Ten Reasons For Islander Fans To Be Thankful This Holiday Season
There has been a lot of gloom and doom talk in the media and among Islander fans about the team's future. To a certain extent, that is understandable. The team has had an unexpectedly bad season after a very promising start.
Also, the Lighthouse project that was supposed to finance a badly needed new arena has been rejected by the Town of Hempstead and, in the wake of Town Supervisor and Islander nemesis Kate Murray's overwhelming re-election last year, that decision seems sure to stand. More recently, Governor Patterson has declared Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano's idea of the Shinnecock tribe building an arena for the Islanders a non-starter.
Given that the Lighthouse has been effectively dead for over a year, it is frustrating for Islander fans that owner Charles Wang has not articulated a post-Lighthouse vision for the team. This only lends credibility to journalists who suggest that Wang's only interest in the team is as a means to further his investment schemes. I believe they are wrong, but Wang's silence makes it hard to argue with them.
All Islander fans hope that Wang will soon enlighten them as to his post-Lighthouse plans. But, notwithstanding the way the Islanders' season has gone to date, there are many reasons for Islander fans to be thankful this holiday season.
Garth Snow receives no end of abuse. Part of it is probably a carryover from the Milbury years. Milbury ran the organization into the ground so long, so spectacularly, and so thoroughly that many are simply comfortable with the idea of the Islanders' general manager being inept.
There are the circumstances of his hiring. When Wang dismissed Neil Smith, a professional of some reputation, after barely a month on the job and hired Snow who had no experience as an administrator, many assumed that Snow would simply be Wang's lackey. Never mind that he had a BA and an MA in Business Administration. Never mind that he had built strong relationships throughout the NHL during his playing career.
Then there is the fact that he is managing a rebuild of a franchise that many perceive as being in continual rebuild almost since the Dynasty era. Rebuilds are no fun. Just ask Jimmy Devellano. He went from assisting Bill Torrey in building the Islander dynasty to managing the Detroit Dead Wings, as they were then known. It took him five years to get a winning record and fifteen to get the Cup. Garth began the Islander rebuild in the summer of 2008. He has had three rebuilding drafts and is in his third rebuilding season.
What has Garth accomplished in that time? He has built up a prospect pool that had been allowed to deteriorate into virtual nothingness under Milbury into one of the better systems in the NHL. He has overcome the problem of getting big name stars under contract by signing relative unknowns who had been unappreciated by other teams and became stars in the orange and blue. He has built relationships based on respect and trust with all of the Islander players and prospects. Above all, he is going about this rebuilding slowly and patiently through the draft as he should...and as he predecessor did not.
So yes, Islander fans should be thankful for Garth Snow.
One of Snow's first accomplishments when the rebuilding began in Summer, 2008 was to sign his franchise defenseman. Many dismissed Streit as a one dimensional player, a decent powerplay quarterback and nothing more.
Garth and Director of Professional Scouting Kenny Morrow had other ideas. They were proven right. Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, two men who ought to know, have described Streit as the best defender they have ever seen. Islander fans have seen that proven on the ice over the past two years. The hockey world saw it in a more dramatic way in Vancouver as Streit and goalie Jonas Hiller almost by themselves made the Swiss national team a force in those games in a way they had never been before.
Islander defensive prospects like Calvin De Haan, Andy MacDonald, and Travis Hamonic will have the best possible mentor in this master Swiss defensive craftsman.
One of the reasons Garth Snow's job was so difficult was that he started with almost nothing. Most of the Milbury picks who were worth anything were traded away. Most of those who were not were busts. One glittering exception was Frans Nielsen.
Drafted 87th overall in 2002, Frans spent the next few years in the Swedish Elite League before joining the Islander AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, CT. When he played his first NHL game in February, 2007, he became an instant celebrity all over his native Denmark as the first Danish citizen to ever play in the NHL.
Since then, Frans has emerged as one of the best defensive forwards in the game. He has also become quite an accomplished shootout specialist. Some fans have taken to referring to his shootout technique as the backhand of doom!
