Looking back on Canada Day 2010, people are going remember the Pittsburgh Penguins augmenting their blueline, the Rangers grossly overpaying for another enforcer, and Darryl Sutter completely shocking the hockey world by going to his way-back machine to welcome back Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay. Fans on Long Island will look back at another Free Agency Day when GM Garth Snow did nothing to make the team better. But unfortunately, history won’t remember the entire story of what went down today for the Islanders.
First things first: I’m not in the practice of defending Garth Snow. Come to think of it, I’m not in the practice of defending the New York Islanders as an organization. They play in the worst arena in sports, their goaltender will make about $40 million per start for the next 30 years of his contract, and they once employed Mike Milbury. But for Islanders fans that are slowly creeping to the edge and thinking about doing a Peter Pan off of the Brooklyn Bridge, allow an outsider to provide a little perspective. Your GM’s performance on July 1st wasn’t nearly as bad as history books might say it was.
Looking at the Islanders organization, it’s no secret that there’s a significant void on the blueline. Mark Streit is an underrated defender and Calvin deHaan looks like he’ll be a productive NHLer in the near future, but the rest of the cupboard is looking pretty bare. Andy MacDonald is already at the NHL level, and behind him I guess would be Aaron Ness. Anyone else making the NHL would be a huge stretch—hell, even Ness is a stretch.
Behind Streit at the NHL level, Martinek’s body is actually made out of glass. Bruno Gervais, Jack Hillen, and Freddy Meyer all play significant time every single game. Needless to say, the blueline is weak and unless Garth Snow is proactive, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon.
So what does that have to do with an extremely quiet opening to the free agency period? Well, Garth Snow understands that his team has a serious deficiency of blueliners. He knows that he needs to go out, find someone that can eat up some minutes, and help protect whoever is between the pipes on a given night. Just because the Isles came up empty, doesn’t mean they weren’t looking. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that Snow wasn’t doing everything he could to fill the void.
Only after the dust settled on the first day did we find out exactly how difficult Snow’s job is this year. As Sergei Gonchar, Zbynek Michalek, Dan Hamhuis, and Paul Martin all signed while the Islanders sat millions of dollars under the cap, Islanders fans wondered aloud if this was going to be just another year of inactivity. But what people didn’t know was that Snow was in the middle of those discussions. He was actively perusing both Paul Martin and Dan Hamhuis.
Listen to this: the Islanders offered more to Paul Martin than the victorious Penguins offered him. And Dan Hamhuis? The Islanders offered more money to Hamhuis than the Canucks did en route to landing the former Predators defenseman. They offered more money in both cases—and were turned down in both instances. What else can he do?
When a team is offering the most money and getting turned down, there are bigger problems than simply missing out on a defenseman. In a sports landscape where athletes almost always go to the highest bidder, players would rather take less to play somewhere else. As much as people on Long Island would like to put this on Snow, it’s not his fault. If he offers the best contract to the right guy, then offers the best contract to his Plan B—and gets shut out both times—well, there’s a systematic problem that goes deeper than just the GM and free agency signings.
This isn’t an isolated problem to the Islanders. Teams who have difficulty winning over a period of time end up having difficulties signing free agents. In the years immediately following the lockout, the Kings would offer free agents the world only to see them sign elsewhere. The problem was—all things being equal, players wanted to get paid AND have an opportunity to win. When the Kings were picking in the Top 5 in the draft every season, free agents weren’t rushing to be part of the rebuilding process. They wanted to have a chance to win, as well as get paid. It’s a lesson that the Islanders (and their fans) are learning today.
Another HUGE problem is the facilities on Long Island. It seems like the Lighthouse Project has been dragging on forever–and in the interim, the team is stuck in old building that peaked decades ago. Even on television, it just looks depressing. So when all things are equal, would a professional athlete choose to play in a newer building that’s sold out or a half-empty building that is falling apart.
Before people start hammering Garth Snow for failing to acquire a high-end defenseman to lead his blueline, they should stop and acknowledge the fact that he’s done everything he could. Twice. The fact is the Islanders are going to have to continue to rebuild internally and show some results on the ice before they are able to start wooing the cream of the free agent crop. Until then, it’s going to take some serious overpayment just to get the players to consider the Island.
It’ll happen—it’s just going to take time. You know, unless Snow screws it up.