How the New York Islanders fixed their defence

Garth Snow

Conventional wisdom seems to be that the Edmonton Oilers need to trade a star forward for a good defencemen. Nobody seems to expect the team to get back “fair” value, but it’s a price that needs to be paid because the club needs help on the blue line immediately.

Personally, I wonder how New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow would counsel his Oilers counterpart Peter Chiarelli. Because Snow was in a pretty similar position not all that long ago and he didn’t do the things that conventional wisdom would dictate the Oilers do.

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Stepping Back to 2013-14

The 2013-14 season was a disastrous one for the Islanders, a step back that saw them fall to 26th in the league and post a minus-42 goal differential. New York had an impressive collection of young forwards who weren’t winning, a problematic defence and a black hole in net.

The list of forwards aged 25 or younger at the start of the campaign included John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Casey Cizikas. The No. 1 defenceman was Andrew MacDonald, advanced stats nightmare, pending free agent and now a top rearguard with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL. It was an unbalanced group.

The Isles had lots of depth at centre. Aside from No. 1 pick Tavares and No. 5 pick Strome, Lee, Nelson and Bailey could all play centre. Frans Nielsen was and is a top two-way pivot on a very reasonable deal, so Snow had a ton of depth the middle. The obvious play—the play that sounds a lot like what Chiarelli has been loudly advised by plenty of commentators to do—was to trade one of those centres for a quality defenceman. After all, the reasoning goes, it’s necessary to trade quality to get quality and nobody really needs three high-end pivots (let alone six quality ones).

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Snow didn’t do that. He bumped a bunch of his centres to the wings. He actually went out and brought in Mikhail Grabovski, another centre, on a pricey free agent contract, doubling down on a position of strength. Those decisions, incidentally, have left the Islanders both deep and versatile up front.

He made use of another asset he had, an asset a lot of people still forget is a real asset: cap space. He waited until the dawn of the 2014-15 campaign, holding out while teams right up against the cap got increasingly desperate. Then he extracted not one but two quality defenders, both from good general managers, at a cost of nothing but futures. The trades looked like this:

  • The Islanders sent prospects Ville Pokka and Anders Nilsson as well as minor-league defenceman T.J. Brennan to Chicago. They also took on the contract of disappointing goalie Kent Simpson. In exchange, they got defenceman Nick Leddy.
  • The Islanders sent two second round picks and a third round selection to Boston. In exchange they got defencemen Johnny Boychuk, entering the last year of his deal.

Those two pieces joined two young players already in the system—Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan—and formed a new top-four for the Isles. Suddenly defence wasn’t a weakness, but a strength. Those moves, combined with the free agent addition of goaltender Jaroslav Halak (the Isles dealt a fourth-round pick to get his negotiating rights prior to July 1) turned the back end from a weakness to a major strength.

Snow did it without sacrificing even one of his good young forwards.

The Present

Peter Chiarelli4

Peter Chiarelli isn’t in a totally dissimilar situation to the one Snow was in at the start of 2014. His blue line is probably better than the one Snow started with, given that Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse are probably relatively fair points of comparison for Hamonic and de Haan at the time and he already has a competent top-four veteran in Andrej Sekera. I suspect the Oilers’ young duo might actually be better.

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The forward corps is young and talented; less rich in centres than Snow’s group but (at least by draft pedigree) richer in talent.

Even the cap space exists. The Oilers are potentially looking at something like $15 million to do all the things they want to do next season even if the cap stays more-or-less where it is. That cap space could be leveraged for a free agent like Dustin Byfuglien, but it could also be used the way Snow used his in New York: to ease the burden felt by a good team with cap trouble. 

It’s not like the Islanders are totally unique here, either. Tampa Bay went to the Stanley Cup Final last year, and while they were blessed with Victor Hedman via the draft the other four defencemen in their top-five came through judicious use of cap space. Anton Stralman and Matt Carle were free agent signings. Jason Garrison was dumped by a Canucks team that needed to clear space; Braydon Coburn was dumped by a Philly team with some similar motivations. Garrison was acquired in the summer for virtually nothing (a second round pick) while Coburn was bought in-season for a stunning collection of futures. There’s a lesson there, too.

