Despite the first round loss, the 2012-13 season is seen as a success, an important step forward for the New York Islanders. While many arguments will be made that Hart nominee John Tavares is solely responsible for the club's progress, it does take more then one person to make a team. And the man who has put together roughly 90% of the Islanders roster is Garth Snow.
Over the past month, we've seen Snow garner praise from the more analytically inclined set of hockey commentators for the team he assembled this past season, as well as praise from his harshest critics, Islanders fans.
He took some extraordinary chances this season. It began with the trade for Lubomir Visnovsky. The loss of a second round pick (which many thought would be an early pick) to rent a 36-year-old defenseman on the downside of his career seemed almost Milbury-esque. Then Visnovsky didn't want to play on Long Island, awakening all kinds of Islanders fan insecurities.
But Snow stuck to his guns, got Lubo in uniform and it worked out great. The team was remarkably better with him in the lineup.
Yet it also goes back to the waiver wire claims, picking up Brian Strait, Thomas Hickey, Joe Finley and Keith Aucoin. Each player was a positive addition to the team (well maybe not the one that rhymes with Ginley), with Strait garnering himself a 3-year extension.
Surprising Depth on D
When you look at it though, despite some saying the moves were no-brainers, Snow never had to make those claims (and several other GMs didn't). He could have just as easily stood pat and gone with homegrown youngsters. Matt Donovan, who tore it up in his second AHL season, seemed ready to break through to the NHL this year. You could make similar arguments for Aaron Ness and Ty Wishart. Both were former high draft picks looking to get a shot.
You always want your draft picks to succeed, and to succeed with you. We've seen the Islanders give an abundance of chances to guys like Blake Comeau, Sean Bergenheim and Josh Bailey. Moreso than the Rob Schremps or Jeff Tambelleni's that have passed through the organization. Donovan and Ness' continued success in the AHL is promising. But the big leagues is what makes or breaks a prospect.
No matter how well they are playing in the AHL, Donovan and Ness are still young. They are still going to make mistakes. In a short season and short training camp, you don't have games that you can just throw away on evaluation and tutoring. You can't lose a game because of a rookie mistake and shake it off. Every point counts. Hickey and Strait both had four seasons of AHL play under their belt. Despite this being their first full season of NHL hockey, they didn't made those little mistakes.
Now that Strait and Hickey have had success, in the long run it should make the team better. If any of number of young Islander defenders want a spot, they are going to have to push someone out. It's also a nice bit of insurance, considering the Islanders' most promising defenseman prospect, 2009 first round pick Calvin de Haan, has had a career marred with injuries.
The same could be said for the well traveled Aucoin. The 34-year-old had played 102 games across seven NHL seasons but was largely relegated to the AHL. In the AHL though he has 673 games played and 777 points in 11 seasons. While he's never been able to convert that scoring touch to his NHL play, his play on the 3rd/4th lines has been an upgrade over seasons past for the Islanders. Almost as important, he spent several games as a healthy scratch this season and yet didn't miss a beat when he returned to the lineup.
It's more then developing youngsters though; the Islanders have continually struggled to attract marquee free agents. Snow has tried to work around this, even trading a draft pick for the rights to talk to Christian Ehrhoff before free agency opened in 2011. Time and again though the team has come up short. But the additions of Evgeni Nabokov and Lubo (like James Wisniewski before them) were a way around this.
While each player for a time refused to report to the team, they eventually came to the Island ... and liked it. They proved what Snow had been saying all along about the team: if you play on the Island, you'll love it. Each player has signed a contract extension with the team. Along with the playoff appearance and the resolution of where the team will be playing in 2015, this should give the Islanders offers to UFAs a new glimmer.
In the time that the GM of the Year award has been handed out, it has gone to underdog teams two of three seasons. The surprise Coyotes got Don Maloney the award in 09-10. In 11-12 the Blues won the award after dominating in a season in which they were thought to at best be contending for a playoff spot.
When you look at the two biggest moves of this offseason, the Rangers trading for Rick Nash and the Wild signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, those were teams that were going to be dominant.
Instead the Rangers clinched the playoffs after the Islanders had locked in their spot. The Wild locked up their spot in their last game of the season. Parise finished with 38 points in 48 games, Nash with 42 in 44 games. Islanders bargain bin signing of Brad Boyes? 35 points in 48 games. The Wild spent nearly $200 million in order to become the 8th seed, just like the Islanders. They put up much less of a fight against their conference's top seed than the Isles did.
People point out that it seems like the Islanders have been rebuilding forever. But the reality is that the rebuild didn't begin in earnest until the failure of the 08-09 season. Rick DiPietro was a good enough goalie to carry a questionable team to the playoffs the season before, when his injuries really began. Maybe if he doesn't get hurt the Islanders continue to fight for the 8th playoff seed over the last few seasons. But the team is obviously better today than it would have been.
From the drafting of John Tavares, the team has been on a slow but clear upswing. Today it looks like a no-brainer to draft Tavares, but at the time there were plenty of questions about his skating. Combine it with a monster blueliner in Victor Hedman who could be a cornerstone in any defense, along with Matt Duchene's promising JR career and you could see the debates to pick up any of the three. (For example, the LHH Mock Draft Pick)
In 2013, the Islanders and Blue Jackets were probably the two most surprising teams in the league. That the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs while the Islanders made it should have been the biggest difference between the two when it came time to vote for GM Of The Year. (In reality, the three finalists are a little puzzling. Of those three, here's betting on Ray Shero to win it, even though trades with the idiots in Calgary shouldn't be counted.)
Some were calling Snow a bold genius and others called it a mistake back when he got Ryan Smyth. But since then if you go through his trade history he really hasn't lost a trade. Even the Smyth trade, in which he gave up three first rounders (well two former firsts that flamed out plus one pick that has yet to produce) ended up better for the Islanders than the Oilers. Just as an example, look at the Brock Nelson trade. He gave up 2 second round picks to move up 5 spots. The Hawks ended up picking Ludvig Rensfeldt and Kent Simpson. Neither is as close to making an impact as Nelson.
The trades, the patience, working out ways to get talented players in the fold and even managing whatever budget Wang is giving him. Snow has done just about everything you could want from a GM in his circumstances. This even as once-heralded names like Ryan Jankowski left the organization, and as outsiders have claimed that the Isles are spending little to no money on scouting.
Given the expectations, given the results, and given where this team appears to be headed, Snow deserves the award for this season at least.