By Daniel Friedman
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It has been a season from hell for the New York Islanders and, in a number of ways, it got even worse on Wednesday.
For a franchise that’s had several low points over the past two decades, March 5, 2014, might’ve been the lowest from an emotional perspective.
There were so many times Wednesday where I just kept thinking: “This is it. This is the moment when whatever’s left of the relationship between Islander fans and this front office — who’d long been on a collision course — finally explodes in a fireball of venom and outright hostility.”
I’d say the writing was on the wall before Thomas Vanek was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens, but as details of the trade began trickling in after 3 p.m., the infamous #IslesTwitter went full-throttle.
It was open season on Islanders’ general manager Garth Snow, from Twitter to TSN.
While such criticism has often been unwarranted, where perhaps we’d usually chalk it up to the fact that the media loves picking on the Isles, it was 100 percent justified on Wednesday.
Snow completely botched the Vanek situation, not to mention this entire season. When you do that, you’re going to get called out, no matter who you are or which team you’re employed by.
Now, there was chatter on TSN about how Snow won’t be fired because “it’s the Islanders.” The network’s analysts are not at all wrong for making that observation.
The big question is, what on Earth went wrong yesterday? How could this possibly happen? As far as I’m concerned, the seeds were planted the minute Snow picked up the phone to speak with then-Buffalo Sabres’ GM Darcy Regier.
It really is unfortunate; there was no reason the Isles should’ve ever been in this nightmarish situation to begin with, because the original trade should never have happened.
Everyone and their next-door neighbor knew that Vanek was hell-bent on going to free agency. His desire to sign in Minnesota this summer is also probably the worst-kept secret in hockey.
Snow decided that no matter what he was going to convince Vanek to stay anyways, because, after all, who wouldn’t want to remain a New York Islander once they get the opportunity to experience it? Take Evgeni Nabokov and Lubomir Visnovsky for example. Established veterans traded to purgatory? Why would they stay? Yet both players are still on board.
What has been lost in all of this is that it really didn’t matter what Vanek liked or didn’t like about the Islanders, or that Visnovsky and Nabokov wound up re-signing.
These were incomparable situations. Vanek’s on the verge of a significant payday and a chance to play wherever he desires. Nabokov and Visnovsky were past their primes, and there was little interest in their services outside of New York.
Vanek did say that he enjoyed his time as an Islander and that winning might’ve helped, but the odds of retaining him were still relatively slim. And when you offer seven years and $50 million — essentially a hometown discount for a player who doesn’t consider Long Island or Brooklyn to be his hometown — you better give him another reason to stick around. Otherwise, you better ante up and give him an offer he can’t refuse.
Once again, the Islanders struck out looking.
The team and its beleaguered general manager now had to explore trade scenarios for Vanek, and while everyone was optimistic that the return would be grand (and certainly better than the return for Matt Moulson), the reality is that was never to be.
The first reason for that is Snow never had much leverage. Everyone knew he was desperate to move Vanek and that, because of the looming “Minnesota thing” teams virtually had zero chance of re-signing him if they were to acquire him in a trade. Vanek was as pure a rental as they come.
Even if he doesn’t end up bolting for the Twin Cities, that was absolutely a league-wide perception on and before deadline day.
A second factor was what I’d describe as an abrupt over-saturation of the market. Leading up to the deadline, this was expected to be a two-horse race as far as available wingers were concerned. You had Vanek, you had Moulson. But as we inched closer to March 5, that changed entirely.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, still in the hunt for a playoff spot in the East, decided to put Marian Gaborik on the block, while Ales Hemsky (Edmonton Oilers) and Mike Cammalleri (Calgary Flames) soon followed. This completely changed the dynamic, because it gave GMs more flexibility.
If you were looking for a “missing piece” rental winger, you know had two reasonable choices: Go for a cheaper option and trade for a Gaborik or a Hemsky, or wait right down to the wire until those players are off the board and most suitors have already been satisfied.
At that point, Vanek’s essentially the only player left (because Moulson’s already on his way somewhere else) and the Islanders have one, maybe two trade partners left. That, coupled with the fact that you’re well aware Snow needs to deal Vanek to save face, puts you into position to come away with a total steal.
This was a severe miscalculation on Snow’s part. He figured that, the closer to the deadline, the more desperate other GMs would become and the sweeter the return would be. His failure to recognize the circumstances and react accordingly caused him to miss out on what probably would’ve been a better deal, had he pulled the trigger at an earlier date.
Better still, the Islanders now have to decide what to do regarding the first-rounder they send to Buffalo. Do they hold onto it this year or do they forgo 2014 and cash-in on next year’s deep talent pool?
My take: Give the Sabres your 2015 pick, because if you’re already worried about losing out on a top 10 selection next year, then you’ve already failed. You’re essentially admitting that you expect to be a poor hockey team again. Go out in the summer, make whatever moves you have to make and focus on building a playoff team. That has to be the goal.
Snow has only himself to blame here — not Nassau Coliseum, not Charles Wang, not Vanek nor the International Olympic Committee. Only himself.
He’s done a nice job restocking the prospect pool, but his stubbornness (in this case and in several other instances) and refusal to part with some of his younger players to make this team better, are the biggest reasons why his Islanders have yet to really turn a corner.
The Isles are right there. They really are. They’re a goaltender, a scoring winger, a responsible defenseman and a coach away from being a playoff team.
Under ordinary circumstances, I’d trust the general manager to go out this summer and fill those holes. But given recent events, Snow has not earned the benefit of the doubt. He has a lot of questions to answer and a big mess to clean up — a mess that he, and only he, made.
Sometimes a general manager has to take risks, but they have to be smart risks. This one was ill-advised from the get-go.
Here’s the anatomy of the deal: The Canadiens receive Vanek and, if they miss the postseason, a conditional 2014 fifth-round pick. The Islanders receive prospect Sebastian Collberg and, assuming the Habs clinch a playoff berth, a 2014 second-round pick
If there is anything to like about this trade it is Collberg.
Montreal selected him 33rd overall in 2012, just before the Isles scooped up Ville Pokka at No. 34. The consensus buzzword regarding him appears to be “skill.”
Corey Pronman of ESPN.com shares that opinion: “He’s a pretty skilled guy. He’s a potential top six forward. He’s a goal scorer who is very dangerous on the power play.”
TSN’s Bob McKenzie went so far as calling him “a human highlight reel in terms of his skill and his offensive ability.”
In its scouting report, McKeen’s Hockey Scouting describes him as “a skilled energetic winger,” who “instinctively makes timely arrivals in prime open space.” He’s also praised for his skating and playmaking ability, as it’s noted that he’s a “smooth, elusive skater” and that he has “good playmaking vision and awareness.”
As far as the prospect the Islanders got from the Canadiens is concerned, he was definitely the caliber I was looking for and expecting Snow to get in a Vanek trade. It’s the second-round pick that, to me, is inexcusable.
You have to walk away from that deal with a first rounder (preferably in 2015), and his insistence on waiting until deadline day likely cost him that necessary ingredient.
All I can say is, this summer should be very, very interesting.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI
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