Five years of Garth Snow as Isles general manager: Are things getting better?

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When Garth Snow took over as the Islanders general manager in the summer of 2006, things on Long Island were as tumultuous and dramatic as ever. As the team looked to move on from former GM Mike Milbury, they’d hired ex-Rangers GM Neil Smith to take the reins. Instead, after just six weeks, Smith was let go and the former goaltender Snow got the call to take over.

Since then, it’s been a wild, up and down ride for Snow filled with its share of controversy in handling former head coaches Ted Nolan and Scott Gordon, having to work around Rick DiPietro’s contract as well as Alexei Yashin’s buyout, and now navigating the free agent waters with a team that’s still below the salary floor Snow’s job is high profile for a lot of the wrong reasons.  While Snow got the Islanders to the playoffs in his first year as GM thanks to acquiring Ryan Smyth, it hasn’t been all rainbows and sunshine as the team has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons.

What Snow can deal with, however, is what he’s trying to put together for the future. With future stars like draftees John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Calvin de Haan, and 2011 first round pick Ryan Strome on down to acquisitions like Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, and Mark Streit slowly but surely things are coming together. With how coach Jack Capuano was able to put things together for the Islanders after a horrible start last season under Scott Gordon, things are positive all over Long Island now and Snow told NHL.com all about why it’s got him excited too. The big reason is John Tavares.

Q: Are you happy with the way he’s developed in his first two years? Is it easy to forget sometimes that he is only 20?

GS: He’s been a high-end player, not only for us but in the League. When you see that he’s only 20 years old, it’s pretty exciting to see what he’s accomplished in his two years in the NHL. I absolutely have to remember sometimes that he’s just 20 — and it’s not just John, but the other young players that we have. They are 20, 21, 22 years old, and that’s young for a hockey player. We obviously are excited about the season coming up, but we’re also excited about what the future brings.

Q: How important is this season? You’ve missed the playoffs four years running, you’ve built up a nice core of talent. How important is it, if not to make the playoffs, to at least to contend for a spot?

GS: Everyone in the locker room is committed to getting this team to the next level. It’s a situation where we wish the season was starting tomorrow.

Getting into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, fortunately for Snow, is seen as being a bit easier to do. Last season saw the Tampa Bay Lightning go from being nearly a lottery team picking sixth in the 2010 NHL Draft to finishing fifth in the East and make it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. A lot of that had to do with the work both GM Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher put in, but it also goes to show how quickly things can happen in the East.

Working against Snow’s Islanders is playing in one of the toughest divisions in the NHL. Having to go up against the likes of the Rangers, Devils, Flyers, and Penguins makes life miserable having to play those teams so many times. The NHL’s Pacific Division last year showed that virtually an entire division can make the playoffs (sorry Dallas, you had a fair shot) so anything is possible.

Snow’s Islanders will require better health from all players and better goaltending than they got most of the year. Injuries can’t usually be helped one way or another, but goaltending can be fixed. With DiPietro’s albatross contract they’ll need to find a way to keep him healthy and mix in Al Montoya when necessary.

That’s asking a lot, but with the Islanders missing the playoffs for four straight seasons and an arena issue that will be solved one way or another, the pressure is on for Snow’s rebuilding project to show major strides next season. If they play as hard as they did in the second half of last season, challenging for a playoff spot and even squeaking in as the eighth seed is within reason. The Isles will be good in time, it’s just a matter of when.

Goalie nods: Dell starts for Sharks, his sixth in the last 12 games

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There was a plan in San Jose to try and give first-year backup Aaron Dell some additional playing time down the stretch.

And the Sharks certainly are executing.

Dell, who has basically split starts with No. 1 Martin Jones this month, will get the call tonight when San Jose takes on the Stars in Dallas. He’s certainly earned the call — in five starts in March, he’s going 3-2-0 with a .941 save percentage, and has allowed a grand total of eight goals.

While there’s no goalie controversy at play — Jones is the unquestioned starter — this development has to have provided some relief for Peter DeBoer and company. Dell is a 27-year-old minor league journeyman that made his NHL debut this year, but played sparingly behind Jones for the most part.

Now, he looks like a guy the club can rely on should Jones struggle, or get hurt. Dell’s posted terrific numbers overall — 10-5-1 record, .936 save percentage, 1.85 GAA — and could see even more action over the final eight games of the regular season.

No word yet on who starts for Dallas. Kari Lehtonen played in last night’s shootout loss to Chicago, so logic would suggest it’s Antti Niemi.

Elsewhere…

— As we wrote about earlier, Jaroslav Halak makes his first NHL start in 85 days as the Isles visit Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury is in for the Pens.

Petr Mrazek gets the call as the Red Wings host the Lightning. No word yet on a Bolts starter, though Andrei Vasilevskiy would seem likely given Peter Budaj played against (and beat) Boston last night.

— The red-hot Jonathan Bernier gets another start as the Ducks play host to the Jets. No word yet on a Winnipeg starter, but Connor Hellebuyck did play last night against L.A.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.