I’m guessing if he had nothing to gain that Snow would say that’s the way forward. Unless, of course, it was sometime after the playoffs ended and he was still trying to resolve the Hamonic situation. Then I’m guessing that he’d say the Oilers should definitely dump Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.


  • Spiel

    Snow had lots of draft picks to trade… We don’t.

    How can we turn;

    Scrivens, Nikitin, Purcell, Klinkhammer into four second round draft picks or better? So we have cap space and picks?

    To make the team better.

          • Petrolero

            great article. more patience is needed before we trade a top player like nuge or erble. At the moment I don’t think we can afford to trade erble as we have enough trouble finishing around the net.
            I am all for getting bigger and stronger but but I agree we need to wait until some more players get back from injuries and get more experience. although Trading some of bottom forwards for better bigger players now is an option.
            That being said, i am not yet convinced Nuge will be a great center unless he can improve on faceoffs and be above the puck more consistantly. Eventually maybe both erble and nuge may need to go, but I don’t think we are there yet, unless a trade we can’t refuse comes along (unlikely)

          • BubbaZanetti

            It also doesn’t have to be Edmonton’s own pick too either, so they could certainly pick up a later 2nd rounder at the deadline and give that one to Boston.

    • If the oilers were able to get a single second round pick out of anyone at the deadline for any of those players, I would be amazed. There is not a market for players like Scrivens or Nikitin.

      Purcell and Klinkhammer might interest some teams at the deadline, but look at the players traded for second round picks at last years deadline (Stewart, Petry, Baertschi, Connolly). Our guys don’t stack up, but that doesn’t mean they would hold some value to injury ridden teams in March.

  • MissYouMcDavid

    Can’t say I was optimistic when it said “Garth Snow’s guide”. The man hasn’t had many good decisions at the helm of the Islanders. Turns out he might have something goin for him! Great Read!

  • a lg dubl dubl

    One only has to watch our team and realize we are not a possession team , as majority of forwards are not big or heavy players . Flames much the same a little heavier and even have a better defence than Isles , yet they are in basement with us . Lot more than upgraded defence needed on our squad . I’d start with forwards now and maybe one other defenseman to mix . You cannot wait till end of season for a shopping list as big as ours .

  • a lg dubl dubl

    Agree with Zany. Stanley Cup winning teams of the recent past have had support players that actually did something other than eat salary cap space and give up goals. You cant win when 50 percent of your lineup is dead roster space. You need your bottom 6 forwards to produce or at least bring physicality. My goodness MH LG And Rob Klinkhammer who is injured are the only 3 guys willing to do that. Lander needs to get greasy. He has been too soft. Needs to take a page out of the Ken Linesman book of how to play hockey. Mark Letestu. Your a guy who withstood and played against the Saddle Lake Warriors. How is it you have gotten so soft to play against. Grow a pair. You did not get to the Nhl playing this soft a game. Laurie Korpokoski. Do something with the puck or without it. But stop being a liability on the ice.

  • TKB2677

    The question is. Is there a team out there that is in similar situations as Boston and Chicago were where they were in cap hell and needed to dump a couple of guys for next to nothing? Boston and Chicago were tight against the cap, knew these guys needed new contracts and couldn’t take on any salary.

    Chicago will have problems again next year. They have just over 1 mill in cap space. Seasbrooks new deal comes on the books. It is a 6.875 cap which is up from 5.8. Anisimov has a new deal starting next year. His will be 4.55 which is up from 3.283. But in looking at their defense, they have Seabrook, Keith, Hjalmarsson and Daley as the top 4. I am assuming they would want to dump Daley and have read they are already trying because he hasn’t been that great. But is Daley a Leddy? I am not so sure.

    • a lg dubl dubl

      Daley could be a good 5/6 dman, “fairly cheap” this year and next. Definitely an upgrade over Gryba and Ference. Could slide into the 3/4 spots on the Oilers line up no problem too.

  • I think everyone agrees with this. Trade a couple 2nd round picks and get some guys to come in and help out on D. The problem is what happens next year if that doesnt work out? We keep picking up free agents like Sekera, Fayne, Ference, Shultz and we’re still in this hole. Do we just keep waiting until the right guys show up? How long do we have to wait?

