Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Isles: According to Garth

Back in November, I had asked Garth Snow if I could talk to him about his team. I wanted to do a follow-up to Newsday sportswriter Greg Logan’s November 23rd, 2008 telling article about Garth’s vision of the Islanders. I’ve had it taped to my office wall ever since it was published. I was very curious to see how far he feels they have come in one year.

I waited three weeks before he had time for me. But on November 25th, we were both in the right place at the right time. Even then, his phone rang and there were the obligatory minor interruptions, but he managed to sit on a couch in a warm room at Ice Works and talk to me for 10 minutes. Those 10 minutes have been waiting to be transcribed for more than a month. Games and other story lines always took precedence. But the waiting actually worked well for me.

As the woman who hears everything, I was able to capture on tape some of Garth Snow’s answers from a 12/23/09 Toronto radio interview to expand his answers to my questions. (Hey, whatever works.)

While the Islanders have had a bit of a yo-yo start thus far, there seems to be one major carryover from last year’s brutal season that won them John Tavares: The inability to play a full 60 minutes. I started there.

GS: I think the goal of every team in the league – we’re not the only one - is to play a full 60 minutes. In our case of Islanders hockey, the goal is always to play your system the way you want to play. I think if you went around to the other 29 other teams, that’s every team’s goal - to achieve it.

I don’t have the luxury of asking 29 other General Managers, so I’ll just keep asking this one.

The Islanders have teetered on the edge of that .500 mark, but Garth doesn’t seem to be overly concerned as of yet, as playoffs are not out of the picture.

GS: I think when you have a young line-up, like we do, you have to go through phases of the season where you might not get as many wins as you would have liked. But for us, our biggest downfall has been our special teams. Especially our penalty kill, and I think we’re ranked probably 28th or 29th in the league. You’re not going to win too many games when your penalty killing is that low. So that’s something we need to improve upon. There’s plenty of time left in the season and it’s just the old adage: One shift, one period, one game at a time, and chip away.

We started out 0-4-4 and we got the train back on the tracks, but I don’t think anyone is satisfied or happy with where we are sitting right now in the standings. We’re not in a playoff spot, but we know we can be better.

Whether it was because of the extended absence of veteran Doug Weight or just a lack of consistent scoring, many critics have wondered if and when Garth Snow would snag a quality player to improve his young corps. It seemed like big news that week back in late November when Larry Brooks reported that Snow may have been in the market to buy. I asked Garth about the phone call from Mr. Brooks.

GS: His question to me was “Do you have the authorization to add to the payroll?’” And I said “Yes.” If it makes sense, then we’ll do it.

I asked him why it seemed to have been such a big deal that day.

GS: It was probably a slow media day in the hockey world. I had said the same thing to Arthur Staple two weeks before. We’ve had opportunities to add players and money to our payroll, but it didn’t make sense for the long term or the short term.

As of January 10th, 2010 there have been no additions to the Islanders payroll other than adding Rob Shremp at $715,000 when he was claimed off waivers.

So far, the biggest story of the ‘09-‘10 season seems to be the Islanders’ goaltending trifecta. With 40-year-old Dwayne Roloson getting the bulk of the work and wins, everyone has been questioning what will happen with Marty Biron once rehabbing Rick DiPietro is healthy enough to be back on the bench.

Bill Watters of AM640 Toronto asked the same question.

GS: We just want to get to that point and were not there yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I think we have surprised people the first part of this season and a lot of that has to do with how strong our goaltending is. We have three bona fide number one goalies. It’s a strength for us. So when Rick is back, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

The truth is, the Islanders have not played well in front of Marty Biron, who sits with a GAA of 3.22. This will do little to help Garth move him if and when he needs to. However, it is not Biron’s fault, as Garth expressed.

GS: First of all, he’s not getting the run support that Roloson has gotten. I think that’s probably a bigger reflection on how we have played. I don’t think it’s a reflection on how he has played... He’s played extremely well for us. It always goes in cycles. I’ve been on teams and I’ve been in situations where I just happened to play in a game where we didn’t score three goals.

Biron has been in situations where the Islanders haven’t been able to score ONE goal, let alone three. The scoring touch seems to be eluding many on the team, and not from lack of trying.

Last season’s biggest performance question was AHL scoring star Jeff Tambellini. While Jeff has flashes of brilliance as well as an excellent hockey bloodline, he has spent a good portion of this season as a healthy scratch. However, when I asked Garth about him, he looked at me puzzled.

GS: I think he’s played well at times. He obviously has a gift of scoring. He has the ability to put the puck in the net. I think the one area he has improved upon this year is going to the net. Most of his goals have been within 10 to 15 feet of the net. So that’s an area he’s improved.

Jeff hasn’t been the only one who has been left off Scott Gordon’s lineup card for long periods of time.

GS: In my own observations, there are other players who have played well. It’s easy to understand who is in the lineup or not. Whoever plays well and gives us the best chance of winning on a given night will be in the lineup.

There are no free rides on the NY Islanders. Blake Comeau, who three years ago was called “the real deal” by the PR department, has been in and out along with Robbie Schremp, who was claimed off waivers from Edmonton and given a clean slate on the Island. It took Robbie a long time to get his opportunity in the line-up as he seemed to be a spare part. Garth explained why he brought him to the Island.

GS: He’s a player that has great vision on the ice and he can make passes that seem like they’re un-makeable. Obviously with the reaction of his teammates when he scored his first goal, he’s very well liked in the locker room. So he’s getting an opportunity to play some minutes. He’s playing with Jesse Joensuu and Trent Hunter - two big bodies - and they’re creating some offense for us.

Scott Gordon has also spoken very highly of Schremp and even been awarded with game-winning, shootout opportunities on which he has capitalized.

Due to a staggering number of injuries last season, Scott Gordon wasn’t quite sure if he was coaching the New York Islanders or the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. This season, when a call-up from Jack Capuano’s squad is necessary, it’s an easy transition.

Andrew MacDonald came from Bridgeport to fill the need for a rehabbing defenseman and he’s managed to stick around.

GS: I think, obviously, Andrew MacDonald and Dustin Kohn have played well in Bridgeport on D. Joensuu has played extremely well recently, so we have depth in the organization. So if there’s a situation where we have to delve into their team or take a player off their roster, we are comfortable doing so. To me, we have a lot more depth than we’ve had in years past at all three positions; forward, D and goal.

Speaking of excellent development coming from Bridgeport, Garth was quick to praise Jack Hillen, an undrafted free agent that spent some of last season in the AHL and is now making a name for himself at the NHL level.

GS: He was another player that the members of my staff thought would bring the ability to move that puck efficiently. If you asked the players in our locker room who the best skater -- not on the team, but in the league -- most of them will say Jack Hillen. He’s getting that recognition now. He’s a very gifted skater.

His skating style has always stood out to me, and now I know why. Garth continued.

GS: If you were going to do a video to show young kids the finer points of skating, you could just put the shifts of Jack Hillen on the tape. He’s got great vision and he makes that first pass. He’s another bright, young hockey player that we have and I know we’re excited about him.

Another bright, young player who has come up through the Bridgeport system is Frans Nielsen who Garth praised as probably the best two-way center the Isles have.

GS: He’s got great speed and good vision on the ice. He’s just getting better for us. It’s nice to have the fruits of our labor from Bridgeport. He paid his dues in the AHL and played extremely well during the first couple of years of his career. It’s a big transition coming from Europe to North America. He’s a great kid and a good hockey player. And I think he’s opening some eyes around the NHL.

One has to wonder if Garth Snow is just lucky or good at finding unsung young talent such as Matt Moulson, who has made a name for himself in the league early this season.

GS: Well, I’d like to take all the credit, but members of my staff identified Matt as a player who could come in and contribute. And they were right. So, kudos to them. You’re only as good as the people around you. My staff has done a tremendous job and Matt had an opportunity in training camp and seized that opportunity. The credit goes to him for the way he has played.

Matt’s numbers have slowed a little since he burst onto the score sheet, but the talent is there. He did score the shootout winner over Phoenix on Saturday.

The Islanders NEVER intended to move the first overall pick in ‘09 (no matter what Brian Burke wanted), and drafting John Tavares was a given. Some of their other draft moves have been controversial. Such was the case in 2008 when the Islanders selected Josh Bailey, a player Snow calls not selfish enough.

GS: We obviously traded down a couple of times to get from 5 to 7 to 9 to get Josh Bailey, then almost a 180 from this year when we went from 26 to 12. So it was neat for us to identify the players that we wanted. And in the case of Josh, some times its a bit of Roulette when you’re trading down because you want to make sure you get the player you identified.

You know we took a little bit of heat for moving from 26 to 16 then up to 12 to get Calvin de Haan. He was a player that my staff identified.

Named to Team Canada for the World Junior Championship, de Haan was playing exceptionally well, but did sustain an injury that kept him out at least one game. Team USA won the Gold medal round on Tuesday, January 5th, but de Haan is now the proud owner of a Silver Medal. The Islanders organization is very happy with Calvin’s development thus far.

The 2009 entry draft also garnered the Islanders a very tall, very young, goaltender, Mikko Koskinen. While he too is rehabbing from surgery, his future still looks bright. Garth Snow’s stockpiling of young talent will only serve to keep the Isles’ depth charts full at all positions. Including Mikko, there are seven goaltenders on the list of prospects with three getting work in Bridgeport.

It’s obvious that the plan Garth Snow set in motion, after releasing head coach Ted Nolan, is becoming clearer. When I asked him what he most wanted to see improved this season, he looked at me with the same intense stare that three years ago would have scared me into silence.

GS: I want to see us WIN.

I made the mistake of giggling. He wasn’t kidding. That was not just a standard answer to a foolish media question. Garth Snow WANTS to win. And after seeing how far he’s come in a short time, I can tell you he’ll do everything in his power to make that happen.
And he will.

*Notes as of 1/10/10: Rick DiPietro played for the Islanders on Friday 1/8/10 against the Dallas Stars for the first time in almost a full year. It was a respectable 4 - 3 Islanders loss as Rick played the entire game with Marty Biron as his backup. However, with Rick DiPietro reactivated, the Islanders have a roster problem that needs to be dealt with once Sean Bergenheim is cleared to play since he has been out with a rib injury. Someone has to move.

As of Saturday 1/9/10, no move had been made and Bergenheim was not cleared to play against the Coyotes. With Brendan Witt a healthy scratch and Dwayne Roloson in net, the Islanders once again squandered a three goal lead in the third, but came away with a shoot out win of 5 - 4.

The Islanders do not play again until Tuesday 1/12/10 when they face the Detroit Red Wings. A difficult management decision will need to be made. This is the hard part of the hockey business. Lives and careers hang in the balance while decisions are made. I am certainly glad I am not responsible for making any of them.

**Special Thanks to my two favorite editors for giving me their time and effort -- AGAIN!

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