In hockey, a rebuilding process generally follows one of two possible directions:
It can be successful, and the team will get better with each passing game, as we have seen in Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago.
The alternative, of course, is that the rebuild fails, with confidence-shattering results, which is exactly what the New York Islanders experienced in the 1990’s, when Mike Milbury was in charge.
The initial stages of the process held much promise, as the team drafted the likes of Zigmund Palffy, Bryan McCabe, Zdeno Chara and Roberto Luongo, to name a few. The Isles also traded for young talents such as Kenny Jonsson, Oli Jokinen, Eric Fichaud and Bryan Berard, and everything seemed to be going according to plan.
Of course, that future was never to be, as “Mad Mike” shipped several of those players out of town, showing little patience with the team’s rookies and getting unequal returns on those trades.
For all intents and purposes, the rebuild was over faster than you could say “Bryan Smolinski.”
That was over a decade ago, and since that time, things have changed for the better on Long Island.
Many of the decisions Milbury made were met with raised eyebrows, and with Garth Snow now at the helm, our eyebrows remain raised. That sense of skepticism comes with the territory.
When Snow was originally hired, the move was criticized and ridiculed by just about anyone with a working brain and some hockey knowledge. The Islanders looked incredibly foolish, having hired Neil Smith, the architect of the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion- New York Rangers, that summer.
Smith even made an immediate impact, drafting Kyle Okposo and Andrew MacDonald in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (Okposo and MacDonald are two of the biggest pieces to the team’s new-found success). Unsatisfied, he then shifted his focus to free agency, bringing aboard veterans Mike Sillinger, Tom Poti and Brendan Witt.
Citing philosophical differences between Smith and team owner Charles Wang, the Islanders fired him and then shocked the hockey world, announcing that ex-backup Garth Snow would become the GM of the organization.
The move was not as unfathomable as some might have thought. Snow does have a Masters Degree in Business Administration, which he obtained from the University of Maine.
There is however another side to Mr. Snow, which I was quick to point out at the time, though I have rarely seen it mentioned by others. I’ve always felt that being a former goaltender, Garth has seen the game better than most, and therefore recognizes talent when he sees it.
That type of vantage point gives him an edge, a luxury that positional players simply don’t have. It’s the same thing with catchers in baseball. Think about how many MLB managers are former catchers and you’ll notice a trend.
The Isles made the postseason in Snow’s first season at the helm, largely due to a blockbuster deal he orchestrated, landing Ryan Smyth while hardly putting a dent into New York’s farm system.
The move put Snow on the map, and he was named Sports Illustrated’s 2007 NHL Executive of the Year shortly thereafter. However, his early accolades did little to quiet the naysayers, and the following season proved to be a disappointing one, with the Islanders missing the playoffs.
It was at that point, that Snow and Wang announced that the New York Islanders would be committing to a full-scale rebuild. In the last few seasons, the team has drafted well, adding Josh Bailey, John Tavares, Travis Hamonic and Kevin Poulin, all of whom have contributed on the NHL level this season.
There are more top prospects in the wings, such as Nino Niederreiter, Calvin de Haan, Kirill Petrov and Kirill Kabanov, and the Isles are likely to get another top-five pick at the upcoming Entry Draft.
Not only has he drafted well, but Snow has made some savvy moves when it comes to free agency. He signed Mark Streit for an absolute bargain, making Rangers GM Glen Sather look rather silly for vastly overpaying Wade Redden, and he found Matt Moulson, seemingly out of nowhere.
The additions of Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron last year helped solidify the team’s goaltending, and plucking Michael Grabner off the waiver wire ended up being a stroke of genius.
Snow has also become rather effective when it comes to amassing draft picks, and he’s often been able to trade players for more than he acquired them for (see James Wisniewski).
As the 2010-2011 NHL season winds down, the pieces are finally interlocking and the results produced have been striking. The Isles have won 11 of their last 19 games, and are among the best teams in the league since the All-Star break. They’ve beaten playoff teams, knocking off Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Anaheim and Montreal.
New York has three players with 24-plus goals, in Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and John Tavares.
Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have emerged as quality shutdown defensemen, and there’s probably a Selke Trophy with Frans Nielsen’s name on it for the splendidly versatile Danish forward, sometime in the future.
This team has bought in to head coach Jack Capuano’s system, they’re firing on all cylinders at just the right time, and no matter how you slice it, the terms “Islanders” and “pushovers” suddenly don’t seem very synonymous. The future is bright, and at their current pace, the Isles might actually be playing meaningful games, come next March.
In the meantime, they’ll finish the season as strong as possible, but regardless of what happens, the New York Islanders and their fans can count on one thing:
That long-promised future begins now.
Comments are welcome.
I’m a columnist for the New York Islanders on The Hockey Writers.
I hail from West Hempstead, NY, I’m a Senior at Queens College and work at NBC Sports Network.
Follow me on Twitter @DFriedmanNHL