    Sooner or later things have to change, we need to see some results. We’re going to have to deal some of our top end talent away just to stay under the salary cap and at this point it doesnt look like we’re any closer to becoming competitive.

  • MacT's Neglected Helmet

    So Peter Chiarelli needs to fleece a GM like Peter Chiarelli into giving away a gem like Johnny Boychuk…

    I think he tried to do this by revenge-fleecing Garth Snow with Griffin Reinhart and we (so far!) know how that’s turned out…

    • camdog

      Garth Snow is not afraid to trade for a Ryan Smyth or Johnny Boychuk. Oilers management has been terrified of trading for a good hockey player that is going to be a UFA at the end of the season.

  • camdog

    Montreal shored up their defence last season for a 2nd and 4th round pick as well. At least Mact got market value. The trick is you have to sign the pending free agents to a contract when you make the trade, that`s the difficult part.

    It is so Oilers though that we are trying to find a Jeff Petry to shore up the Oilers defence…

  • Puck_In_Throat

    Realistically, any “bold” moves are going to happen in the summer, so let’s look at it from that perspective.

    If you trade RNH now, you will lose centre depth, which is bad. If you trade RNH this summer, the centre depth is much less an issue. Why? Free Agency.

    If you trade RNH for Hamonic, since that is the continuing proposal, then you add a top-2/4 defender, but lose centre depth. It is possible to sign a quality centre in free agency to be the Oilers veteran topline centre they have not had in a long time. I think Backes fits the bill for the kind of centre that Chiarelli covets.
    A 6’3 two-way centre instead of a 5’10 two way centre plus a quality dman.

    Add another defender through free agency and they have two new top defencemen with Nurse and Sekara as 3/4 and a new top-6 C. They’re more playoff-ready, don’t you think?

  • Soiled Trousers

    You know the Christmas season has officially begun when you start reading articles telling you to ignore how crappy the Oilers are and focus on how awesome they will be in the future. The fans need to be reminded that you have to wait to the off season to make any trades. Then when no trades are made in the off season you’ve got to remind the fans that management needs time to evaluate their latest picks and prospects. When fans get riled up about another turd fest of a season you’ve got to remind them good times are on the horizon. Good times indeed.

  • Petrolero

    Chiarelli actually went the garth snow route this summer. Got Nielsen for peanuts on a trade, got talbot for other round picks, same with Reinhart. Then he used his cap space to bring in sekera.

    The sharks a few seasons go had like six guys who could play center and it didn’t hurt them. The predators doubled down on thethe position last season.

    For what I’ve seen so far from Chiarelli he is not going to rush into a stupid.move. he’s a man with a plan, a good plan.

    If anything Edmonton needs more centers. I’d be more worried about bringing in a true 3rd line center because right now that where the gap is.

  • Buke

    On the two top line we need another heavy forward. We already have Drai. Keep RNH

    Hall, Nuge, Drai
    New heavy guy, McDavid, Eberle

    On defense sign Big Buff

    Wait for the young core to mature.

    Oilers will push for playoffs next year and competing for Stanley cup in 2nd year to 7th year.

    Hold the course and don’t panic but make deals, without trading the core.

  • BubbaZanetti

    Was thinking back when Nuge fought Hamhuis.
    I believe that was the last time I was yelling at the TV, was frickin jacked cheering on Nuge to kick his a55 !
    Was proud to be an Oiler fan.
    I miss that feeling.

    People will say, the game has changed, and that’s not Nuge’s job to fight.
    I’m not so sure about that ?
    This team needs to become DICK5 on the ice !
    Losing sucks, the question is what are you willing to do about it ?
    And size has absolutely squat to do with it.

    We got to keep our centers, move them around if need be, hell get more !

    And it’s time to stop being nice guys,
    RNH, you’ve been a polite, well mannered young fella, but it’s time to unleash your inner d!ck,
    seriously, same with Hall, please go just punch the sh!t oUT of Seguin and then after game ask media their thoughts on the Taylor / Tyler debate ??

    That’s my Christmas wish ?

  • What kind of a GM mismanages his cap to such a degree that he has to give away the likes of Boychuck for almost nothing? Chiarelli should be on the phone to fleece that GM….. wait… wha?