I must admit that I was one of those who wanted Garth to call out Victor Hedman's name in Montreal in 2009. That said, I have been impressed by the young man from Mississauga.
He had good, not great, numbers last year. More to the point though, he has shown incredible maturity and the ability to grow. He is a better skater, better in his own end, better able to forecheck, and better at going to the net than he was a year ago.
He has also shown an ability to overcome adversity. Even during the awful recent slump that the Islanders seem to be breaking out of, he never seemed to lose his composure or slack off in his effort. He even showed his commitment by taking on Alex Burmistrov in a fight.
What JT lacks is a really talented veteran playmaker on his wing to get him the puck. He has been compared to Phil Esposito who made his living from the slot...but relied heavily on Wayne Cashman and Ken Hodge to get him the puck. Of course, getting Kyle Osposo back on the roster will help a lot as well.
Matt Moulson, for many years, was the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. He just never got any respect. The Penguins drafted him in the ninth round in 2003--when they still had nine rounds in the draft. The Pens never signed him and he latched on to the Kings as a free agent in 2006. Matt was very successful with the LA AHL affiliate, but was only given several brief shots with the Kings before King GM Dean Lombardi decided that Matt just didn't have what it takes to be an NHL hockey player and chose not to re-sign him.
The Islanders had a coach and a franchise player who thought differently. Scott Gordon had seen Matt play in the AHL and John Tavares had been Matt's friend since childhood. They both encouraged Garth Snow to sign him in the summer of 2009.
Even then there were doubters. An NHL.COM writer who shall remain nameless told me the Islanders would be crazy to put a former ninth round pick on the top line with the number one overall pick of 2009. When I suggested that Matt might be Wayne Cashman to Tavares' Phil Esposito, he disdainfully insisted that Matt would NEVER match Cashman's stats.
The writer was definitely wrong on the first count. Matt and JT played on the first line last year and Matt became the first Islander to hit the 30 goal mark since Jason Blake scored 40 in 2006-07. Many doubted that he would repeat that feat but, with 11 goals in 32 games, he certainly has a legitimate shot. And he needs 230 more goals to match Cashman. Matt will prove that NHL.COM writer wrong one day, just wait and see.
The Garth Snow Islander scouts have made a point of pushing character and no Islander draft pick exemplifies that quality any better than Travis Hamonic. Add that to his size and skill, and Travis will be a fixture on this Islander team for years to come.
What do I mean when I say character? What does it say to you that in 2008 he missed a month with a broken jaw--but finished the game he broke it in? What does it say that last year in the World Junior Championships, he suffered a separated shoulder and yet suited up for every subsequent game? His coach had to insist that he not wear pads or he probably would have hopped over the boards to play!
Everyone who has spoken to him has come away deeply impressed by his intelligence and humility. His motto when he was called up to the Islanders recently from their Bridgeport AHL affiliate? "Keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut!"
As much as Travis exudes character, he is also quite a talent as well. He uses his 6'2", 208 pound frame so well that he earned the nickname "The Hammer". This side of his game was never more in evidence than when he delivered a crushing check to then future number one overall pick Taylor Hall in Memorial Cup play last year.
Although Travis is a terrific physical shutdown defender, he also has a potent offensive game. He has a cannon of a shot and scored 40 points or more in both of his last two junior seasons. He nearly scored an overtime winner in his first NHL game and already has three assists in his first 12 NHL games. Although an emergency callup from Bridgeport, he has earned a permanent spot on the roster already by his excellent play.
Nino Niederreiter is another high character guy loaded with talent. He adds size, talent, speed, and skill to the Islander prospect pool, but he is also a determined and driven young man.
Nino was doing well in Swiss hockey as a 16 year old, but was determined to make the jump to the NHL. He knew that he would have to make the jump across the pond to play North American junior hockey if he was going to make that happen. He not only crossed the Atlantic, but North America as well and wound up in Portland, Oregon playing for the Winterhawks Junior hockey team.
Nino made himself right at home in Portland at the tender age of 17. He taught himself English and quickly made the transition to North American hockey, producing 60 points in 66 games during his first season.
He made his biggest splash, however, at the 2009-10 World Junior Championships. He scored the game tieing and winning goals against the Russian team and impressed observers as someone who looked like he would make things happen every time he touched the puck. Canadian fans, who were not looking forward to the Russian challenge to their team, quickly took up the chant "Nino, Nino!". Nino punctuated this performance with his Prospects game performance where he scored a goal and wowed everyone with his skills competition demonstration.
Nino, of course, was drafted number five overall by the Islanders in the 2010 Entry Draft, making him the highest drafted Swiss player ever and the first European picked in 2010. He then made a good enough performance in training camp that he was given a nine game trial by the Islanders before being returned to the Winterhawks. He produced a goal and an assist with Islanders and 26 points in 23 games with the Winterhawks. Portland fans who have seen both men play, compare his play at this age with that of Marian Hossa. Pretty high goal, but no problem for Nino!
Calvin De Haan
Speaking of character, life's ups and downs tend to build it. Calvin De Haan had a big up when the Islanders traded in a bunch of picks to move up twice from #26 in the 2009 Entry Draft to #12. The move surprised many and was considered by most to be an overdraft as De Haan was not expected to go before the late first round at the earliest. I, for one, was hoping that if they did move up that early in the first round for their second pick that they would get Dmitry Kulikoff who eventually went to the Florida Panthers.
But the Islander scouts were sold on De Haan as the one guy they had to have and you really have to trust the judgement of the scouts. It's not hard to see what they saw. Calvin has tremendous hockey sense, a great asset. He also sees the ice very well and makes brilliant laser-like outlet passes. He has a remarkable ability to get his shots and passes through and is a very polished and skilled powerplay quarterback. It does not hurt that he had played in junior with John Tavares and has great chemistry on the ice with him.
Normally a defenseman takes several years to get to the NHL. Travis Hamonic, for example, was drafted in 2008 and is just now making his presence known in the NHL. So it was a bit of a surprise when Calvin made a serious bid to make the Islander roster in 2009. It was a tough decision for the team to send him back to junior hockey, but that is what happened. Unfortunately, Calvin suffered a shoulder injury in juniors and missed a good part of the season. He seemed to bounce back well, but Garth Snow's signing of several veteran defensemen in the offseason made the odds of his joining the roster much greater. In the end, he was sent back down and became captain of his junior squad as well as alternate captain of the Canadian junior team at the World Junior Championships held in Buffalo December 26, 2010 to January 5, 2011. Look for him, Nino, and goaltending prospect Kevin Poulin to join the roster for the 2011-12 season.
The 2011 NHL Entry Draft
As terrible as this season has been, it does have one huge silver lining. The Islanders are likely to finish either 29th or 30th overall, depending on their head to head competition with the Devils. To date, they are slightly ahead of the Devils and are 2-0 head to head. Trades and the return of injured veterans like Zach Parise of the Devils and Kyle Okposo as well as possibly Mark Streit of the Islanders may factor in to the finish as well as the vagaries of the Draft Lottery held in April. The odds are, however, that the Islanders will have one of the top two picks--something I would not have thought possible at the start of the season.
The ideal pick for the Islanders would be elite Swedish two way defenseman Adam Larsson who plays for Skelleftea AIK of the Swedish Elite League. Larsson has been called a Swedish Ray Bourque and, being a right handed shot, would be the ideal pairing partner for left handed Mark Streit.
Of course, the Islanders could not go wrong with either elite two way center Sean Couturier, compared to Vinny Lecavalier, or gritty Swedish power forward Gabriel Landeskog, projected to be better than countrymen Tomas Holmstrom and Johann Franzen.
Adding one of these three along with Nino, Calvin, and Kevin Poulin combined with the return of Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo should make the Islanders a formidable playoff contender in 2011-12. And that is a lot to be thankful for. Plus the Ice Girls are cute!!!