This NHL season is, unfortunately, one-eighth of the way finished. Although it’s great to be watching hockey every night, we’re still missing out on thirty-four games this year. That’s not to say the NHL hasn’t been great in 2013, though.
The importance of every game is magnified. Evey point matters a bit more, and I have to admit that I like every game being within the Eastern Conference. It actually gets me a little bit anxious to see the NHL go into realignment, putting extra emphasis on Conference and Divisional games. Each game has the feel of something in between a regular season game, and a playoff game.
Six games in, the Islanders sit at 3-2-1-0, and have the opportunity to take the lead in the Atlantic Division with a win over New Jersey. Yes, it’s still early, but look at it this way. With forty-two games remaining in 2013, the Islanders are sitting one point out of the 3rd-seed at the half way point of any other season. It’s great, and although the Islanders are probably going to hit a few bumps along the way, the Islanders are still in it on the final day of January.
Give credit to Garth Snow, who has built this Isles team. With the exceptions of Kyle Okposo, Rick DiPietro, and Frans Nielsen, Garth’s fingerprints are all over the Islanders. And although it’s been highly criticized (for some reason), some of Snow’s biggest acquisitions have come on the waiver-wire.
Now, Islanders fans are thrilled with this team’s play through six games, and some of the biggest reasons for the early success falls back to Garth’s waiver pickups, dating back to 2010. Some say Garth’s adds garbage to this “AHL-team”. Working with limited opportunity, I call Garth an extraordinaire, molding his team in a unique way.
It’s an interesting approach. Garth finds players who were once considered to have great talent (usually former early draft choices), and gives them a shot after the players failed to find their place on another roster. I don’t know if it’s quite the equivalent to moneyball, but it certainly goes along with the mantra “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
In 2010, Garth Snow made his first impactful claim after Michael Grabner (former 14th-overall pick) failed to make it with Vancouver and Florida. Snow saw a 23-year old kid who had yet to be given a shot, and Snow was rewarded. Grabner scored 34 goals in his rookie year, including a stretch where he scored 16 points in the month of February. Through the Islanders impressive start to this season, Grabner is tied for the Isles lead in goals (4), and leads the team in +/- (+5). Grabner is also a key piece to the Islanders penalty kill, which is operating at a 95% efficiency this year. He has found a future home on Long Island, as he’s signed for the next four years.
Garth’s biggest waiver-wire acquisition is arguably our goalie, Evgeni Nabokov. Sure, Nabby may have been forced to come here after he signed with Detroit, but Snow broke no rules when he claimed Nabokov. The Islanders had lost more than a few goalies in 2010-11, so with the opportunity to grab a top-notch guy, Snow did just that. He saw a goalie who had three consecutive 40-win seasons, and picked him up to better this organization. Nabby failed to report, but decided to show up for the 2011-12 season. He was expected to be traded, but when DP went down (again), Nabby was here to say, and was thrilled to be on the Island. He recorded 19 wins and a [NHL] winning record for an Islanders team that was 27th in the NHL. Our season hinges on Nabokov, who stopped 37 of 38 shots in Pittsburgh Tuesday night.
This season, the Islanders have made several other waiver-wire acquisitions. Keith Aucoin, a prolific AHL scorer, has four points through the Islanders first six games. At the age of 34, he was never given a permanent roster spot, but is finding his way on the Island. Keith has won 62% of his face-offs, leading the Islanders in that category.
Brian Strait, also recently added, is proving to be a top-four defenseman. Earlier today, Brian was signed to a three-year contract extension. Although some say it’s early, which is true, he was signed for a cheap $77k per year. A former 3rd-round pick, Strait has made very few NHL appearances, but at 25 years old, he is being relied on for top minutes. One-third of his career NHL games have been played through these six games, yet Strait looks like a veteran. He has not made the scoresheet, but holds an even rating and is logging 18:22 of ice time on average this year. Strait does his job quietly and adequately.
Garth also added Thomas Hockey and Joe Finley to the Island. Both are former 1st-round picks (Hickey 4th overall, Finley 25th overall) and have split time in the NHL this season. Finley played his first three games, and although he was not particularly impressive, he was only a -2. At 6’8, he remains a project for the Islanders, who will try to develop him into a serviceable defenseman.
Hickey looks like he could provide scoring from the Islanders blue-line, along with positionally sound defensive play. He made his NHL debut against Winnipeg, and has played two games on the Islanders bottom-pairing. I like Hockey, and it was fun seeing him muscle a few Penguins off the puck on National TV towards the end of the game. At the young age of 23, Hickey also has a chance to remain on the Island.
So yes, through six games, Garth’s waiver-wire pickups have actually improved this team. Turns out, Garth’s just implementing a different strategy. He’s finding former top prospects, and putting them in situations where they have the opportunity to succeed. He’s finding players who have no where else to go, but have shown success in other places, and is giving them a shot to find themselves in the NHL. These players want to stay in the NHL, and are playing their hearts out because of it.
No, not all of these moves have panned out. Rob Schremp was not a “Garth Snow success story”, but the point was never to find a new star through waivers. The Islanders are building around their core guys of John Tavares, Travis Hamonic, and Michael Grabner by finding players that can play in supporting roles. Some of these pickups may be placeholders as the Islanders ready their prospects for the NHL, but that’s OK during a time where this team has found it to be a challenge when recruiting free agents. Garth’s found serviceable players through the waiver-wire, and trusted them with roles on this team. Maybe they don’t succeed, and they disappear. Maybe they increase their value, so the Islanders can swap them for additional pieces. Maybe they even become mainstays on the Islanders, like Grabner and Nabokov.
Criticize Garth’s handling of this team all you want. He’s utilizing the waiver-wire like it’s meant to be used, and he’s succeeding. His team is coming together, and playing competitive hockey. The Islanders are beginning to garner some positive attention, and it all traces back to Garth Snow’s decision-making.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment.
Filed Under: New York Islanders
About the Author: Writes at Islanders Op-Timism. Islanders Season Ticket Holder who tends to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hofstra Graduate currently working at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates. I definitely want to end up working within the world of hockey. Blog: www.IslandersOptimism.com E-Mail: ChristopherTriantafilis@gmail.com Twitter: @ChrisTriants