, but the NHL's salary cap necessitates it now more than ever before.

Scheduling note: I'm back on dry land, the cooler having been ripped from my hands. Expect posting to resume from me or the other contributors at a normal daily pace. Special thanks to Mike and those who kept chiming in while I was Internet-challenged.

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