3.5 Years In: Garth Snow's team taking shape

Hardly a day goes by when Islanders fans don't think of the team in the context of the word "rebuild" -- even if that's not a word GM Garth Snow likes to use.

But that's what's happening for the past two seasons, and a comparison of the roster constructed by Snow for 2007-08 to the one we see at the tail end of 2009-10 gives us a glimpse of how Snow course-corrected in early 2008 and put his stamp on the team.

The 2007-08 roster is a good comparison not just because it was the first season for which Snow had a full summer to tinker (Neil Smith signed several of the 2006 free agents), but also because it was the final season before Snow concluded -- and convinced Charles Wang -- that the franchise needed to pull back to scratch rather than continue grabbing stopgap free agents whose collective ceiling was yet another one-and-done 8th playoff seed.

Through the draft and a few select free agency signings, Snow is building a new core for the Islanders. With more pending free agents likely to exit and another draft (with a pick possibly high enough to help in 2010-11), this summer should bring about the moment where Snow can say, "This, this is the team I've been working on."

2007-08 Roster: The Post-Smyth Push, or Mediocrity's Last Stand

When Snow famously flipped some inherited assets he found expendable for a run at the playoffs with Ryan Smyth, it was with the idea of coaxing (and extending) Smyth to fall in love with a second Blue and Orange franchise whose heyday came when only Mr. T could be B.A. Baracus. That flirtation wasn't enough to woo Smyth, however, so Snow reverted to a Plan B with second-choice free agents like Bill Guerin -- immediately named captain to replace the bought-out Alexei Yashin -- and Ruslan Fedotenko.

But Smyth's rejection, the Islanders' bare prospect cupboard, and the realization that stopgaps like Mike Comrie as #1 center isn't going to get it done, helped Snow swallow the hard pill the Islanders should have swallowed years ago: A proper rebuild.

The main components of the 2007-08 roster are a good picture of that moment of transition. Virtually all of the free agents Snow added were stopgaps now departed, while the inherited pieces he's hung on to are either cheap, impossible to trade, or part of the core going forward:

Inherited Acquired Outcome/Status
Miro Satan Inherited (FA) Walk
Trent Hunter Inherited (trade) Signed 12-13
Mike Sillinger Inherited (FA) Retired (injury)
Sean Bergenheim Inherited (draft) pending RFA
Andy Hilbert Inherited (FA) Walk
Blake Comeau Inherited (draft) Signed 10-11
Jeff Tambellini Inherited (trade) pending RFA
Chris Simon Inherited (FA) Trade (6th - DiBenedetto)
Shawn Bates Inherited (trade) Walk (injury)
Radek Martinek Inherited (draft) Signed 10-11
 DEFENSEMEN    
Chris Campoli Inherited (draft) Trade (1st - share of de Haan)
Bruno Gervais Inherited (draft) Signed 10-11
Brendan Witt Inherited (FA) Waived, but signed 10-11
 SNOW ADDITIONS
 FORWARDS    
Added Acquired Outcome/Status
Mike Comrie FA Trade (MacAmmond, walk)
Bill Guerin FA Trade (3rd-flipped)
Josef Vasicek FA Walk
Ruslan Fedotenko FA Walk
Richard Park FA pending UFA
Jon Sim FA pending UFA
DEFENSEMEN
Andy Sutton FA Trade (2nd-2010)
Bryan Berard FA Walk
Marc-Andre Bergeron Trade (Grebeshkov) Trade (3rd-Petrov)
Freddy Meyer Trade (Zhitnik)
*note: 1-month 2007 PHX waiver sojourn
pending UFA


2009-10 Down the Stretch: The Transition is Here

Fast-forward two years and two drafts, with a new groom 'em young coach and two [edit] three top-10 picks in the lineup, and you have a different picture.

Obviously as a GM's tenure gets longer, he's going to have fewer inherited players than when he started. But today Snow doesn't even have much of what he gave himself that first full summer: Just two depth players (Park and Sim) remain from the free agents he himself signed before the transition, and the only inherited players he still has were either existing young prospects or two long-tenured Isles (and formerly Snow's teammates) who Snow signed to long extensions to be a lasting part of the core (Hunter and Martinek).

