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.