The New York Islanders traded forward Thomas Vanek at the NHL trade deadline as expected, according to NHL.com. What was not expected by most fans of this beleaguered franchise was how little they got in return. The Vanek trade was just the latest in a series of bad moves and bad luck that has caused the 2013-14 season to become a disaster for the Islanders franchise.
The issues facing the Islanders go back to last summer, when the team made some fundamental errors in judgment about its talent level and future. Injuries have compounded the mistakes, but we can trace the disaster that this season has been back to the end of the Islanders' playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last May.
If you recall, the Islanders put a scare into the top-seeded Penguins, sending the series to six games. With the exception of Game 1, the Isles played Pittsburgh close in the remaining five games and could have won the series with a few breaks. Nassau Coliseum was rocking in a way the franchise hadn't seen in nearly a decade.
Then the offseason began, and things started to go south.
General manager Garth Snow realized he was not going to be able to keep captain Mark Streit. Just before the draft, he traded Streit's negotiating rights to the Philadelphia Flyers for a fourth-round choice in the 2014 draft and minor league winger Shane Harper.
There was no problem with trading Streit. The veteran defenseman wanted more money than the Islanders thought he was worth. They got something for his negotiating rights a few days before they were going to lose him for nothing.
But the Islanders didn't add another veteran defenseman or two to replace their former captain. The franchise has some talented young blueliners in the pipeline. In fact, it selected seven defensemen in the 2012 draft and used its first-round selections in 2012 and 2013 on defensemen Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock. But neither of them was ready to play in the NHL this season.
Not only did the Isles lack depth at the NHL level, but they also had only one defenseman with NHL experience who could quarterback the power play and play the role Streit had filled for the team: Lubomir Visnovsky. He turned 37 last August.
The Islanders also didn't have size on the blue line and didn't have a true shutdown defender. When The Hockey News ranked each NHL team by position in its season-preview issue last fall, the Islanders defense was ranked 28th in the league.
The Islanders were also very fortunate during 2012-13. They were near the bottom of the league in man-games lost to injury with just 81 in an abbreviated 48-games schedule. That ranked them 25th out of 29 teams (the San Jose Sharks apparently didn't report their man-games lost).
By not adding depth on defense, Snow gambled that the Islanders would be that fortunate again. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. They lost Visnovsky on October 19 and didn't get him back until January 27.
Then Brian Strait, one of the more reliable defensemen on the roster in his own zone also went down with an injury. Strait was out of the lineup for nearly two months starting in mid-October.
The loss of two key defensemen only exacerbated the Islanders' other big weakness: goaltending. The Hockey News ranked the Islanders goalies 29th out of the 30 teams in the NHL in its season-preview issue.
In the offseason, Snow re-signed 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov to be the starter and relied on Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson as backups. Snow really needed to at least give the veteran some competition in net. He didn't. When Nabokov missed a month starting in mid-November and another three weeks in January, neither Poulin nor Nilsson were ready to take over as the starter.
As a result of injuries, the Islanders' two biggest weaknesses got weaker. By losing their only established offensive defenseman, their most consistent defensive defenseman and their only experienced goalie, team defense suffered. No lead was safe, and the confidence of a mostly young team was damaged. Both the power-play and penalty-killing units were also compromised and performed poorly.
The Islanders got into the habit of blowing leads in the third period. The team is just 9-5-4 so far this season in games where they've led after two periods. That's 14 points the team has watched slip away. Only the Buffalo Sabres have a worse winning percentage when leading after 40 minutes.
When the Islanders got off to a slow start, Snow took a gamble. On October 27, he traded popular winger Matt Moulson to Buffalo for Vanek. The Islanders also included a first-round draft pick and a second-round selection as part of the deal. Both Moulson and Vanek were scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the current season.
Snow said he was trying to jump-start the team and turn around the season. He was also hoping to sign Vanek to a long-term deal before the trade deadline. Most free agents have avoided coming to Long Island, but Snow gambled that living on Long Island and playing with star center John Tavares would warm Vanek to the idea of staying with the franchise.
The Vanek trade did not address the Islanders' too biggest areas of need: goaltending and defense.
Sure, Vanek was an upgrade over Moulson, but he strengthened an area of the team that didn't need significant improvement. The Islanders gained more offensive talent, but their weaknesses grew even weaker. And, by trading away two high draft picks to acquire Vanek, Snow suddenly had less ammunition to use to make a deal to acquire a defenseman or a goalie.
The fact that the Islanders started losing made it much less likely that Vanek would want to stay on Long Island. He is 30, and this summer represents his first and best chance at a lucrative free-agent contract.
In early February, the Islanders made a long-term offer to Vanek, but Vanek informed Newsday that he turned it down (h/t NHL.com). It was then just a matter of time before the Islanders would trade the Austrian winger.
That finally happened at the trade deadline. But Snow got a lot less than he wanted for Vanek when the time came. He got back a second-round pick in 2014 and 20-year-old Swedish prospect Sebastian Collberg.
The gamble of acquiring Vanek blew up in the Islanders' face. They now have neither Moulson nor Vanek. They traded away two high draft picks, got back one and added a prospect who is at best two years away from possibly reaching the NHL.
Who is to blame for the Islanders' lost 2013-14 season?
When John Tavares was injured while playing for Team Canada in Sochi, it was the last straw for the Islanders in 2013-14. They were already playoff long shots, but losing their captain and best player for the rest of the season put the nail in the proverbial coffin.
This once-proud franchise found itself in the familiar position of selling off assets like Vanek and defenseman Andrew MacDonald for draft picks and prospects at the trade deadline. The sad fact is the Islanders have not won a playoff series since 1993 when Bill Clinton was in his first year in the White House and Al Arbour was the team's coach.
The trading of Vanek for less than the expected value was another blow to the pride of the long-suffering fans of Long Island. But it was just the latest in a long list of mistakes, injuries and errors in judgment that have spoiled the 2013-14 season for the Islanders.