When I was asked to appear on the Weird Islanders podcast, I immediately knew who my selection would be. It truly doesn’t get any weirder than Ryan Smyth. Fans reaction to Ryan Smyth as an Islander is usually broken down into two responses, “really?” and “oh yeah, I totally forgot.”
Garth Snow went from backup goaltender one day to Islanders general manager the next as Charles Wang fired Neil Smith just six weeks after hiring him back in the summer of 2006. Wang’s firing of Smith, who was the architect of the 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup, resulted in former Isles great Pat LaFontaine, hired as a senior adviser to resign. Smith was hired by Wang the same day as then head coach Ted Nolan. Was this the mid 90s Islanders?
Smith was upset with Wang’s philosophy that the front office would be run as a committee. Smith protested, Wang showed him the door. When the dust settled, Snow was running the front office. Wang sang Snow’s praises following the hire.
Flash forward to February 2007, the Islanders were in the thick of the playoff race. Snow had some decisions to make. First whether to trade leading scorer Jason Blake, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1st or any of their other impending UFAs (Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov, Chris Simon, Randy Robitaille).
He decided to go all in. He acquired forward Richard Zednik from the Capitals for a 2007 2nd-round pick. Snow also saw an opening thanks to the Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton and their captain, Ryan Smyth could not agree on a contract extension. Smyth was the type of player Snow coveted, a 30-goal scorer who can also lead. A type of player the team thought they were getting a decade ago in Kirk Muller.
The deal was announced just after the trade deadline. Smyth was watching television at home when he heard the news. “Captain Canada” held an emotional press conference at the airport. When he arrived at Laguardia Airport, he was greeted by a lone fan wearing a Miami Dolphins jacket and a Mets hat. That was probably the moment he knew that he shouldn’t unpack his bags.
Snow sent two of former general manager Mike Milbury’s picks in 2003 first-rounder Robert Nilsson and 2005 first-rounder Ryan O’Marra. Snow also included the 2007 first-round pick, his first as a GM. The Islanders went 8-7-4 following the trade and snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. Smyth had five goals and 15 points with the Islanders. New York bowed out to the Buffalo Sabres in five games. Smyth had a goal and three assists in the five games. Sports Illustrated named Snow the 2006-07 NHL Executive of the Year.
Snow made it his top priority to re-sign Smyth, although no one thought he could succeed. On July 1, 2007 the Colorado Avalanche signed Smyth to a five-year deal worth $31.5 million dollars. Better schools in Denver, I guess.
The loss of Smyth was only the beginning. The July 1st purge included most of their UFAs (Poti, Kozlov, Robitaille) including leading-scorer Blake, who signed a five-year deal in Toronto worth $20 million. The team responded by signing Jon Sim to a three-year deal worth $3 million. Sim injured his knee after playing two games and missed the remainder of the season.
It would seem on paper that Snow gave up a lot for Smyth, two former first-round picks and an upcoming first-round pick. The Oilers selected defenseman Alex Plante with the 15th overall pick in the 2007 draft. Plante played a grand total of 10 games over three seasons in Edmonton. Nilsson scored 31 goals in four seasons in Edmonton. O’Marra scored one goal in 31 career NHL games. Snow had no emotional attachment to Nilsson and O’Marra. He knew their ceiling was not high and was quick to move them.
The July 1, 2007 purge basically started the rebuild. A rebuild without a first or second round pick. Looking back at the deal, it neither hurt nor helped the Islanders in the long run.
It was Snow’s second trade with the Oilers (Denis Grebeshkov for Marc-Andre Bergeron, nine days earlier), and you could say he never lost a deal with Edmonton during his time as general manager.