The Islanders making the playoffs this past season seems to have changed people’s opinions about Garth Snow significantly. At one point, Snow was a bit of a punchline. There were many reasons, starting with how he became the Islanders’ GM in the first place, getting hired the same day he retired from being an active player. Then, a couple months later, he signed Rick DiPietro to his ludicrous 15-year contract.
Even when he was named the executive of the year by Sports Illustrated in 2007 after less than a year on the job, no one took it particularly seriously: after all, what does Sports Illustrated know about hockey, really? Sure enough, the Islanders lapsed back into mediocrity and finished at or near the bottom of the league in five straight seasons.
But with success comes recognition and Snow’s masterful manipulation of the CBA and clever use of the waiver wire to navigate his way around one of the lowest internal budgets in the NHL while still icing a competitive team has garnered Snow praise from all corners.
There’s really only one issue: Snow can’t find a good goaltender.
Islanders needed a long-term rebuild when Snow was hired and, other than taking a stab at the playoffs with a big trade for Ryan Smyth in his first year, that’s exactly what Snow has provided. He was fortunate enough to get the first overall pick in 2009, allowing him to pick franchise player John Tavares, but it’s the team that he’s built around Tavares that has impressed.
Snow has plucked productive players from the bargain bin throughout his tenure, including PA Parenteau and Matt Moulson, who were stuck in the AHL before Snow signed them as free agents, Michael Grabner, who Snow plucked off of waivers, and Brad Boyes, who Snow signed for just $1 million this past off-season.
Parenteau had 120 points in two seasons with the Islanders before cashing in with the Avalanche as a free agent. Moulson has become a consistent 30+ goalscorer on the Islanders’ top line alongside Tavares. Grabner scored 34 goals in his first season with the Islanders and has become a key penalty killer to go with his goalscoring. Boyes scored 35 points in 48 games this past season, finishing third on the Islanders in points.
Combining those bargains with some solid drafting and smart contracts for homegrown talent and Snow looks a lot better now than when he first started out. And that’s not even mentioning the sneakiness of trading for Tim Thomas last year, knowing he would not report to training camp so he could be suspended, allowing his contract to count against the salary cap without having to pay him anything, thereby helping the Islanders reach the cap floor. That’s approaching evil genius levels, right there.
And yet, one thing continues to elude Snow, and it’s sadly ironic. During his playing days, Snow was never more than a mediocre goaltender. As a GM, Snow has seen a series of mediocre goaltenders pass between the pipes. The one thing he hasn’t been able to pluck from the bargain bin is goaltending.
He’s certainly tried, of course. Even the DiPietro contract, though it was likely more a result of owner meddling than anything else, was an attempt to secure good goaltending long-term on the cheap.
The Islanders’ mediocre goaltending under Snow is partly explained by that same DiPietro contract. After all, with DiPietro as the number one goaltender, Snow’s only responsibility was to bring in a backup. Wade Dubielewicz was signed the day after Snow became GM and Mike Dunham was invited to training camp on a tryout and signed — that’s two cheap options to backup DiPietro, who started 62 games and helped carry the Islanders to the playoffs.
DiPietro started another 63 games in 2007-08, but had just a .902 save percentage. The next season, the wheels came off entirely. Joey Macdonald and Yann Danis ended up playing in 49 and 31 games, respectively, during the 2008-09 season as DiPietro battled injuries. Macdonald and Danis were backup goaltenders thrust into a starter’s role. Between the two of them, they had played 23 NHL games prior to the 2008-09 season.
With DiPietro’s ongoing injury problems, Snow made the entirely reasonable decision to sign experienced veterans to replace Macdonald and Danis, bringing in Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron. It didn’t work. Roloson was 30th in the NHL in save percentage in 2009-10 and finished 27th in 2010-11 after getting traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Biron lasted just one season, posting an .896 save percentage as Roloson’s backup.
Six different goaltenders played for the Islanders in 2010-11, including Roloson and DiPietro. Despite the disaster of having so many goaltenders carousel through the crease, there was a glimmer of hope: two of those goaltenders were Islanders’ draft picks and another was a former first round pick acquired in a trade for a sixth round pick.
Snow’s bargain bin style looked like it was starting to pay off, as Kevin Poulin, one of the draft picks, put up a .924 save percentage and 2.44 goals against average in 10 appearances, while Al Montoya, the former first round pick, posted a .921 save percentage and 2.39 goals against average in 20 appearances.
Snow then made another bargain hunting move, snagging Evgeni Nabokov off waivers as he attempted to make his way back to the NHL from Europe with the Detroit Red Wings on a near-league minimum salary. Nabokov refused to report, but the Islanders simply pushed his contract to the next year and Snow managed to convince him to play.
The Islanders’ goaltending was starting to look a lot like the rest of the team: a waiver wire pickup, an inexpensive trade, and a couple draft picks. The only problem is that it hasn’t quite worked out as well in net as it has elsewhere for the Islanders.
Montoya looked great in 2010-11, then looked terrible in 31 games in 2011-12, posting an .893 save percentage that was 44th in the league, ahead of only Roloson among eligible goaltenders. Nabokov was significantly better than that, with a .914 save percentage, but that still put him at 26th in the league. With limited options, Snow re-signed Nabokov, who became the workhorse for the Islanders in net, starting 41 of 48 games in 2012-13. His .910 save percentage tied him for 25th in the league.
Tied with him at .910 were two very good goaltenders in Pekka Rinne and Mike Smith, but the problem is that Nabokov is unlikely to improve significantly on those numbers at 37 years old. Making matters worse, he was awful in the playoffs, allowing 24 goals in 6 games against the Penguins with a .842 save percentage. With a better goaltender, the Islanders potentially win that series.
Snow’s response to two years of below league average goaltending and a disastrous performance in the post-season was, of course, to re-sign Nabokov for another year.
Sure, Nabokov is the best goaltender that Snow has had during his tenure with the Islanders, but that’s not saying much. Nabokov has been thoroughly average and it’s puzzling that Snow hasn’t sought an upgrade in earnest, with good young goaltenders like Cory Schneider and Jonathan Bernier both already traded this off-season.
To be fair, it seems likely that Snow is just trying to buy time while the Islanders’ goaltending prospects develop. If one of Kevin Pouline, Anders Nilsson, or Mikko Koskinen steps up over the next year to take the reins from Nabokov, then Snow will look like a patient and intelligent GM. If not, and it’s entirely possible that none of them develop sufficiently, Snow will be heavily criticized for not addressing the goaltending situation appropriately.
Snow is getting a lot of coverage right now, with some wanting to hail him as hockey’s Billy Beane. While I respect Snow as a GM, I’ll wait until he figures out a way to shore up the Islanders’ goaltending and put together a few winning seasons in a row on a budget before I go that far.