The players put up a valiant fight until the end. Without their captain and a handful of other regulars with a week to go, they won five straight games to keep themselves within the playoff conversation. The rookie interim coach, thrust into the job and given 40 games to turn around a season circling the drain, pushed enough right buttons to get his guys pulling in a unified direction. The starting goalie, banished earlier to the AHL, redeemed his season with confident, consistent play.
But none of it was enough to overcome the Islanders’ many gaping holes and deficiencies. This was a team guided to fail by its general manager going back two years, when the seeds of a top team weren’t given enough water and sunlight to grow properly.
Coming off a 101-point season and a tough first round loss to a very good Washington Capitals team, the Islanders had everything going for them. Depth, analytics, grit, prospects. Even a new building to christen with their own legacy.
But from the start of the 2015 off-season, the GM started leaning on cruise control rather than driving his team’s bus. He added the reliable back-up goalie they needed (who would go on to become much more) and then... stopped. Some minor signings and an old veteran defenseman were basically it. They added a third goalie off waivers when one of the regulars went down. It was a small move at the time, but it would become indicative of the team’s questionable direction later.
Again, the Islanders finished with 100 points. They even won a playoff series for the first time in two decades. But something was wrong. You didn’t need their underwhelming underlying stats to prove it. All you had to do was watch them.
Then, this off-season, the wheels began to wobble off one at a time. Quality free agents were allowed to walk away with negotiations happening either too late or not at all. A couple of veterans were signed (one for a boatload of years and money), but it wasn’t apparent they were the right ones to commit to. Another veteran defenseman was signed. The third goalie was kept at the expense of a well-liked utility man that could have contributed a goal here or there. A pair of rookies made the roster out of camp, but one would play two games, sit for a dozen or so and get sent back to junior. The other would get yo-yo’d in and out of the lineup for half the season.
When the season got off to a shaky start, the incumbent coach quickly showed he was out of ideas, shuffling third liners in and out and up and down without reason. Any line combination that worked seemed to have been thrown together by accident. The minute it didn’t work, the line was broken up and the entire roster was shaken. Not having an extra defenseman was clearly bothering the coach. Juggling three goalies wasn’t working for anyone.
It took them an unconscionable 30 games to show some life. A bad night got one goalie - the oldest, highest paid and most vocal - sent to the minors. Another bad night a dozen games later got the coach fired and replaced with his assistant.
That’s when - finally - the winning started. And it continued until the last weekend of the season, when a loss by a division rival 500 miles away ended the Islanders’ playoff hopes for good.
All of the above issues were under the direction of one person - the general manager. He put his faith in young players to develop, but left them in the care of a coach who stunted their growth with old school thinking. He didn’t recall a prolific in-house solution that could have juiced a power play that sagged all season. He let talent leave and didn’t fully replace it despite paying a premium for the additions. He kept a third goalie on the roster for two years just in case one got hurt, taking conservative thinking to an absurd degree.
And that’s before we talk about his retaining depth players on contracts that are too rich and too long, his oppressive (or maybe impressive) media silence and his reluctance to make a move until time is absolutely, unequivocally, undoubtedly, unavoidably, fatally up. There are also questions about his making decisions for an expansion draft or risky trade fixes, and needing to sign the captain to a long extension.
In a season without long, significant injuries (before John Tavares) or other unforeseen circumstances, it’s hard to not put every single critical issue the Islanders faced this season on Garth Snow. He spent eight years constructing a pretty good team, then put his tools down.
Next season, the Islanders need to resume construction under a new foreman.