Has Garth Snow Earned Our Trust?

It’s time for me to give the devil his due, and in this case, the devil is the general manager of the New York Islanders: Garth Snow.  The much-maligned general manager has had his boisterous critics (*raises hand*) and while much of it has been well-deserving, maybe, just maybe, Snow is ready to have the last laugh. 

He’s come a long way from being the butt of jokes known simply as the “backup goalie turned general manager.”  No one is ready to anoint him as a master architect just yet, but it’s hard to deny the recent work he’s done these past 12 months.  He went from trading pending free agent Thomas Vanek for a second round draft pick and middling prospect to upgrading the team’s depth and backup goaltender situation with minimal cost at today’s deadline. 

And of course in between he was able to add several key forwards (Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin), a starting goalie (Jaro Halak), and two top-pairing defensemen (Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy).  And between the summer moves to today’s trades detailed below, he didn’t have to surrender a first round pick or top prospects Ryan Pulock, Griffin Reinhart or Michael Dal Collet to fill out a roster that has a chance to make some playoff noise.

Today’s moves weren’t blockbuster trades by any stretch, the two main ones being Michael Neuvirth for Chad Johnson and a third round draft pick and Tyler Kennedy for a seventh round draft pick (unless the Islanders win the Cup, then it becomes a third).  But they are significant for many reasons:

  1. The upgrade from Neuvirth to Johnson cannot be overstated.  While his win-loss record and goals against average are not ideal, those are the issues playing with the worst team in the league in Buffalo.  His .918 save percentage is good for 15th in the league for qualified goalies.  For comparisons’ sake, Chad Johnson is rocking a .889 save percentage. And just for one more comparison, Jaro Halak is coming in at a .911 save percentage.  No one is screaming for Neuvirth to be the starter…yet.
  2. More on that last statement: Neuvirth is perfect insurance against Halak’s injury history and his recent inconsistent play.  During the regular season the team can live with his .899 save percentage for a two-month span, knowing that they aren’t playing the best competition each night and the offense has the ability to bail him out.  Come playoff time though when the competition is at its peak and offense is more of a premium?  No, they can’t afford to let Halak just “figure it out” and don’t think for a second the team won’t be afraid to turn to Neuvirth early in a series if they sense it’s getting away from them.
  3. The Islanders were able to clear Johnson’s salary for next season ($1.3 million cap hit) to a Buffalo team that is in full tank-mode (as an Islander fan, unfortunately, we’ve seen this before).  Neuvirth is an unrestricted free agent after the season, so either Snow can look to re-sign him as part of a tandem, or use the money saved on Johnson’s contract for a different backup goalie, who is sure to be better than Johnson was.
  4. As for Tyler Kennedy, it appears to be a depth move at this point which is what the team needed.  No offense to the Kael Mouillerat’s or Colin McDonald’s, but Kennedy brings nearly a season’s worth of playoff experience to the team (76 games to be exact) and won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh back in 2009.  More playoff-battle veterans is never a bad thing, and Kennedy is also an advanced stat kind of guy as he does a good job of driving possession.  For a seventh round pick, it’s a no-brainer by Snow.  The big question will be come playoff time, if all the forwards are healthy (a big “IF”), who sits?  It’s another question for another day.

Compared to many other Eastern Conference contenders though, the Islanders were tame.  The Rangers made the big splash acquiring Keith Yandle for more of its future.  The Penguins added David Perron weeks ago, but Daniel Winnik and Ian Cole more recently.  The Capitals traded away two draft picks for Curtis Glencross.  The Canadiens, Lightning, Red Wings, Bruins and Panthers all made moves to improve as well. 

Garth Snow didn’t panic and trade the farm away for a Phil Kessel-type talent.  Yes, he would have been a great addition to this club in my opinion, but Snow has always talked about building a sustained winner.  The likely price for Kessel or similar player would have ate away at the depth and prospects the team has tried to accumulate in recent years. If the team wants sustained success, those young assets (a.k.a. “cheap labor”) are vital to keep the big club humming when the salary cap crunches and forces good players out (looking at you next year, Frans).

Whether this was the prudent approach for this season, we’ll know soon enough.  The Eastern Conference is wide open and one can make a valid argument that you should take your shot when it presents itself because future success is guaranteed for no club.  But despite not playing its best hockey recently, the team still finds itself tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division.  They are without several key forwards, but this team has demonstrated that when they are healthy up front, there aren’t many better, if any, forward groups in the Conference.  Is a healthy Kyle Okposo, Casey Cizikas, and possibly Mikhail Grabovski viewed as enough reinforcements and just as good as any deadline acquisition?

Snow has made his share of personnel mistakes along the way, and has been patient to a fault on some decisions.  But it’s tough to deny that this team isn’t in significantly better shape now than where it was in 2008 when he decided it needed to be torn down and built back up.  He still has his skeptics (*raises hand slightly*), but his decision-making seems to be getting better with each important event and issue.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be a Snow-defender…(*thinking, thinking, thinking,* “nah”).

Ultimately Snow will be judged from this point forward.  He’s assembled the pieces and has put his trust in the hands of Jack Capuano.  For better or worse, come the spring the team we see now is what we’re going to battle with.  They won’t be the favorites to come out of the East once the playoff starts, and that’s okay.  This team has the look of a perennial contender.  But, if he can re-sign Johnny Boychuk and the team wins a playoff round?  Success.  If not?  Well, we can hear the calls of “same ol’ Islanders” already.

For once though it’s nice to see the Garth Snow trade deadline talk as “did he add enough for a playoff run” instead of “what draft pick did he get?” It may finally be enough to where fans can say, "I trust Snow to make the right decision here."

Crazy, I know.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.