When the New York Islanders promoted backup goalie Garth Snow to the position of GM in July 2006, you could almost hear the cackles from around the NHL.
It’s honestly a shame that Twitter only technically existed back then, sort of like how Snow technically wasn’t fired from the Islanders even though he was “relieved of his duties” as Isles GM on Tuesday. In retrospect, the decision to name Snow as Islanders GM wasn’t quite “laugh out loud” material; instead, his tenure stands as a mixed bag.
If you have to give a sweeping review? Yes, you’d probably deem it not good enough. Simply put, NHL teams need to strike quickly when they essentially hit the lottery, as they did by selecting John Tavares first overall in 2009. And, really, the Islanders failed to take advantage of another gift: Tavares’ second contract, which carried a ludicrously low cap hit of $5.5 million from 2012-13 until this past season.
Let’s take a look back at the mixed bag that was Snow’s 12-year(!) tenure as Islanders GM. Keep in mind this isn’t meant to be totally comprehensive, so feel free to comment on other moves and moments.
Steps in the right direction, just not enough
During Snow’s tenure as GM, the Islanders managed to make the playoffs four times (out of 12 attempts, which doesn’t feel redundant since, you know, lockouts).
In 2015-16, the Islanders’ most recent postseason run, they won their first series since shocking the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins (who were repeat champions). As you might expect, Tavares played a key role in eliminating the Florida Panthers during that competitive 2016 series.
At the time, it seemed like the Islanders were finally, truly ascendant. Instead, their progress stalled, as they failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the final two seasons of Snow’s tenure.
The good and bad news is that, relatively speaking, Snow leaves Lou Lamoriello with a relatively clean slate. Yes, there are some regrettable deals (looking at you, Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck), but Cap Friendly estimates the Isles’ cap spending at $46.74 million.
Of course, the ideal scenario is that John Tavares pushes that up closer to $60M. Either way, Lamoriello can put his mark on this team without spending too much time sending people to “Robidas Island.”
Peaks and valleys
The fascinating thing about Snow’s tenure is that you can look at various significant players and often see the good and the bad.
(Let’s go ahead and skate past most of his earlier moves, merely noting that some give him a pass for the notorious Rick DiPietro contract.)
Take Kyle Okposo, the last first-round pick selected before Snow’s watch.
On one hand, hindsight indicates that the Islanders probably made the right choice in letting him leave via free agency. Unfortunately, they essentially chose Andrew Ladd over Okposo, so it was still a situation they’d seek a mulligan for.
Travis Hamonic is another interesting example. He was a solid steal in the draft (53rd overall in 2008), and Snow waited through some drama to trade him when the time was right for the Islanders, landing some serious draft capital from the Calgary Flames. Hamonic struggled for a Calgary team that missed the playoffs, setting the stage for the Islanders to hold picks 11 and 12 for this upcoming draft.
Then again, even a struggling Hamonic might have helped them stop some of the bleeding on defense …
Trading away high picks
From a drafting perspective, Snow showed some ability to find some gems (Anders Lee, sixth round in 2009) and also was able to fix some mistakes by way of clever trades. OK, to be more specific, he bamboozled Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli to help him turn Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Strome into Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and Anthony Beauvillier. Considering how the Reinhart/Barzal scenario looks, it truly is remarkable that Chiarelli took Snow’s call regarding Eberle.
(Snow also memorably offered the Columbus Blue Jackets a Mike Ditka sending everything for Ricky Williams-type deal to move up in the 2012 NHL Draft, yet was turned down. Now that was quite the “what if?” scenario.)
Granted, things didn’t always work out when Snow was guilty of a misstep.
Michael Dal Colle, the fifth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, has only played four games with the Islanders to this date. Masochists could scroll down that draft to see the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers (ninth), Dylan Larkin (15th), and David Pastrnak (25th) selected after him.
Now, sure, just about every NHL GM curses a bad-in-retrospect selection, but some of Snow’s biggest swing-and-misses do sting.
That’s especially true with the high draft pick trade that didn’t work out. While Cal Clutterbuck clutters the Islanders’ cap with a shaky contract, Nino Niederreiter is a key forward for the Minnesota Wild. Niederreiter only played 64 games for the Islanders before being shipped off in that one-sided trade.
That big summer and the breakthrough that never happened
While it didn’t produce the breakthrough many hoped for, October 4, 2014 remains Snow’s biggest and maybe best day as Islanders GM.
During that memorable afternoon, Snow landed Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks. The Leddy deal still looks pretty spiffy today, but either way, it was a prime example of an up-and-coming team leveraging contenders’ cap conundrums to get better. The Islanders simply didn’t improve enough.
One might attribute that inability to go from good to great (and eventually the malaise to slip from good to mediocre?) on Snow’s coaching choices. Snow stuck with Jack Capuano for quite some time, and the decision to promote Doug Weight ended up being a failure.
For all we know, a more experienced or innovative coach might have been able to optimize a group that, while imperfect, certainly boasted some talent. Just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins under Mike Sullivan vs. a similar Penguins team held back by Mike Johnston’s ill-fitting system if you want an example of what a difference that can make.
Snow frequently showed patience, something that paid off for similarly long-tenured Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. Sometimes, too much of a good thing like patience can really be a detriment in sports. It’s fair to wonder if that was the case with Garth Snow.
You could kill hours pouring over the highs and lows of Snow’s days. Really, it’s a testament to how tough it can be to run an NHL team, especially one trying to shake a bad reputation like the Islanders fought.
Snow worked past the days of trading for a player’s negotiating rights, only to realize they wouldn’t sign with his team. He recognized under-the-radar talent on the waiver wire and boasted draft-day hits amid the misses.
Still, he was unable to get over the hump for a variety of reasons, including (wait for it) goaltending.
Of all the things that went wrong for the former NHL backup, that might be the factor that stings the most.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.