Someone once told me, "Be careful what you wish for, boy. You just may get it." So I wished for a million dollars and a week later that same someone dropped a crate stuffed with one million one dollar bills on me.
Some of the readers of this article don’t recall Mike Milbury. He was Garth Snow’s predecessor – well, not including Neil Smith, but we don’t really count him, do we?
In truth, Mad Mike was an idiot, both in form and function. I think it goes back to a certain shoe incident involving a rowdy fan who said unkind things about his wife, or maybe it was his mother. Needless to say, he’s maintained his status as the village’s biggest idiot upon the national stage. Many of you know of what I speak, though at this point some of you may be too young to recall.
But this really isn’t a diatribe about Mad Mike as much as an endorsement of Garth Snow. From humble beginnings as a back up goalie, he rose to prominence as the Isles’ GM at the behest of former majority owner Charles Wang. Surprisingly, in his first year he made a few notable moves, including trading three former Milbury draft picks (who never amounted to much) for Ryan Smyth in hopes that he would stabilize the lineup.
Of course, that did not work out, but after a 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabers in the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoff quarterfinals, he made the decision to blow up the team and start from scratch. It was a bold move, one that included a buy out of former captain, Alexei Yashin (of the ubiquitous turtle neck).
Through several really bad seasons, Snow went about stockpiling draft picks and acquiring scrap heap waiver wire players who proved surprisingly productive. Names like Michael Grabner and Rob Schemp and PA Parenteau played significant, productive minutes while guys like Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo and John Tavares came of age at the NHL level.
There were hiccoughs: the ill considered hiring of Scott Gordon, followed shortly thereafter by his firing, showed that Snow was hardly omniscient. However he brought on Jack Capuano, a guy with a teacher’s temperament and a trusted counselors voice who related well with the young team. It was under his tutelage that a young Isles team made the playoffs for the first time in 2013 since being ousted by the Sabers in 2006.
Despite not qualifying for the playoffs the following year, due in large part to the poor play of their goalies, The Isles went into 2014-15 with high hopes and a shiny new goalie, Jaro Halak. The Snow acquisition was key toward their success that year, and with the end of summer additions of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, the team came out flying.
In addition to the veteran acquisitions, the youth continued to rise, though at a more deliberate pace. Calvin deHaan, Brock Nelson and Thomas Hickey all logged important minutes over the next few years, the former two draft day finds, the latter another of the cast offs Snow signed. The next two years saw playoff berths, including a series win last season against the Florida Panthers. It was the first such in more than 20 years.
Not all was peachy keen, however. Key pre-2014 signing, Mikhail Grabovski suffered a series of severe concussions, placing his career on jeopardy. And after last year’s hopeful finish, the team parted ways with notable veterans Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin, replacing each with Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera, respectively. Also departing was Isles legend and last holdover from the Milbury era, Frans Neilsen.
Training camp 2016 started with a lot of changes. Under the new personnel configuration, the team took a long while to gel. They never really seemed to get past the loss of Neilsen, in particular.
The season started off on the wrong foot when Jaro Halak got hurt. Even when he returned, he seemed to struggle, so much so that he was eventually banished to Bridgeport. Whispers were heard telling of his fragility, both mental and physical – regardless, as an Islander, he’d never quite put up the save percentage he’d reached earlier in his career.
Adding to the trouble, at least for the first half of the year, the Ladd/Chimera were nearly irrelevant – their play contributed to the hole that was ultimately impossible to climb out of. By mid-year the team was well out of the playoff hunt, leading to Jack Capuano’s dismissal.
In the second half, the future showed again with Interim Coach Doug Weight behind the bench. His first order of business gave more minutes and responsibility to younger players, and he called for a more aggressive, possession style strategy, similar to the way the team played in 2014.
The notable Josh Ho Sang made his debut in March, and largely had an effective run through the end of the season. Anthony Beauvillier spent the entire season with the big club, playing in more than 60 games. Also, the aforementioned Ladd/Chimera combination improved in the second half of the year.
Alas, it was too little, too late. Ultimately the team fell short, the insult to injury being John Tavares’ hamstring injury. It was an ugly end to a pretty good run to finish the year. And as the team goes into the offseason, there is hope. Key prospects Matthew Barzal and Ryan Pulock look to make the jump to the big club, to compete for roster spots.
With a good amount of depth, a fair number of effective veterans still in their prime years, including John Tavares, and a number of budding veterans like Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, there is real talent on this team. Despite the disappointment of this year, it is a team that is poised to improve. It is Garth Snow’s team, one he assembled through draft, free agency and trades.
Ultimately any coach or team executive is going to be judged by the win-loss record. However, over the course of his tenure, Garth Snow has proven more times than not to be a good steward of the franchise. His acquisition of talent is a testament to his ability to judge good players. His acquisition of defense prior to 2014, along with the signing of Grabovski (regardless of injuries) showed a willingness to move decisively when warranted. His ability to cut ties with Capuano and, to a lesser extent, guys like Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin showed that he will not cave to sentiment.
While I don’t give him a free pass for this year’s failure, I also recognize that his decisions have put the team in a position to be relevant for a long time. That, in and of itself should afford him the opportunity to right the franchise, but coupled with his many moves that have made this team better – even in the face of some of the moves that haven’t – should make him a shoe in to continue for at least the coming year as GM.
With that said, he should not work in a vacuum, and the idea of a team executive ‘in charge’ to oversee operations is a good one that should be explored to the fullest extent by ownership. What Snow is good at is player personnel, but at times I question his over all team vision. We went quickly from a cap floor team to pushing the cap threshold, something that an additional set of eyes could have advised on.
And the Halak situation could have been mitigated by a partner in management – it’s one thing to bench a player, but there seems to be genuine rancor in the relationship with the goalie at this point, making the situation bigger than it should have been and likely contributed to the team’s failures.
Still, his work with the draft, his deft moves on the waiver wire, and his timely trades and free agent signings have, more often than not, made the team better.
That’s all I got. Cheers.