If you’ve watched the Islanders play over the past little while, you haven’t liked what you’ve seen.
The team appears to have taken a nosedive, surrendering buckets of goals every night and losing ground to their divisional foes. Of even greater concern is miracle worker John Tavares’ future, and whether or not the Isles will be part of it. The more they underachieve, the less incentive there is for Tavares to stick around, and after enduring what will have been nine seasons with the franchise at the conclusion of this one, he deserves a chance to win.
GM Garth Snow will be the first to point out that the roster he handcrafted isn’t at full strength because some key cogs have been sidelined due to injury. He will always point that out, because he wants you to know that there’s an excuse. Snow will climb that hill and express his willingness to die on it every time, because he wants you to know that he put together the perfect team, and isn’t going to mortgage a future he and the Islanders have been perpetually working towards over the past decade for some rent-a-player.
Snow’s relative silence during recent hard times has been deafening, and at this point, he is primarily responsible for any failures his hockey club endures. But to understand why he operates this way is a bit more complex than attributing his behavior entirely to his ego and stubbornness. There’s something bigger here, something with roots embedded far deeper into the core of the organization.
To understand how the Isles got here, you need to measure their approach to winning and analyze their definition of success.
Considering they’ve won just a single playoff series since 1993, haven’t won a division title since 1988, and have posted a losing record in 14 of their past 22 seasons (not including 2017-18), the Islanders haven’t exactly been the crown jewel of professional ice hockey they once were during the dynastic early 1980’s. So, in order to improve their predicament, all they had to do was make the playoffs; if they could just get in, that in and of itself would be a tremendous accomplishment.
Indeed, it was a tremendous accomplishment, and when the Isles blitzed with a 96 point season in 2001-02 (an incredible 44 point turnaround from the prior year), they were absolutely reborn.
Since that time, the franchise’s title deed has changed hands and players — some of whom are still collecting paychecks — have come and gone. What hasn’t changed, however, is that same anemic approach to winning. The last time the Isles “went for it” was during the 2006-07 campaign, Snow’s first at the helm, when they acquired Ryan Smyth and Marc-Andre Bergeron to aid their quest to reach…the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. And, whenever they’ve been presented with golden opportunities to take things even further in the Tavares Era, they have opted to hold their fire.
From Snow’s perspective, the Isles ought to be good enough to make the playoffs with their current roster, provided it remains intact, and the organizational depth enough to stay afloat in case of emergency. The reality is, that depth doesn’t exist. Younger, developing players are being forced into roles that they’re perhaps not ready for yet.
That’s not depth; it’s an abundance of raw talent. Those are two very, very different things, and when you choose the latter, you end up in situations like the one the team currently faces.
Every GM, coach and player will tell you their goal is to win the Stanley Cup. But only a handful of them ever get there, and for the ones who develop a consistent pattern of not doing so, those words become empty rhetoric. The Islanders will tell you this as well, but they have no concept of how to reach the promised land from a team-building perspective.
Whatever their stated goals are, their results tell a very different story. If they truly want to take that metaphoric next step, they’ll have to set the bar a lot higher than in years past. New owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin seem to understand this, but it has become increasingly clear that their GM never will.
As Dave Stutman once said: “Complacency is the enemy of progress.”
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DanJFriedman