By Jeff Capellini
Now we’re going to see what Garth Snow is really made of.
The Islanders’ general manager has acquitted himself well to this point of this pivotal offseason. He’d be wise to keep it up, because his team’s short- and really long-term outlook may depend on it.
I like to view this as “the summer of Garth.” One way or another the Islanders are going to be interesting. Fans sure hope the veteran executive will stay proactive and follow up the excellent trade for winger Jordan Eberle with perhaps something that will equally impress franchise center John Tavares.
Let’s be real, Snow has to do just that.
As soon as it became apparent that Tavares signing a long-term extension on July 1 wasn’t a slam dunk, Snow went to work. While there is still no guarantee that the Islanders’ best player will put pen to paper, one has to assume he feels a lot more inclined to do so now that his GM has gone out and gotten him a very good wingman.
Eberle for Ryan Strome, to me anyway, is a great deal for the Islanders. They are basically getting a legitimate scorer with a 60- to 70-point potential who is only 27 and signed for the next two seasons at a manageable $6 million per. I wouldn’t read too much into his down 2016-17 season or his poor postseason. Eberle is legit in every sense of the word and may have just needed a change of scenery.
And Eberle is also very tight with Tavares, something that you can’t put a price tag on these days.
Snow added a legit top-six forward at the expense of a disappointing top-six forward. Strome, the former No. 5 overall pick, has a ton of ability, but for whatever reason he struggled to play the type of two-way game the Islanders, previously under coach Jack Capuano and now Doug Weight, demand.
The fact that the Edmonton Oilers needed to shed salary due to all the young stars they’ll soon have to pay certainly played to the Islanders’ advantage and Snow should be lauded for seizing an opportunity.
But as is the case in the world of a professional sports team’s front office, your GM is only as good as the next big deal he makes. Snow is in position to do a lot more for the Islanders before training camp begins in September. It’s just that he took a very unorthodox route to get into that position. Granted, the expansion draft knocked things all out of whack for many teams, but, still, there are plenty of skeptical fans out there who wonder if all of his maneuvering over the last 10 days will pay off in the end.
Snow wheeled and dealed prior to the expansion draft, accomplishing what once seemed impossible. He got a team, in this case the Vegas Golden Knights, to take injured Mikhail Grabovski’s contract off the Isles’ books. When Knights’ GM George McPhee agreed to accept the 15th overall pick in the recently completed draft to take on Grabovski’s $5 million 2017-18 salary and then took the Isles’ 2019 second-round pick, along with defense prospect Jake Bischoff, to essentially avoid New York’s unprotected remaining talent, he did Snow a favor.
As a result of that trade and Snow’s stressful decision to send beloved defenseman Travis Hamonic and a conditional fourth-rounder to Calgary on Saturday for 2018 first- and second-round picks, plus an additional second-rounder in 2019 or ’20, the Islanders now have roughly $9 million in salary cap space. That’s plenty to re-sign restricted free agent defenseman Calvin de Haan, who was by far the team’s best player in its own end last season.
The question is, what else will Snow do?
It’s fair to ask because Islanders fans have been led to believe that the plan this summer is to bring in two big pieces to upgrade the offense, something that if pulled off will make New York a serious threat in the Eastern Conference and will all but cement Tavares sticking around for at least eight more seasons.
Initially, I wasn’t enamored with the idea of trading Hamonic solely for picks. But upon further reflection, I understand it as long as at least part of the haul Snow received is used to get that other offensive weapon. Reportedly, that is Snow’s plan, to sweeten the pot for someone to get the guy he craves.
Now, is that player still Matt Duchene? That’s hard to say at this point. It’s no secret the Islanders love Duchene, who went No. 3 in the 2009 draft, two spots after Tavares, but for months Snow has run into a roadblock in the form of Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic. To be fair, Sakic doesn’t appear to have a gun to his head to trade Duchene, who when things are going right is as solid a two-way center as you’ll find, and who, like Eberle, probably needs a new address to get back to being all he can be.
But, depending on who you talk to, Sakic has been unreasonable to this point, reportedly turning down deals that in past years would have landed a team someone better than a guy with Duchene’s 2016-17 statistics — 18 goals and 41 points. Those were his lowest since 2011-12, when the young center put up just 14 and 28, respectively, in 58 games.
There are some who believe Duchene quit on the Avalanche this past season, but there are others who wouldn’t really blame him if his heart wasn’t in it. Colorado had the worst record in the NHL by far (22-56-4, 48 points) and doesn’t look like it is going to win consistently any time soon.
I’d be careful when reading words like “Isles out on Duchene” on Twitter, because until a disgruntled star is traded or his status is explained beyond a shadow of a doubt, he remains in play, regardless of what can be construed as posturing by his current employer.
That all said, we’re now going to see if Snow has the intestinal fortitude to wait out Sakic, or if he’ll switch tracks and go after someone else of similar ability. I think if the Islanders can pull off a deal for Duchene, they will be far more dangerous than if they get someone like an Alex Galchenyuk, who the Montreal Canadiens are reportedly looking to deal.
Galchenyuk is a fine young player and would likely cost a lot less than Duchene, but the Isles’ biggest need right now is to fill the hole left by the departure of Frans Nielsen last summer. Duchene is a clearly superior talent to Nielsen, while Galchenyuk arguably only does some things better than the ex-Islander.
With this year’s free agent class littered with aging centers and guys who really haven’t proven a whole heck of a lot, Snow really needs to strengthen his team down the middle via trade.
Snow has the assets in spades to do it. He has plenty of time between now and the start of camp to get that elusive second impact offensive piece.
But does he have the patience or the wherewithal needed to pull the trigger on something that may not be totally on his terms? I think the Vegas and Eberle deals showed he at least has the requisite motivation.
Going forward, we will learn a lot about the Islanders GM’s conviction.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN