As much as signing John Tavares to a long-term contract extension would be a huge win for the New York Islanders, it’s time to start being realistic. The best free agent to hit the open market in recent memory is highly unlikely to return to an organization that defines mediocrity and instability.
The Islanders, fresh off an abysmal season in which they finished 17 points out of a playoff spot, just relieved their head coach and general manager of their duties less than a month before free agency begins, and saw the latter replaced with 75-year-old Lou Lamoriello.
However, there is perhaps one silver lining associated with losing one of the game’s best players in the prime of his career for absolutely nothing: a fresh start.
With Tavares gone, the Islanders will have no reason not to begin a full-on rebuild. If they couldn’t even sniff the playoffs with Tavares on the roster, there’s no point in using every resource available to compete for one within the next couple of seasons, considering the prospect pipeline isn’t exactly ripening with talent.
Snow’s GM tenure was such that he could have taken a page out of George Costanza’s book and just done “the opposite” in running the club and probably would have improved the state of affairs. Despite all his shortcomings, he did somehow manage to leave the Islanders with one heavenly parting gift: Mathew Barzal.
Likely to be a unanimous selection for the Calder Trophy, Barzal gives the Islanders a new face of the franchise moving forward. A first-line center whose agility, hands, and vision represent everything about today’s NHL, the Islanders can build a contender around Barzal, but they must avoid making the same mistakes Snow made while trying to do the same with Tavares.
Invest (competently) in the draft
After selecting Tavares first overall in 2009, the Islanders failed to build a supporting cast in subsequent drafts despite having numerous high picks.
2010, Nino Niederreiter (fifth overall): Niederreiter has developed into a good winger, but the Isles rushed him to the NHL, then traded him to the Minnesota Wild before his 21st birthday in exchange for Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick. The lesson here? Patience.
2011, Ryan Strome (fifth overall): The Isles envisioned Strome turning into a 2A center behind Tavares, and had they chosen any one of the next three skaters taken, they would’ve had such a player. The three picks after Strome, in order: Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele, and Sean Couturier. Ouch.
2012, Griffin Reinhart (fourth overall): Peter Chiarelli’s poor judgment bailed the Islanders out on this one, as Reinhart would eventually be swapped to Edmonton for the pick that would turn into Barzal. Nonetheless, if the Islanders were looking to bolster their blue line, they could not have been more off in their evaluation of this draft class’ defensemen. Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Matt Dumba, and Jacob Trouba made up four of the next five picks.
2013, Ryan Pulock (15th overall): Pulock has the makings of a solid NHL defenseman, which is fine relative to the draft slot. Snow gets a pass here.
2014, Michael Dal Colle (fifth overall): Much like the Reinhart pick, the Isles valued size and strength with this pick rather than speed and skill. Dal Colle did dominate junior in his draft year, but good scouting would’ve recognized that William Nylander (eighth overall) or Nikolaj Ehlers (ninth) had brighter NHL futures.
With a rebuild on the horizon, the Islanders can’t afford to miss on high draft picks again. Rather than spending money on free agents, the Isles need to use those resources on hiring the best scouting department possible. Adding former Maple Leafs draft guru Mark Hunter to the front office would be a good start.
Build from the net out
In Snow’s 12 years in charge, the Islanders finished in the bottom third of the league in goals against 10 times. Many of those seasons were right near the basement, too. One would think a goalie-turned-GM would’ve prioritized goal prevention, but clearly, that wasn’t the case.
Their overall struggles came in spite of the fact that some of these Tavares-led teams had no issues putting the puck in the net, which is usually tougher to accomplish when constructing a roster.
While drafting the best player available should always be the main strategy, the Islanders clearly need to start gathering some quality goaltenders and defensemen into their farm system. Netminder Ilya Sorokin has shown promise overseas, but it’s unclear when or if he’ll come over to North America.
Avoid free agency, prioritize youth
Free agency has not been friendly to the Islanders over the years. Mikhail Grabovski‘s four-year, $20-million contract wound up costing them a first- and a second-round pick, while Andrew Ladd‘s $5.5-million cap hit will be on the books through 2022-23. These are just two examples.
Ill-advised in-house extensions have also set the Isles back. Johnny Boychuk, 34, is heading into the fourth season of a seven-year, $42-million contract.
The lesson here? Stay away from free agency – unless it’s a low-risk, short-term deal – and don’t sign any non-franchise player to an extension into their 30s if your team is not ready to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Yes, that includes Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee, who are unrestricted free agents after the 2018-19 season. Eberle, 28, and Lee, who will be 28 on July 3, should be traded this offseason. Coming off a 40-goal season, Lee’s value will never be higher and players his size (6-foot-3, 231 pounds) tend not to age well. Eberle, a perennial 50-60-point player, could also fetch a significant return.
Snow likely would’ve paid Lee and Eberle handsomely into their mid-30s, so the Isles should do the opposite. Trade them both at peak value in exchange for prospects and picks.
Instead of filling the roster with middling veterans, the Isles should see what they have in some of their younger players, such as Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang, even if they haven’t exactly wowed in the AHL. If the younger players don’t perform, they’ll at least gain some valuable NHL experience.
The youth movement should carry over to the bench as well. Hiring a coach who excels at developing young players should be made a priority.
Would Lou go for a rebuild?
It may seem hard to believe that Lamoriello would have interest in kick-starting a rebuild in what will likely be his swan song. However, he’s left his fingerprints all over Toronto’s uprising, and if he could right the Islanders ship, it would only further cement his legacy.
Plus, if Lou’s son, Chris (currently the Isles’ assistant GM), were to take over the reigns one day, Lou would surely want to leave the team in good hands and headed in the right direction.
Ownership would likely have no issues buying in as well. If the rebuild were to begin now, the team could be well on its way toward success by 2021 when its new arena at Belmont Park is ready for use. Constructing a young and exciting team with a bright future is the best way to get fans in the seats. Plus, it’s the opposite of what Snow would’ve done, so it must be right.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)