By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — Garth Snow, here is your mission, if you choose to accept it …
There seems to be a bit of confusion as to when exactly the Islanders’ rebuild began. When exactly was there finally recognition that going forward with a fatally flawed team, uninspired free agents and having no prospect pool of young players thanks to the previous general manager burning the entire system to the ground was all deemed an exercise of futility?
The answer is: sometime during the 2007-08 campaign, the second season of the Ted Nolan head coaching experience. During that season, the on-ice product struggled, an organization with new blood realized it was still running along on empty, and that the previous season’s playoff push, one that featured qualification by the slimmest of margins, was fading with each passing second thanks to a team-wide makeup of mismatched and wildly divergent entities.
I mean, seriously, who were the Islanders kidding? Just take a look at that roster. No matter how you look at it and analyze it and try to make sense of it, that collective group of players wasn’t exactly something worth building on. Many of those same players are not even playing at the NHL level anymore.
As Snow and owner Charles Wang began to work together, the “by committee” concept of evaluating was dissolved, mostly because Wang began to trust Snow’s overall vision, realizing that the entire franchise from a personnel standpoint was in disrepair.
It was a brave and intelligent decision to stop, drop and roll while things were on fire.
It is a concept other teams have failed to accept or stick to. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a perfect example. They have failed to accept reality and make wholesale changes and are now paying for it. They have consistently given away key draft picks for a win-now player, like, for example, Phil Kessel, and have still be unable to compete for a playoff berth.
That’s because hockey is not a one-talent game.
The Calgary Flames are another example. They seem to be dragging on yearly holding on to hope, but without a concept. Hence why they usually end up in a non-playoff grave.
The Islanders, on the other hand, have reassessed their entire philosophy and are committed to it. Regardless if they haven’t made the playoffs, the Isles are in much better shape organizationally than either the Leafs or the Flames.
Players brought in by failed GM Mike Milbury were considered expendable. They were eventually recognized as not NHL quality material at all. This is why Snow offered what he did back in 2006-07 for Ryan Smyth. It proved to be a calculated risk worth taking, even if the Isles couldn’t re-sign him the next offseason.
The Isles’ entire prospect pool was rotten except for a few odds and ends. In fact, with the waiver drop of Blake Comeau last November, they discarded one of the last pieces of Milbury’s obscene losing legacy. Only Frans Nielsen remains as that one, surprisingly happy accident.
Different situations dictate different needs. The rebuild is now concentrated on a completely different framework.
So Islanders fans ask, and quite rightly, why is this rebuild taking so long? The 2012-13 season will mark the fifth season of the revamping process, something that was declared in earnest following the 2007-08 mess, and has been followed without exception ever since.
But, again, why is it taking so long, the Islanders’ fan demands?
Because it has been slowed down by the GM’s inability to grab quality pieces built for a long-term commitment, one that would embolden the team’s vision. Instead, the Islanders have been forced to find inexpensive stop-gap measures to bide time for the youth and allow it to develop.
Simply said, Milbury’s ghost, Long Island’s political reputation and the ever-present arena situation have contributed to long years without the Islanders really being a blip on anyone’s radar short of the ridicule that has preceded them.
Despite the never-ending fountain of opinions of those who have nothing at stake, the fact remains there is no set timetable that says a rebuild turns a serious profit in three or four years. Add to this the fact that, unlike the Islanders, many rebuilds start with pieces in place, this franchise has had to do it with very few sure things.
So they need to spend more to get some players, right?
Actually, they have tried to correct some misguided beliefs that have crossed wires on the Internet. Each summer the Islanders have been competitive with bids on key free agents. This has not only been made clear by this columnist, but it has also been touched upon by mainstream NHL writers outside Long Island, scribes who have objective views on the subject.
Interest and offers to Ilya Kovalchuk, Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Hamhuis, Zbynek Michalek and others have been quite real and, unfortunately for some revisionists, documented.
