July 28th, 2013. Late at night. I couldn’t sleep, so I browsed the internet for Islanders news, as an obsessed mind like mine tends to do. In the doldrums of summer, there is really no hockey news, so the little things tend to be noted. Thus the official Islanders twitter said it was Garth Snow’s birthday.
Maybe it was because it was late at night, the time for crazy experiments, but I had an idea. I was a big fan of Snow’s work, so I decided to send him a birthday email. With the clock ticking down until the 28th ended, I quickly composed an email and sent it to the official site. It was syrupy and very complimentary of his actions as GM, but those were my honest thoughts at the time.
I didn’t expect anything back, so I was surprised to find a reply the next morning. It wasn’t much, just a “thanks for kind birthday wishes” and “I’ll see you at the Old Barn, this is going to a fun season”. But the “Sent from my iPhone” postscript implied this was the real deal.
I used to think Garth was the real deal as a GM, too.
I wasn’t technically a fan at the time. I had been scarred by the Milbury years, both through stories and seeing the likes of Chara or Luongo having all-star careers. The idea of trading young players for quick fixes became anathema in my mind, so I was relieved when Snow did the opposite. He was taking his time, not letting anything rattle him, never overreacting. Conservative and Patient.
He kept collecting draft picks, and drafting well. Sure, the Josh Bailey pick wasn’t great, but that was an incredibly weak draft. And, in retrospect, trading up for deHaan likely wasn’t a smart use of assets, but Calvin’s still a very strong defenseman. I wanted to see calmness and shrewedness, and I was rewarded. Snow became a master at finding undervalued gems: Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, P.A. Parenteau. Where most GMs saw the waiver wire as worthless, Snow actually used it to get strong players like Thomas Hickey.
And when he let people go, it seemed to be the right move. The Moulson-Vanek deal shocked me at first, but Moulson declined since he had left the Isles. Blake Comeau hit his high with us, never becoming a great player. I remember emailing Snow in November of 2013, when the team was near the basement and nothing looked good. I reiterated my faith in him, and he responded with a kind thank you. A shorter response, but understandable due to the pressures he was in. He didn’t seem to be overreacting to anything. Conservative and patient.
When the Maple Leafs were drafting big guys without skill, Snow stocked up on talent. Nino Niederreiter. Ryan Strome. Ryan Pulock. The Griffin Reinhart selection made sense given that there was consensus on any of the players at the time, and I dismissed the rumor that Snow had offered all his picks for the #2 selection. He wouldn’t do anything that crazy. He drafted Josh Ho-Sang, the poster child of new-school hockey, a kid who pissed off traditionalists everywhere. And he cursed on live TV defending the pick! That bravado, that “Screw the old guys, I’m doing something different and smart” made me smile. His trades were strong too—I remember leaping in the air off my bed when the Leddy-Boychuk deals happened. And that season was a validation of everything he did well. The conservatism and patience had paid off. And good times were ahead.
The 2015-2016 season rolled around, and I had accepted (and was fine with) Okposo leaving. I knew they’d keep Frans Nielsen, he was too valuable. The team ended up being out-possessed a lot, but that was on the coaching staff, not Snow. And he made another shrewd move at the deadline, getting Shane Prince for a 3rd when most competitors were spending first-round picks for older guys who were just as valuable at most.
I don’t know when things changed. Maybe it was when the budget constraints were lifted. Maybe losing George McPhee to Vegas meant he didn’t have a strong voice in his ear. Maybe I had let my support for him blind me to picking up Brain Strait on waivers, re-signing Eric Boulton, giving Colin McDonald a roster spot, and not having any goaltending in 2014. Maybe he had always been like this. I don’t need to recount this offseason’s pain. We’re living it now. Any illusions of Snow making smart and shrewd moves melted when he turned down Travis Hamonic for Taylor Hall and waived PAP. When he signed the older veterans, seemingly valuing intangibles over pure skill. When he hasn’t fired the coach responsible for putting together a system where this team has no passing outlets. When it seems like every draft pick has stalled at best.
Snow is conservative and patient. That means he doesn’t do dastardly trades or mortgage the future. But it means he’s too old-school in his roster construction. It means he worries about rushing players to the point where they never play in the NHL. It means the kid he picked as the epitome of new-school hockey is being commanded to dump and chase.
Before the season started, I emailed him birthday wishes again. Personally, I was shaken by the moves he made. I didn’t think most of them were good, but I only focused on the positive, praising him for the second round of the playoffs and singing guys like Parenteau.
This year, he never emailed back.