If it’s possible for a GM to watch his best-laid plans come to fruition and still be banging his head against the wall on a nightly basis, Garth Snow likely has a sore noggin right now.
In the past week or so, Snow has watched Thomas Vanek strike a strong chemistry with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo on the Isles’ top line, which must have been exactly what he envisioned when he sent Matt Moulson, plus first- and second-round draft picks to the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 27 in exchange for the Austrian sniper. But as the losses mount on Long Island, we can’t help but wonder if watching Vanek and Co. go to work on opposition goalies is only serving to remind Snow what his team’s biggest need is—and was all along—somebody who can stop the puck.
At the time of the transaction, about the only favourable commentary on the Vanek deal from the Isles’ perspective centred on how Snow, if nothing else, was boldly trying to push his squad forward. After putting a serious six-game shake into the Pittsburgh Penguins during the playoffs last spring, the Islanders appeared to be headed in the right direction following years lost at sea. When I went to Long Island for a Sportsnet magazine feature on Tavares during the first week of the season, there was a sense this young team was ready to take the next step. Two months later, the Islanders have more non-shootout wins than exactly one team in the NHL—their trade partners in Buffalo—and are mired in a seven-game losing streak after blowing a two-goal lead against those same Penguins Tuesday night.
While it’s an oversimplification to pin all the Isles’ problems on puckstopping, goaltending should have registered as a much bigger concern than finding a scorer who clicked with Tavares. The Isles already had that with Moulson, who may not be the dynamic player Vanek is, but was still good for 30 goals a year skating alongside the team’s biggest star.
The crease, however, was a throbbing area of need dating back to the playoff meeting with Pittsburgh. Had Evgeni Nabokov not posted a grisly .842 save percentage in those six contests, the Islanders could have easily sent the Pens to their third consecutive first-round exit last May. When the 38-year-old Nabokov went down with an groin injury 14 games into this season, his save percentage was a whopping .892 and in his absence, untested Kevin Poulin put up an .887 mark in 13 games. The latest Hail Mary has seen the team turn to 2009 third-rounder Anders Nilsson, who was saddled with his second straight overtime loss to Sidney Crosby and friends on Tuesday.
Tally that up and all of a sudden Snow seems like a surgeon who just operated on the wrong limb. Making matters worse is the fact that young goaltenders like Cory Schenider and Jonathan Bernier have changed sweaters in the past six months, so it’s not like there’s been nothing on the market. Even Tim Thomas—who was technically Islanders property for a stretch after leaving the Boston Bruins—would have been a low-investment, reasonable-upside option. Talk persists that Snow may yet pursue the Sabre who would have made the most sense all along, Ryan Miller, but at this juncture, saving the season requires a goalie who moonlights as a magician. Even in the awful East, the Islanders sit 10 points back of a playoff spot with five teams ahead of them in the chase for that final wild-card berth. In case you’ve missed the copious copy devoted to how hard it is to make up that ground at this point in the season, suffice it to say this figures to be another lost year on Long Island.
And this one must be especially tough to swallow, not only because the team had shown signs of life last season, but also because the cure for what ails was there for the taking—if only the proper prescription had been written.