The rest are Snow's brand: His picks (Bailey, Tavares, Martin), his free agents (Streit, Hillen). This is truly shaping into his team now, and this summer's picks and free agents will all but complete the transition to Snow's Team -- though obviously not complete the "rebuild." [Edit: Obviously Asst. GM and Director of Amateur Scouting Ryan Jankowski is a HUGE part of this equation. That's implied when I refer to Snow's regime, but probably shouldn't be left out.]

Inherited Acquired Status
Kyle Okposo Inherited (draft) Signed 10-11
Frans Nielsen Inherited (draft) Signed 11-12
Blake Comeau Inherited (draft) Signed 10-11
Trent Hunter Inherited (trade) Signed 12-13
Sean Bergenheim Inherited (draft) pending RFA
Jeff Tambellini Inherited (trade) pending RFA
 
DEFENSEMEN    
Bruno Gervais Inherited (draft) Signed 10-11
Andrew MacDonald Inherited (draft) Signed 13-14
Dustin Kohn Inherited (draft) pending RFA
Radek Martinek Inherited (draft) Signed 10-11
 

 SNOW ADDITIONS
 
FORWARDS    
  Acquired Status
Matt Moulson FA pending RFA
John Tavares Drafted 09 Signed 11-12
Josh Bailey Drafted 08 Signed 10-11
Richard Park FA pending UFA
Rob Schremp Waiver claim pending RFA
Doug Weight FA pending UFA
Jon Sim FA pending UFA
Tim Jackman FA pending UFA
Matt Martin Drafted 08 Signed 11-12
 DEFENSEMEN
Mark Streit FA Signed 12-13
Jack Hillen FA Signed 10-11
Freddy Meyer Trade (Zhitnik)
*note: 1-month 2007 PHX waiver sojourn
pending UFA
Dylan Reese Trade (Moore) pending RFA

There is one position I've left out of this, but that's because it's a whole different animal. With Dwayne Roloson signed through next season and Rick DiPietro's health an open question, that's a topic for another day.

As for the other positions, many of us have our complaints in terms of the team's construction for games this season (e.g. "Why was the blueline left untouched last summer? What of an added scoring winger for this year?"). But for the bigger long-term picture, it's clear Snow has been sticking steadfast to the plan he shifted to at the end of 2007-08: Develop the prospects who were here (Okposo, Nielsen), add or identify/extend internal pieces for the core (Streit, Nielsen), draft character players (Bailey, Martin), and start to lock up core pieces as they emerge (Nielsen ... MacDonald?). [Edit: Did I really just list Nielsen in all three categories? You bet I did. I reserve this space as 100% pure Danish kool-aid zone.]

This summer will be interesting not just for the draft and the free agents added (two defensemen have been promised), but also for how Snow handles contracts for guys like Moulson and Schremp, who last summer were not in the picture, yet now appear to be Snow's biggest steals of the year. In the past, he's extended Nielsen, Hunter, Martinek and MacDonald to longer term in exchange for lower salary. Will that trend continue? Will he add size via free agency?

Occasionally I profess that the first stage of a rebuild is easy: Aside from the discipline required and a thick skin for the ridicule you take through your team's growing pains, tearing a rotten foundation down is a no-brainer really. It's the second stage that's really challenging: Making make-or-break decisions with actual players who might not pan out or, if you're cutting them, might actually prove you wrong at their next stop. That's the stage that's now coming into view.

Similarly, I always say the hard questions about Snow's performance will start to come after this summer. Again, we can quibble about the roster construction the last two seasons, but it was never a secret that stocking a contender through free agency wasn't in the cards, so we were quibbling over the scraps of a young, underdeveloped and understocked team.

Now, however, playoffs for next season is the stated goal. There are real openings that free agency can fill. There is a core of young kids emerging who need supplementing. The question at the next few trade deadlines will be what Snow did to get the Isles into the playoffs, or deeper, rather than what did he do to salvage value for expiring assets.

Soon, the real fun starts.

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