For as bad as the Islanders have been for, oh, two decades, they’ve actually done some “not terrible” things with their roster, particularly of late. Garth Snow gets a hard time, as you’d expect as the GM of a consistently bad team, but considering the tortuous conditions in which he’s been asked to operate, he’s done a fair job. (Note: “done a fair job” works best if you’re willing to use the Men-in-Black neuralyzer on yourself after the whole Matt Moulson-Thomas Vanek situation.)
Don’t forget, the team has a budget of “Sorry, how little are we allowed to spend?,” has a pretty terrible owner, and play in a crumbling cement circle, all of which makes locking up unrestricted free agents tough.
So if UFAs won’t sign with your team, and you can’t spend money anyway, how do you fill roster holes? How do you get better?
No one knows if the Isles will ever actually “get there,” but below are three ways they’re trying.
Lock up talent before you have to pay it like talent
The Houston Astros made baseball history this week by giving a contract extension (five years plus three as a team option) to a player who’s never played an MLB game. That’s the kind of thing the Isles have been doing for years.
When Andrew MacDonald’s entry-level contract expired, he had played more games in the ECHL (52) than the NHL (49). He spent the bulk of his time in the American League, but the Isles liked what they saw in him. So, they rolled the dice - they offered him a four year NHL contract - one way - at league minimum.
For MacDonald, that guaranteed him real money ($550k X 4), a sincere, prolonged NHL shot, and the team’s best efforts to boost him up.
For Garth Snow, it was a cheap risk. By the end of the deal, MacDonald had become one of the NHL’s time-on-ice leaders, was nearing 100 points, and his service was deemed to be worth $5 million per year by the Flyers. The Isles got that service for 11% of the cost.
This situation was not unique to MacDonald. They rolled the dice on Frans Nielsen in a similar situation ($525k each year for four years) and his name was in Selke Trophy talks within a couple of seasons.
On and on it goes. John Tavares makes $5.5m until 2017 because they locked him up early. Kyle Okposo just chipped in 70 points at $2.8 million per, same reason. Travis Hamonic is locked up until 2020 at $3.85 million, for which his agent should be fired.
In exchange for job security, players will take pay cuts. The only time this hasn’t worked for the Isles is with Josh Bailey, but a useable guy at $3.3m isn’t sinking any ships.
Put players in situations where they almost have to play for you
When Evgeni Nabokov wanted to come back to the NHL, he wanted to play for Detroit. (Keep in mind, this was before his decline - he was still a good starter at the time.) But, the Isles claimed him, and essentially held his career hostage until he played for them. You want to be in the NHL? Then you have to play out your old contract - with us, your NHL team - before you can sign a new one. He found out Long Island is a great place to live, and signed another deal after that.
They’ve traded for a few guys (like Lubomir Visnovsky) who didn’t want to be there at first but who came to love it (yay Stockholm Syndrome!). They've picked up quality players (like Michael Grabner) on waivers. Once again for the Isles it’s play for us or don’t play at all—we have your rights.
More recently, they’re trading for the rights to exclusively negotiate with pending UFAs.
They know they can’t out-bid teams, and they know they’re at the bottom of most destination lists, so by trading for the rights to guys like Jaroslav Halak and Dan Boyle they’re able to say “I know this isn’t choice one, but we’ll give you something you won’t get elsewhere. Just hear us out.”
Halak, four years at $4.5 in this goalie market? Great for him, and a no-brainer for the Isles.
Boyle, getting older and less effective? The Isles will be able to see what would lock him up - some extra term, some extra dollars, some extra powerplay time? - and offer it. At least they have a shot at improvement by doing this, and it only costs them a pick that rarely turns into anything of value.
Develop the kids through exposure
The Islanders were out of playoff contention well before the final month of last season. The best-case scenario for them would be for the kids they drafted to develop into legit NHL players (again, because you currently have to kidnap players to get them to choose Long Island). So they threw them right into the fire, because hey, they weren’t making the playoffs anyway. That bit of NHL exposure goes a long way for young players, just in terms of knowing what to expect the next season, and finding the bar they have to get to.
Only a handful of teams (think Buffalo, Calgary, Edmonton, Florida) saw as many random young names forced into NHL jerseys this past year.
The Isles have a lot to sell these days, the team included. Sign with New York and play with John Tavares, sign with New York and be a part of the move to Brooklyn, sign with New York and get more minutes, sign with New York and who knows, maybe the team sells and we start spending money. There’s finally real hope there.
Garth Snow has been in a tough situation as the completely hamstrung GM of a struggling team, but he’s done some good things. Really, he’s done all you can do in a league where most players don’t want to play for your team.
Lately, it’s becoming pretty clear that the Islanders don’t want their first round pick in a strong draft - the pick that’s going to Buffalo - to be a high one.
That gives them incentive to be legitimate, which would also help a potential team sale and build momentum for the move to the Barclays Center. The Isles are going to make a sincere effort to be good next season, and for fans who’ve endured years where they haven’t, that’s some pretty exciting news.