One of the most stunning stories from the first round of the playoffs has been the performance of the New York Islanders, who tied up their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday with a 6-4 win. The Penguins were the prohibitive favourites to come out of the East this season after loading up at the trade deadline, adding Brendan Morrow and Jarome Iginla to an already stacked forward corps and beefing up their defence with the hulking Douglas Murray.
Meanwhile, you would think the Islanders would just be happy to be in the playoffs at all, having missed the playoffs for five straight seasons, finishing fifth in the Atlantic Division each time. Very few people even gave the Islanders a chance in this series, with most predicting that the Penguins would win in five games, since predicting a sweep is a little too bold.
But the Islanders have done more than just show up. They’ve surprised the Penguins with their speed and tenacity and reminded everyone why there are still question marks surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s the classic tale of David versus Goliath, if Goliath had awful goaltending.
What fascinates me is how these Islanders were constructed. They’re a team full of cast-offs and misfits cobbled together by a general manager under extremely limiting financial constraints.
The Islanders have the third lowest cap payroll in the NHL, coming in at a little over $53 million, ahead of only the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes. That number is a little deceiving of course. It includes Alexei Yashin’s buyout of $2.2 million which is, incredibly, still on the books six years after leaving Long Island and will be for two more.
It also includes a large chunk of Rick DiPietro’s salary from before he was stashed in the minors and the majority of Tim Thomas’s contract, who GM Garth Snow cleverly traded for to lift the Islanders above the salary cap floor without spending any actual money.
According to the numbers on Capgeek, over $10 million of the Islanders’ cap hit isn’t even on the roster.
The Penguins, on the other hand, have the 7th highest cap payroll. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby each get paid $3.2 million more per year than John Tavares, the Islanders’ highest paid forward. The Islanders have two defencemen making more than $2 million per year. The Penguins have five.
The foundation of the Islanders has come through drafting. After all, Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Josh Bailey were all high first round draft picks, while vital players like Travis Hamonic and Frans Nielsen were picked up in the second and third round.
The roster is packed with Islanders’ draft picks, helping to keep costs down. Snow had no other option but to hope that his young picks were ready to contribute, but tempered that hope with rationality, as those who couldn’t contribute were quickly sent back down. Casey Cizikas (4th round) has 4 points in 4 playoff games, Andrew MacDonald (6th round) led all Islanders’ defencemen in ice time during the regular season, and Kevin Poulin (5th round) keeps the bench warm as the backup goaltender on the cheap, while David Ullstrom (4th round) and Matt Martin (5th round) fill out the bottom end of the forwards.
But then you get to guys like Matt Moulson, who was drafted in the 9th round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003, but never got a contract. Instead he signed with the Los Angeles Kings and spent three seasons putting up great numbers in the AHL while getting minimal opportunities in the NHL. The Islanders were more than happy to take him, signing him as a free agent in 2009. He responded, putting up three straight 30-goal seasons while playing with Tavares.
Michael Grabner was claimed off waivers in 2010 after the Florida Panthers traded for him, but weren’t impressed in training camp. He scored 34 goals that season, then followed it up with 20 goals in 2011-12 and 16 goals in 45 games this season.
Brian Strait, who is averaging nearly 20 minutes per game in the playoffs, was claimed off waivers this season from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Thomas Hickey, the Kings’ 2007 4th overall pick, was claimed off waivers this season as well, appearing in 39 games with the Islanders and posting impressive puck possession numbers. He was second on the team behind Lubomir Visnovsky in Corsi.
Keith Aucoin bounced around the league for years, dominating the AHL, but never putting it together at the NHL level because of his size. He signed with the Leafs, but after training camp was put on waivers and claimed by the Islanders. With the Islanders, he spent the full season in the NHL for the first time in his career and, while he certainly didn’t score like he did in the AHL, he was able to contribute as a depth forward, posting positive puck possession statistics.
Evgeni Nabokov? You guessed it: waivers. They snagged him from the Detroit Red Wings after they signed him to a one-year deal, kicking off a long saga when he refused to report to the Islanders. Amazingly, Garth Snow convinced him to come to Long Island, then got him to sign a two-year contract extension.
Speaking off, there’s Lubomir Visnovsky, who was disgruntled when the Islanders traded for him from the Anaheim Ducks, as he still believed that he had a no-trade clause in effect. Again, Snow eventually convinced him to join the team and also sign a two-year extension, at $850,000 less per year. Visnovsky has been superb for the Islanders this year after he was cast off from the Ducks just a year after putting up 68 points.
Colin McDonald had played 409 games in the AHL, including a season where he led the AHL in goalscoring, and just 7 in the NHL by the time he played his first game for the Islanders this season. He played the entire season with the Islanders and was a solid contributor and has 2 points in 4 games in the first round of the playoffs.
Even team captain, Mark Streit, is a bit of an unexpected success. While he has been one of the better offensive defencemen in the league for the past six seasons, it’s easy to forget that he started out as a ninth round pick. He’s a bit of a misfit himself.
At this point, it’s almost weird that Brad Boyes, Marty Reasoner, and Matt Carkner were signed as regular ol’ boring free agents who were already NHL players.
5 of the 22 players that have appeared in the playoffs for the Islanders were picked up off waivers, as Garth Snow worked his ass off to put together a competitive team with the lowest budget in the league. With over $10 million of the Islanders’ salary cap not even in the same city as the rest of the team, the Islanders are still neck-and-neck with one of the most impressive groups of forwards we’ve seen outside of an All-Star Game.
Please, someone tell me how anyone other than Garth Snow is going to win General Manager of the year.