The team’s aggressive approach has been attempted despite a tighter budget and stricter guidelines following a failed referendum, and while this team has floated forward into a murky future with severe financial leaks, faded fan support and, currently, no home beyond the 2014-15 season.
The failed referendum last August left an indelible mark on the organization. This is the summer where it might come front and center. This is where Snow might be approaching the toughest time of his tenure at the head of the Islanders’ front office.
The Isles will lose some regulars this offseason, players who were not exactly burning up the roster. However, Snow has to somehow convince better pieces to come to Long Island, while selling them within the reality of the arena issues and financial constraint.
Yes, Snow and the Isles are now walking a tightrope under the fiercely cast shadow of fan impatience, volatility and a blood-thirsty demand for the playoffs. What’s worse, if the Islanders don’t make the playoffs soon, nobody is going to give a crap when and if the team moves, especially the fat cat politicians who have been getting away with murder simply because the team has been on the ropes for ages.
Regular season failure is no longer an option. Losing records just cannot happen. This team must rise, and it must do so with an unproven coach and a youthful core of players at a developmental juncture.
This, suffice to say, will be a very tall order, regardless of fan impatience.
So now, let us take a look at unfettered reality here:
The Islanders are in a fiercely contested division with far richer and stable teams that are spending like there is no tomorrow. If the next CBA appeases only the prosperous few instead of the restless many, the Isles will again find themselves sharply stilted in their ability to even the odds. The only things they will have to fall back on are their rebuild strategy, prospect pool and scouts who must look for the gems that are on other team’s radars as well.
It’s all part of the reality that the Isles are a small market team.
Some fans, bloggers and mainstream press seem to be fixated on the Isles meeting the cap floor. This is an overrated desire, whereas each season the team manages to get there without the melodrama and panic that others seem to relate to all the other endless aspects of the situation.
Don’t get sucked in to the panic. The Islanders will get there.
A more important question to ask has to do with the space between the cap floor and ceiling with regards to the next CBA. As the distance stretches, the cash-rich eight to 10 teams of a 30-team league gain far more advantage, and the league could end up with less parity instead of what appears to currently be some parity.
This will be the determining factor that will impact many teams like the Islanders.
The Islanders have cultivated a loyal core of kids, most of whom are contractually tied up past the 2015 arena atom bomb whose fuse has been long lit thanks to the antics of Long Island politics, stubborn businessmen out of their depth, and the affluent NIMBYism of Garden City, a town with political money and cronyism that runs far and deep.
But how do the Islanders convince free agents to come here with no equilibrium, playoff traction and now a tighter budget than Wang had previously instituted?
Well, beggars might have more of a free agency pimp hand than Snow does right now.
So don’t get your hopes up.
As revisionists currently try to peddle a tale conveniently around the Rangers-Devils Eastern Conference Finals series there needs to become recognition of some reality, lest the soapboxes wash away.
No, it is not an easy time for Islander fans. However, if there is a story to be told on the incompetence of the Islanders, it should be spewed far from the hockey operations. It is more indicative of the convoluted situation and roles of those within the organization as Wang and company have chopped up the business end of the organization since the first death rattle of the Lighthouse Project. Each season, the landscape seems riddled with more and more ex-Islanders employees.
This is an organization leaking millions, unable to stem the tide, unable to negotiate a home, and most of all, unable to quickly press a rebuild into a tangible, resonate result.
Pressure is on all sides, and this summer, with those positions open on the ice, it will be up to the hockey-op hierarchy to find something to provide positive effect so we can all recall that the on-ice product, results and effort are really what it is all about.
Another year of soul searching next season will further alienate a fan base, and that at this juncture would be detrimental to the Islanders remaining a New York City-area team.
In other words, the Islanders must win.
Garth, it’s your move, and please remember, old bean, that in the 2007-08 season you asked for this.
… this column will self-destruct in five seconds.
Read more columns by B.D. Gallof.
Do you hold out any hope that the Islanders can sign the right free agents to further the rebuild toward a playoff spot? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …