Not the greatest way to start an interview with a busy General Manager of an NHL team. Although, in my defense, the email said “around noon.” It was 12:06 and I used typical Long Island traffic in my defense. Luckily, he was kidding -- I think. Although he was waiting at the glass doors when I made my windblown traverse across the vast asphalt expanse that is the current home of the NY Islanders.
We made our way up the elevator to the suites for our yearly “So, how do you think they did?” sit down chit chat. Five years I’ve been doing this. It gets harder to come up with questions I haven’t asked. Harder still when the NHL standings for the season seem to repeat themselves.
Every week, the Islanders make you believe they can get into the post season and then drop a game (or three) and break your heart. They’ll follow it with a win against one of the best teams in the league and you’re sucked in all over again. It’s the emotional roller-coaster of a devoted NHL fan, especially here on the Island.
Knowing the answer, I asked anyway, “Are you happy with where the team is right now?”
“Happy? Of course I’m not happy with how the team has progressed. We’re seven points out of a play-off spot. But we still have time to get back in. But it starts tomorrow.”
Far below our vantage point, the Isles practiced. The sound of pucks banging off posts and boards echoing in the empty building made my ten-year-old Olympus recorder struggle to capture Snow’s typically soft-spoken manner.
“What if they don’t make the playoffs?” I asked more as a fan than someone who should be writing an interview article.
“Our mindset isn’t that way, Dee. We want to get into the play-offs and as I said, it starts tomorrow." Just as the players on the ice, Garth is not ready to give up. Not yet. Anything can happen in the 15 games that remain. Perhaps they will live up to our expectations. If they don't make it, of course there will be changes. A piece here and there looking for the right fit.
Or maybe our expectations are unreasonable. I brought up the ESPN article discussing the development of first round draft pick, Nino Niederreiter. Much has been made of his development this year and everyone has their opinion. But they are opinions. I asked Garth for his.
“Obviously, the best option would have been for Nino to play in Bridgeport. Because of league rules, he couldn’t do that. We felt that the second best place for him to develop into the player that we want him to be and HE wants to be, is right here on Long Island. If that means playing eight to ten minutes a game as opposed to playing 20 minutes a game with his junior team, we strongly believe that he’s better served being developed here."
He means it. However, that development included being a healthy scratch. Something that didn’t sit very well with the budding young star. He was quite vocal about it which lead to that ESPN article.
“I’m happy he’s not happy with it.“ Garth smiled. “We don’t want somebody who’s satisfied with not playing. Nino -- whether he plays 50 games, 60 games, it doesn’t really matter to us the number of games because we have practices on a daily basis providing him an opportunity to work with our coaching staff to become a better player. Sometimes the quantity of games doesn’t serve a young player well. There are different ways of looking at young players whether they’re a six-year-old to 16-year-olds, are they better off playing five games a week or play one or two games a week and use the rest of the time to practice. You usually get better in practice.”
So he’s learning on the job. “Being in the NHL and getting acclimated to the speed, the size and the skill is better for him than going back to junior.” And that would mean no matter what line he plays on or how many minutes. Nino wants to be with the Islanders and that’s the decision that was made right after training camp. “If Nino had any issues with it, I’m sure he would have talked to me any time during the season."
I usually ask what the GM what he feels what his best and worst decisions for the season were. He chuckled this time, “I’ll let you answer that one.”
Okay, I’ll reserve judgment until those last 15 games are done, but did turn my attention to the off season.
“What do you think you need to improve the team and what will you be looking for in the off season?”
“Well, obviously, I think we’d still like to find a top four defenseman.” Where have I heard that before? Oh, right. Every comment on Hockeybuzz.com. With Anders Nilsson and Kevin Poulin developing in Bridgeport, the Islanders are fine in net for the future.
“The one strength coming into this season we thought we had was scoring, as it turns out we’re the third lowest scoring team in the league this season. So if we can find a way to help our secondary scoring, we’ll definitely take a look at that in the summer.”
A bright spot for the Islander organization is the success in Bridgeport and the job coach Brent Thompson is doing developing the future Islanders including Matt Donovan. David Ullstrom was doing well enough for Snow to find a way to make a spot for him on the roster. “He’s been producing at a high rate in Bridgeport and he’s got a goal scorer’s touch around the net so it’s a good opportunity for him to make an impression on the coaching staff and on the organization that he can fill that type of role not only for this year, but in the future.”
When Doug Weight took the bench in Buffalo when Jack Capuano fell ill, the idea that head coach would be his next incarnation was tossed around. I asked Garth what he thought of Doug’s night behind the bench. “The realization that (Cappy) wouldn’t be able to be on the bench created the opportunity for Doug to be the coach of the team and I thought he did a great job. A lot of responsibility, whether it’s line combinations, match-ups, power play, penalty kill; lots of decisions go into a coach’s mind. I thought he processed extremely well and he did an excellent job even though we fell short.”
Perhaps it was enough of an audition for Doug to determine if it’s something he wants to do, but it seems there hasn’t been much discussion about it. He’s too busy working as an assistant right now.
Everyone was off the ice and my lunch break was long over. “So. For all the fans that are disappointed with where the team is right now, what do you want to say to them?” Yes, them. The ones who have stood by this team year after year, through thick and thin.
“I think for us as an organization, we need the fans to support us and I know it hasn’t been the easiest times, not only this year, but years past. But I still firmly believe we’re doing things the appropriate way. It goes back to the town hall/open house four years ago. We set our minds to go through a rebuild and building through the draft and developing and we’re going to stick by it. I think you see glimpses of where we’ve played at an extremely high level and when you’re dealing with players that are at such a young age, especially in this league, it’s a man’s league, you’re going to go through inconsistencies. I think that’s probably been our biggest downfall: our consistency.”
Garth Snow has one thing in common with ex-NY Islander GM Mike Milbury; the knowledge that winning solves everything. But what we have to remember is it took the Islanders eight years to go from expansion team bottom dwellers to Stanley Cup champions.
Jack wasn’t expecting me. I wasn’t expecting to speak with him either. But there I was, sitting in his office armed with Art Staple’s Newsday headline -- which I promptly couldn’t remember. Senior moment at the utmost inconvenient time.
A voice bellowed from another desk, “What was the headline?” Guess it is true. They try to stay away from reading the press. “Not good enough.” Jack said in a deep and commanding tone you don’t hear when he’s put on the spot with Peter Ruttgaizer. “That’s one I read.”
His disappointment with his team’s performance in Newark was evident. Trying to channel Stan Fischler, I asked, “You said they didn’t come out to play in the first 20 minutes, so what do you need to do to make sure they are ready to play tomorrow?”
“I don’t know if it’s that we didn’t come out in the first period.” He defended. “I mean after two periods, we only gave them 11 shots. But to me it’s -- we had players compete. But we had a few that didn’t. And to me, that was the biggest thing. We have to make sure as a coaching staff, and as players themselves, that you have to play for the guy across from you and you’ve got to play for the guy next to you.”
How about playing for the guy behind the bench too? But he didn’t say that.
“We’re a team that can’t have any passengers. We had four or five guys that weren’t ready to start the game.” Much like Garth Snow, Capuano does not name names. It serves no purpose. They know who they are. If Matt Martin was one of them, his excuse became clear after he fell sick during the game and was returned home alone under quarantine in a separate vehicle. There is that bug that has taken down many of the players and staff, even after they had flu shots.
“So, how do you breed consistency?” I was wondering if I’d get the same answer PA Parenteau gave Peter, so I added options. “Do you need more video, more dialogue? What?”
“It’s a little bit of both. It’s a little bit of the video this morning that we showed and we’re always communicating with the players on a daily basis all our coaches, to try to get the best out of them. But at this time of year, as an athlete, you have to find the will and the desire to compete at a high level every day. You’re in the National Hockey League. You’re in the best league in the world. When you line up against the guy next to you, you better win your shift. That’s the bottom line. We lost some key battles in that game (Thursday’s NJD loss), and that’s really what cost us the game. It’s us not gaining the proper body position and not being strong enough on the stick. I know they have some big players and skilled players up front (Hello Kovi), but the way that you have to go about your business is you have to play them straight up. You have to make sure you take away their time and space and you have to make sure you have that physical edge to your game that you need to win a game.”
That “edge” is what the big angry man in my house yelled at the TV. He calls it “heart.” A desire to win -- no matter what. That is something that can’t be taught.
Knowing the Isles historically don’t play well after a long break, I asked if Jack felt the three day layover had anything to do with the difference in performance from Sunday to Thursday.
“I don’t ever use that as an excuse because we had our day off and we had a good practice. And I never use the back-to-back as an excuse either.” Just as they have this weekend with a Sunday tilt against that OTHER team from the NYC area.
“We do. But you think about in reality the men and women that fight for our country on a daily basis or the people that have to work two jobs and do what they have to do to support their family, so the back-to-back to me is just an excuse. You got some guys who play 20 minutes a night and you’ve got some that play ten minutes a night. There’s NO excuse to go out there and NOT give it your all. That’s the way that I look at it.” I was quiet for a moment because I didn’t want to just say “wow.”
“That room at this time of year is key. They have to come together as a group with the leadership that they have, and not just coaches that are holding players accountable. But the most important thing is players have to hold themselves accountable for each other. They’re the ones that’s a brotherhood out there. They’re battling for one another and that’s the way it has to be.”
Yes, and it starts tonight. At 7 pm at the Coliseum.