This is a pretty simple question, but the answers are relative to one’s perception. So I’m going to try to break it down. I’m going to put it in terms of a System Life Cycle.
This is where you take inventory of where you are. I believe in terms of a rebuild this was done during the 2007-08 season. The previous year the Islanders tried to MAINTAIN a talent level that barely got them to the playoffs. Then the exodus of 2007 happened where Smyth, Blake, Poti, Kozlov and others all ran for greener pastures. This is why the Islanders had to take a hard look at themselves. Years of poor asset management, and misguided concepts (GM by committee) had left them devoid of young talent and alienated from the Unrestricted Free Agency market.
The one true resource they had available to them was the draft. Given the new rules of the NHL, the best way to build a team was with solid two-way balance throughout the lineup, smart puck moving defenders and solid goaltending. This is also a good philosophy for a team bound by budget constraints. A top heavy forward or defensive corps will make valued additions difficult as the team grows. Mid level flexibility will be important as productivity ebbs and flows. Four balanced lines will be far less expensive than two lines dotted with mega-stars. It is also attainable through a series of well crafted drafts, and as we were to find out, a few thoughtful waiver and free agent pick ups. A defense crafted with quasi-forward defensemen paired with more physical defenders with above average skating ability is also available through the same markets.
Coaching: To lead this new era team we’ll need somebody with patience, and a system which will focus on speed, aggressive play and goaltending. Out goes Nolan, in comes Gordon. Nolan didn’t need big stars to get to the playoffs, but at best, his system of play was methodical. It lacked entertainment value, and with the talent that would be available to the team they might over-achieve for a few years and remain in the same cycle of mediocrity. Gordon will take the lumps for a few years, and instill a desire in a new breed of NHLers to be uber-aggressive and make hockey fun to watch… but not overly expensive to produce.
Talent: Due to the 7 years of indentured servitude decreed by the CBA higher draft picks will bring a turn-around faster. If a team focused on selecting the right talent based on an organizational concept they could possibly build perennial playoff contender in five years from scratch. That’s what the Islanders had going into the 2008 draft… Kyle Okposo, a few budding NHLers and scratch. The strategy must be to acquire as many opportunities as possible to re-stock the organization with talent. They targeted a player that fit their organizational design (solid two way/low risk/high intangible value) that they could acquire with less currency (5th overall selection) than they had. After two trades down to the 9th overall selection the Islanders had acquired Josh Bailey and three extra picks. They could have had Luke Schenn or Nikita Filatov (and nothing) or even Colin Wilson or Mikkel Boedker (plus two extra picks from TOR)… but they dealt to the best of their abilities and crafted one of the best drafts (so far) in Islander history. From this one draft there are at least 9 players with NHL potential:
- Josh Bailey(2008-09)
- Travis Hamonic (2010-11)
- Kirill Petrov (2012-13?)
- Matt Donovan ( 2011-12?)
- David Ullstrom (2011-12?)
- Kevin Poulin (2010-11)
- Matt Martin (2009-10)
- Jared Spurgeon (2010-11, MIN)
- Justin DiBenedetto (2010-11)
The 2008 draft, and the 2009-10 season was basically the first test on how the two components will mesh together. The draft was a huge success (we know that now), but many of the pieces needed (and still need more) refinement. The real test, at this point was how the new components would mesh with the style of play and leadership brought in with the new coach. I’d have to say that the small sample of that was somewhat successful. Gordon was given almost (Mark Streit) zero talent, and he did almost zero with it. The first overall selection in the 2009 entry draft must be seen as a success to a team that is focused on rebuilding through the draft. They also started the vetting of players who fit the mold and replaced misfit gears (Guerin, Comrie, Chris Campoli) with new potential (draft picks)
Year two of "testing" brings in mega-potential John Tavares and winning lottery ticket Matt Moulson. Re-run all the tests… there are a few rods thrown (Sim, Rechlicz), but there are enough re-valued pieces (Sutton, Thompson) to keep the machine moving forward.
Year two’s success would have to be judged on the 5th overall pick (Nino Niederreiter) . Still the actual team play was not moving forward… and this is why TESTING is so crucial. When in year three it appeared that there was little hope for the on ice product to improve beyond the level of talent growth Garth Snow decided to make a leadership change. This is change when change needed to be made. It proves to be so about a month after the installation of jack Capuano as "interim" coach.
This is on par with changing the air filter on your car when your gas mileage is suffering and you’re not really sure what the problem is. Sometimes there is no effect, sometimes you see a 20-30% improvement because the filter was choking your engine. You can’t change the engine, and diagnostics can be expensive. Well.. Snow made a smart decision and got the car up and running with almost no collateral issues.
Things are running smoothly going into the 2011-12 season.
We have a philosophy of "build through the draft". There is a flow of talent through the pipeline that was started in 2008 and has continued with success through the 2011 draft. Snow has also proven to be a wise and frugal shopper when opportunities avail themselves. A small sample of Jack Capuano’s style has not only given fans reason to believe in their team, but I have to think that his leadership has driven the team to have confidence in itself. The 2+ years of third period melt downs, being physically dominated, getting no respect from players and officials and a basic sense of defeatist empathy was turned into optimism. This goes way beyond the February trouncing of the Penguins, it can be seen in the enthusiasm and productivty of every player, in every shift. There were a few flat periods after december 16th 2010, but there weren't flat games.
THE SHIP IS GOING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. They are winning (most important), and they are standing up for themselves. The 2010 waiver pickup of Michael Grabner proves to be another lottery hit for Snow. Injuries again rattle the team, but even with likes of Dylan Reese manning the blueline, THEY ARE WINNING. To me, that says that the organization had it right and they need to be in maintenance phase.
Snow has started the MAINTENANCE phase by offering longer term contracts to the likes of Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo. That trend should continue with players like Tavares, Nielsen, Wishart and Bailey… or maybe not. Maybe some of them will turn into 2nd or 3rd round draft picks to perpetuate the talent pool.
The cupboard has some inventory. But it in no sense is it FULL. The defense in Bridgeport is young and promising with Calvin deHaan, Matt Donovan, Mark Katic and Anton Klementyev. The forward pool should be the deepest in years with Rhett Rakhshani, David Ullstrom, Justin Dibenedetto, Michael Hisey and Micheal Haley. Any one of those players could be a key contributor given an opportunity.
In each one of the previous three drafts at least one organizational need has been addressed. The level of talent in the pool should give the Islanders even more leverage when improving their team. The definition of "expendable" has changed from a player that NOBODY wants, to a player that may not fit into the Islanders’ plans, but is a valuable commodity on the open market. With kids like Ryan Strome, Kirill Kabanov, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Kirill Petrov and Johan Sundstrom eventually pressing for jobs, where will the Islanders be as assets are expiring around trade deadline time. Their draft selections may be lower in the future, but will their draft philosophies need to change? Will the UFA market open up for them now that their needs are few and far between?
Every few years the Islanders will need to assess their organizational standing, and make philosophical modifications. But I see Rebuild 1.0 as COMPLETE. Charles and Garth have rebuilt OUR CONFIDENCE in the organization. I can’t speak for everybody, but I am in a vastly different place than I was three years ago as an Islander fan. When Snow started this there were a lot of fans saying, "here we go again", or [like me] "this is NEW YORK, do we really have to rebuild?" That duo (mostly charles) has made a ton of mistakes, but together they seem to have righted the ship and have given us something to really get behind. I can’t find a reason to say that their initial task of rebuilding an organization isn’t philosophically complete. Sure, they aren’t finished in terms of on ice product, and getting the barn filled, or playoff success… but they will never be all the way THERE.
I think they can stop for a second, look at what they’ve done, pat themselves on the back… and MOVE FORWARD.