By Jeff Capellini
It’s so easy and convenient to cast blame. Those doing it tend to have very little at stake, nor an understanding of the circumstances why certain decisions are made.
Most of the time I’m as guilty as the next person. I blame Islanders general manager Garth Snow for a lot of things. I blame him for not addressing a defense that we knew in July would be hard-pressed to contain the explosive offenses that litter the NHL. I also blame him for not upgrading the goaltending situation, mostly because said defense, even with an upgrade or two, was still going to be made up of largely inexperienced players trying to earn and learn their way through very difficult situations.
Snow was stubborn, steadfastly refusing to part with young assets in trades, when in reality that would be the only way he’d get anyone that could make the team better. His problem then was he wasn’t willing to take anything resembling a risk.
The failure to upgrade defense and goaltending is fair game for criticism, and fans have repeatedly taken aim. The Islanders were coming off their first playoff appearance in six years. They needed to take the next step, which meant not just waiting around for all of their kids to mature, but also making significant splashes in certain areas.
By and large, they failed to do that last summer. Pierre-Marc Bouchard? Peter Regin? Evgeni Nabokov, after the playoff series he had? I mean Cal Clutterbuck is a nice player who offers a lot of intangibles, but last I checked the Islanders have a surplus of his attributes in the form of an entire checking line.
Once the season started it became readily apparent that the Islanders were no better than they were the season before. In many ways they were actually worse. Perhaps sensing that he was facing a season of regression Snow went out and finally took that risk, trading for elite power forward Thomas Vanek.
It was a failed move he should never be blamed for, because it was absolutely necessary.
While it’s true that the Islanders’ GM, with the blessing of owner Charles Wang, rolled the dice on a player who was, as it turned out, determined to make it to unrestricted free agency this summer no matter what the Islanders offered, the trade wasn’t made without knowledge of Vanek’s wants and desires. A lot of people view Snow as clueless. He’s anything but.
The trade was made because the Islanders are not the Rangers. They cannot sit back and let name recognition sell the franchise. The Islanders have had trouble for years attracting top free agents to Long Island, due to arena and financial situations that, let’s face it, make them about as unattractive a team to sign with as there is.
And that’s with superstar John Tavares as their centerpiece.
Yet despite all of their problems, the Islanders still have reason for optimism. They will soon leave 20 years of horror behind them. They will play one more season at archaic Nassau Coliseum and then move into Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They will take with them a lot of young talent, players many teams wish they could get their hands on. They will enter a land of opportunity, a place in Brooklyn that supports its own probably better than most big cities.
The Islanders are hoping to develop a new fan base that will supplement the many frustrated souls they will lose when the team finally packs up and splits from Uniondale. The only way for this franchise to do that is to win, and the only way this franchise can consistently win when very few — if any — top players want to come aboard is to, you guessed it, take risks.
Let me explain this in the clearest terms I can: This notion that the Islanders will not pay top talent is a fallacy. They have repeatedly tried over the last few years to get very good players in the fold to hasten a rebuild that they, themselves, have never put a finite timeframe on. But they had to build it this way due to the dire shape the franchise was left in by Mike Milbury and because of initial financial obstacles. What’s more, the Islanders made the playoffs last season, and since a lot of people believe it wasn’t a fluke, they must be doing something right.
But then the 2013-14 regular season came along and all the aforementioned failures from the summer came front and center. Snow then decided to be proactive — perhaps out of desperation — sending the Sabres popular Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in 2014 and a second rounder in 2015 for Vanek, who has twice scored 40 goals and is considered among the premier wings in the game.
Regardless of the circumstances that compelled Snow to make the trade there is no denying the fact that Islanders fans everywhere have wanted a true star to play on Tavares’ side, and they wanted one long before Kyle Okposo became the Kyle Okposo who has emerged on the scene this season. So it seems odd to me that many of the same fans who wanted Tavares to have a star as a sidekick, but understood that the Isles have a hard time attracting top talent, would actually not be more understanding of why Snow made the trade for Vanek.
They are the Islanders, a team lacking sex appeal. They have to push the envelope.
The outrage about Moulson was understandable because of his popularity, but I don’t think he was a long-term solution within the Isles’ blueprint. The fact remains that his style of play in the speed-oriented NHL makes him a much older 30-year-old than Vanek, who is by no means a speed merchant, but is clearly viewed as the superior player. When Vanek and Moulson hit the market this summer take a look at who gets the longer, more lucrative deal. It won’t be close. So that begs the question: Are all GMs idiots, or was Vanek a worthwhile risk considering where the Islanders were at the time?
The Islanders lost this one. They lost it big. They made a solid offer that most any player would consider stellar, but not a player of Vanek’s stature. They reportedly offered Vanek around $50 million for seven years, hoping he would counter, but because his heart wasn’t on Long Island no matter how much he said he liked the place, the Islanders probably wouldn’t have re-signed him even if they went eight years at more than $60 million, a deal that no team could make due to the collective bargaining agreement.
Snow will do what he can to recoup what he lost in the original trade. He probably won’t get what he gave up, but he needed to jump-start this franchise. And he will get other chances. For example, if he moves Vanek and maybe Andrew MacDonald — since he’s asking for the moon as well — before the deadline, he will have assets to flip for a goalie in what is a buyer’s market.
The Islanders know who they are. They are under no illusions. Since Snow is likely going to be GM as long as Wang owns this team — and you can debate the merits of that until the cows come home but it’s likely a pointless exercise — the last thing you want is for this executive to go forward gun-shy because Vanek didn’t work out.
Garth may have lost his “Cool Hand” nickname, but he’s got to get back up on his horse and ride on. If not, the tumbleweeds will follow the Islanders from the suburbs to the big city.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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