Five years ago today, Garth Snow
moved from the New York Islanders
' crease to the general manager's office.
On July 18, 2006, Snow traded his pads and goaltending gear for a suit and tie when he succeeded Neil Smith -- fired after six weeks on the job -- as general manager of the Islanders.
Snow went for it in his first season, pulling off a major deadline-day deal to bring in Ryan Smyth
and then watching his team make the playoffs thanks to a shootout win on the final day of the season. But after the Isles were eliminated by Buffalo in five games and the Islanders missed the playoffs in 2007-08, Snow changed course, opting for a total rebuild in hopes of growing a Stanley Cup contender rather a team chasing eighth place every year.
It hasn't been easy -- the Islanders have missed the playoffs four years in a row. The upside has been that Snow and his staff have been building a base of young talent, led by John Tavares
, the first pick of the 2009 Entry Draft. Injuries decimated the defense and goaltending, spoiling last season, but gave the Islanders a chance to draft highly regarded center Ryan Strome
, who showed that, if nothing else, he'll be lethal in shootouts.
"I've learned a lot on this side of hockey. For me, when the whole process unfolded, going through the interview process in the spring right after that (2005-06) season ended, brings back fond memories of where we were then and where we are now. You'll see the skill and the high quality of the players we have in our system." -- Garth Snow
Snow sat down with NHL.com on the eve of the team's rookie scrimmage at the Nassau Coliseum for a wide-ranging chat that covered his sudden transformation from goaltender to GM, his philosophy on building the Isles and his thoughts on the 2011-12 season.
NHL.com: Is it hard to believe you've been doing this for five years now. What did you think when owner Charles Wang came to you and said, "I want you to be my GM?"
Five years and 40 pounds ago (smiles). Obviously I was honored that Charles showed that kind of confidence in me. I've learned a lot on this side of hockey. For me, when the whole process unfolded, going through the interview process in the spring right after that (2005-06) season ended, brings back fond memories of where we were then and where we are now. You'll see the skill and the high quality of the players we have in our system.
For me, it's been an exciting journey, and it's something … I wish the season were starting now.
Q: What was the hardest part in getting used to the job? Did you still think you could play?
I had two more years left on my contract. When I got into this position, one thing that really helped me and helped the organization was that I had really good people around me. Whether it's Joanne (Holewa, manager of hockey administration) across the hall who's been here for 30 years now or people helping me with things like managing the cap, or (Director of Pro Scouting) Kenny Morrow and the wealth of information he has -- I was fortunate enough to be placed into a situation where I had a lot of support and a lot of quality people working around me.
Q: Was it hard to deal as a GM with guys you'd just been playing with?
Not really. I think the one advantage I had was that I knew the League, I knew the players. I think that's helped me in this position to make educated decisions on personnel.
Q: In your first year, things went pretty well for most of the season, and you "went for it" -- you got Ryan Smyth at the trade deadline, you made the playoffs on the last day. After that, you kind of retrenched. What made you change from "going for it" to "starting over?"
It was an exciting time at the trade deadline when we acquired Ryan Smyth
. But for me, going into that July 1 (2007), I realized pretty quickly that it was going to be extremely difficult to build a team from free agents. At that point, I decided that a rebuild was in order. We're in Year 4 of it, and if you look at the players who are playing for us -- John Tavares
, Kyle Okposo
, we were fortunate enough to get Michael Grabner
on waivers. Travis Hamonic
, Andrew McDonald and right on down the line -- you see a good nucleus of core players that will help us to be in a position to bring a Stanley Cup back to Long Island.
Also, when you watch (the rookie scrimmage), you'll see some high-end talent, and some quality hockey players and quality people who will be great additions to this team for the next several years.
Q: Would it would be fair to say that the talent level when you came here is nowhere near what it is now?
(Smiles) The thing I'm proud of is my staff being able to boost up our prospects. We were talking about the very same thing earlier in the week -- how exciting it is to see some high-end talent at our camp.
Q: Do you have to hit bottom before you can come back up again? That's basically what Pittsburgh did -- they struggled for years but got some high picks that turned into stars like Sidney Crosby. The center of your project seems to be John Tavares.
Absolutely. He was obviously the big addition when we drafted him. You can't make mistakes in the draft -- and when you get those players, you have to develop them properly. When you watch (the rookie scrimmage), you'll see the fruits of that labor.
Q: Are you happy with the way he's developed in his first two years? Is it easy to forget sometimes that he is only 20?
He's been a high-end player, not only for us but in the League. When you see that he's only 20 years old, it's pretty exciting to see what he's accomplished in his two years in the NHL. I absolutely have to remember sometimes that he's just 20 -- and it's not just John, but the other young players that we have. They are 20, 21, 22 years old, and that's young for a hockey player. We obviously are excited about the season coming up, but we're also excited about what the future brings.
Q: How important is this season? You've missed the playoffs four years running, you've built up a nice core of talent. How important is it, if not to make the playoffs, to at least to contend for a spot?
Everyone in the locker room is committed to getting this team to the next level. It's a situation where we wish the season was starting tomorrow.
Q: You were eager for last season to start as well because you had young talent, and then Mark Streit got hurt and Kyle Okposo got hurt and things fell apart -- you wound up firing coach Scott Gordon. How disappointing was last season?
Obviously we were in a situation where we were hit with the injury bug pretty hard early, but we can't use that as an excuse -- injuries happen to everybody. The one silver lining to going through all that -- with more than 610 man-games lost (to injury) -- is that we got to see what Travis Hamonic
could do in the NHL. We got to see what Andrew MacDonald
could do at this level. Michael Grabner
scoring more than 30 goals and being a finalist for rookie of the year is all created from those kinds of opportunities.
Q: Is it tough sometimes competing with those four Stanley Cup championship banners hanging from the roof?
It's a situation where we know there's a great history with the Islanders. Clark Gillies
came in and talked to our prospects during the week and shared some of his stories from living right here on Long Island and winning on Long Island. The message he had for the players is that when they had that success, what those championship teams had was playing for each other -- no one player is bigger than the team. That was a great message from Clark to our prospects.
Q: You still have some money to spend to get to the floor. What are you looking for?
We're looking for players who can help us get to the next level. We have plenty of time before the season starts, and we're exploring all avenues to boost our lineup.
Q: There's a vote in less than three weeks on funding for a new building. It's been hard to get free agents to sign here, but it seems like guys who do come to Long Island often stay here after their time with the Islanders is over. Have you found that, and how important is a new arena?
I agree -- and I think you see that with guys like Kyle Okposo
and Michael Grabner
, who signed long-term deals to stay here. Those extensions said that they want to stay as a part of this team and a part of this community. Guys fall in love with (Long Island). Obviously we need a new arena -- not just for the Islanders, but also as a revenue generator for (Nassau) county. We all recognize that Aug. 1 is a huge day, and we're looking forward to a positive outcome and get the ball rolling on a new arena.
Q: Considering that the team has missed the playoffs for four years, you're playing in an old arena -- are you amazed at the number of fans who have stuck with you and the team?
We have a very passionate fan base. Just walking around the concourse and interacting with our fans, the common theme that I receive in talking to people is, "Stick with the plan and keep building it the right way. We're all fired up for the season and we're looking forward to seeing the kids grow and take it to the next level." I'm a believer that the way we're doing this is the right way. Our fans are some of the most educated in the League when it comes to hockey. I'm looking forward to taking it to the next level, not only for our organization, but for our fans as well.
Q: If you had to send one message to you fan base, what would it be?
Be patient. When you watch the talent that we have, not only on the Islanders but in our prospect pool, good things are going to happen here. We're going to keep doing it the right way and make decisions not only in the best interest short-term, but for the long term.