By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
God bless the Islanders fan base. I say that with the utmost sincerity.
Their fans have been through a lot over the last 20 years. And while I won’t rehash the past — mostly because there aren’t very many of their supporters out there who don’t know chapter and verse the trials and tribulations this franchise has put its loyalists through — it’s important to note that perseverance and patience are admirable virtues.
You may not be in love with what the Isles have done so far this offseason, but you have to give them credit for remaining disciplined. There has been something righteous about their approach to building a winner — and building a winner they are. They are showing that a team doesn’t need to conform to what many view as standard operating procedure to build a contender.
And down the road, as teams continue to come to grips with that fact that spending is just a part of the bigger picture, not the end-all, be-all way to get their names on the Stanley Cup, executives around the league may look at the Islanders’ franchise-building model and smile.
Someone needed to play old-time hockey off the ice, if nothing else just to prove it could still be done. The Islanders are that team, using the draft and developing prospects as a means to avoid the pitfalls, both on the ice and financial, that come with simply caving to public pressure and going for it on a yearly basis.
While a good percentage of the league’s teams lost their minds the second free agency started, the Isles sat back and addressed needs. They may not have given you the splashy name or abandoned their reputation for erring on the side of fiscal caution, but they improved this club, a team that made the playoffs last season after six years of hearing the word “playoffs,” but not having the first clue what it meant. The Isles may not yet be elite, but they are going to be a handful every night because they are younger and deeper than most.
Will that translate into a longer run in the playoffs? I have no idea. But I do know if they fail to get the job done on the ice there will be no reason to think about starting over. Under this front office’s approach, each season is a building block regardless of where the team ends up in the standings. Each season is shaping up as a chapter in a long-awaited novel. There will be moments of regression, but it’s all part of the natural progression of building something long-lasting.
The Islanders’ model lends itself to having continuous opportunities to be successful, because this team has a tremendous amount of salary cap flexibility and the type of organizational depth that won’t force it to do anything radical. “With age comes experience” should be the slogan plastered on the Isles’ media guide.
That’s basically how the Islanders became a dynasty in the first place many moons ago.
Sure, free agency as we know it now was an alien concept in the 1970s. The Isles, because they had literal geniuses in Bill Torrey and Al Arbour calling the shots, were incredibly patient, were masters at drafting smart and insanely adept at picking up pieces via trades. And they could only do the latter two because they were so exceptionally good at the former.
Showing patience. You may not be too good at it, but it’s without question what’s going to ultimately determine what the Islanders become going forward.
Now, I’m not going to bestow the term “genius” on current general manager Garth Snow, but there’s something to be said about the way he’s building this team. I see what he’s doing and think about how the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants have built their franchises into two of the best in all of sports, where free agency isn’t the catalyst for sustained excellence; it’s just a useful part. Those teams have used the draft as the supply chain and developed their talent through a system that’s featured top notch executives, coaches and on-field leaders.
The Islanders may not have had those two examples in mind when they started the franchise’s turnaround back in 2008, but they have followed a similar path, creating coaching stability at every level and continuity accelerated by an iron-clad message that is instilled from the second a player is either drafted or acquired.
And character also plays an enormous role in what the Islanders try to do personnel-wise. There is a selflessness requirement, a check-your-ego-at-the-door demand and a stipulation that says when you pull on that sweater you are part of something that has for a good portion of the last four decades proven to be greater than the individual.
John Tavares is the walking, talking example of what the Islanders are becoming. Travis Hamonic is emerging as a player to be feared. Matt Martin is the guy who leaves it all out there and sets the example. Kyle Okposo showed in the playoffs why perseverance matters. Casey Cizikas is proof you can get high value later in the draft. It goes on and on. In fact, take Monday as an example. The Isles climbed even further over the cap floor by signing another one of their own, Josh Bailey, to a five-year extension that will pay him $3.3 million annually.
Please don’t say they still don’t spend. With the Hamonic and Bailey deals the Isles locked up two young guns for $43.5 million.
Individually you may look at all those players I mentioned and see only one true star, but collectively they are examples of why the Islanders won’t win with star power alone, but instead will be successful as 20 or so pieces in a larger puzzle.
The Isles are getting to a point where teammates who have played together for years can now finish each other’s sentences. And it’s a safe bet that the new players they brought in, young versatile veterans like Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, will fit in by design. They wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t.
Again, there’s nothing sexy about it, but the Islanders fan has always been endeared to the lunchpail mentality over the fat bank account and a sense of entitlement. Snow is building a team than in a sense reflects the fan base, loading it up with seeds planted on the Island for the Island. Look at this roster and tell me who doesn’t fit. Rather than lament all the players that the Isles don’t have, you need to look at how the pieces they do have fit together.
Right now, they fit pretty damn well.
Snow is building a family, and not the equivalent of the hockey Mansons. Its core is going to be together a long time. I just don’t see how, with player progression and maturity coupled with the front office’s commitment to the course it has charted, the Islanders won’t one day be extremely good.
It’s a reality the rest of the NHL is starting to grasp.
And it’s kicking all conventional wisdom to the curb.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet