Of all the complaints I've seen hurled at Garth Snow for the 2011-12 New York Islanders, the worst has to be the complaints about the team not keeping Zenon Konopka. He's an easy lightning rod to go to though, as the Senators pushed the Rangers to the brink in their first round matchup.
But focusing on a 4th-line center who gets minimal minutes when arguing about what Garth did wrong last year is a silly case to be making. At the end of the season Konopka is going to be a UFA, again.
If there is anywhere that deserves the bulk of criticism, it's the decision to go with Mark Eaton, Mike Mottau, Milan Jurcina and to a certain extent Steve Staios on the blueline. Jurcina, who has a career long tendency to look like an NHL caliber player for bursts at a time, fooled Snow into signing him to an extension last year. But it shouldn't be surprising that the struggles of Mottau and Eaton quickly caught up with the this season.
Mottau and Eaton both got injured around the same time last season, as the Islanders were in the midst of their November swoon. When Eaton went down the team was 11-23 with him in the lineup, with Mottau in the lineup the team was an amazing 4-16. There were a lot of things wrong with the team during its swoon, but the replacement of Eaton and Mottau with Jack Hillen and Bruno Gervais obviously helped things.
Going into the 2011-12 season though, the decision was made to dump players who could have been kept around for cheap. Both Hillen and Gervais were RFAs, although the Islanders did not even bother to qualify Hillen. They also dumped Gervais to Tampa for future considerations. These two weren't stars, and it should take a lot going wrong to look back on their play with nostalgia. But considering how Dylan Reese came in and outplayed the fearsome foursome of Mottau, Eaton, Jurcina and Staios, one wonders how Hillen and Gervais might have done.
Instead though we get the same tired quotes and arguments we have heard for the last few years. The conjecture that behind the scenes Rick DiPietro was pushing for Konopka to be out. Or that Wang wants a team of wimps and non-goons on the ice. You know the arguments as well as I do, I don't want to bother repeating them. Don't get me wrong, I liked Konopka and what he brought. But one fluke bad season doesn't suddenly make him a superior player to Marty Reasoner.
Instead the argument can be made that Snow seems to draw a line between HIS players and those he inherited. He doesn't seem willing to accept that he made a mistake. Giving two-year contracts to Eaton and Mottau in summer 2010 began to appear like obvious mistakes at the end of their first season. Yet instead of fixing the problem, he doubles down by getting rid of Gervais, Hillen (and to a smaller extent, Radek Martinek) and bringing in another golden oldie in Staios to fix things.
There seems to be a disconnect in talent analysis when it comes to what is on the team, and what is available out there in free agency. Snow has hit gold in free agency in guys like Matt Moulson, Mark Streit, Dwayne Roloson and P.A. Parenteau. Other than Roloson, the other three were mid to late 20s guys who had shown a ton of talent but weren't given real chances by their formers teams. Mottau, Eaton and Staios were guys whose teams let them loose cause they were upgrading. Jurcina eternally flirts with looking NHL caliber.
There was never a time that Eaton/Mottau/Jurcina/Staios were going to be an upgrade over Hillen/Gervais/Martinek. If Snow had to sign Eaton and Mottau to two-year deals just to get them to play on Long Island, then he should have been willing to swallow the mistake and buy out the deals or bury the guys where they could do no harm. But the question is, how much were Gervais/Hillen/Martinek Snow's guys? Gervais and Martinek were both brought in by Milbury. The long term plan for Hillen was probably never for him to be a full-time NHL guy as an undrafted UFA out of college.
The roster has changed radically in just the last three seasons. Of the top 15 point scorers for the Islanders in 08-09, only four remain. Looking back though, you might question the letting go of someone like Richard Park. After spending a year in the Swiss League he was back in the NHL playing 4th line center for the Penguins. He had a better season than Reasoner at a much cheaper price. Even Park's short-term replacement, Konopka, was a downgrade.
When a team misses the playoffs for the 5th year in a row, there's a lot going wrong. There's a lot to argue and debate about. But Konopka at this point is beyond beating a dead horse. As it is, Reasoner might not even have a spot next season if Casey Cizikas makes the team. Most of us would agree that Cizikas would be an upgrade over Konopka too, so it's a moot point. There are much bigger issues with this team beyond the 4th-line center.