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.


  • Eulers

    Great read. Good points….I don’t know why there isn’t more talk about the Oilers trading their future draft picks. If they get the #1 pick…trade it. Say, to Arizona. They get their hometown boy, Oilers get OEL and whatever 20 something pick Zona will have. Keep what they got, trade for the now.

    • Oilcounty88

      Your idea in theory is great. But thinking your going to get OEL and their first rounder is never going to happen. OEL is a top pairing d-man, pretty confident Matthews doesn’t even get that deal done. I do think that the Oilers should move their first round pick this year in a package for a top 2 defenceman. Who the rest of the package includes would depend on the cap situations of teams and what is available.

      Elliot Friedman made a good point the other night that there’s roughly 18 teams that are right against the cap right now and another 5 teams that have self-imposed caps. That means there only 6 teams left that can take on additional salary. Any other trade is going to need dollars for dollars or retained salary which most teams are staying away from. Its the reason trades are so rare this time of the year in the NHL.

  • Natejax30

    It ironic that the most laughed at organization for years suddenly is looked at as a way forward.

    JW trading from a position of weakness is never a good strategy……..we have not seen exactly what this team is mainly due to injuries. If I’n not mistaken we have had two games where no one was hurt? I would like to see what this team looks like with all their players before the deals start flying.

    Most sane people recognize that we need more grit and size to complement our skill but no one is giving us anything without taking much more in return.

    Trading RNH is a fools game………he is not the problem, we need more players like him. We have other assets we can trade and this should be done at a later stage of the season, so we can extract full-value.

    As your article states NYI added both Boychuck and Leddy in the off-season……..hopefully PC can be patient and do the same.

    • Speed Junky

      Actually, there have been NO games played with everyone in the line-up. Ebs was hurt in the pre-season, and didn’t play a game until after McDavid was hurt. Us fans have not seen this team play all year witha complete roster.

      I do agree that trading RNH is stupid. Last season the Oilers had no center depth, and now that there is some, we should trade it away?!? Ridiculous…

  • Natejax30

    Yesterday on the radio, I heard the question asked “How do the Oilers obtain a number 1 D-Man?” the answer was that he will be playing in the game on Friday, and he wears number 25, obtaining him will be done through patience.

    Now, could you imagine if we kept our 3 great centers, and our defence has a full year (that is 10% of an NHL lifespan) to grow, develop, and gel with each other…we add a few rough and tumble wingers to create chaos…

    I want playoffs this year…I really do, and I still don’t think it is out of the question. But if you look at the cap space, high draft pick (trade bait), other teams in cap trouble, and the free agent market…yeeesh, we could go deep next year…not a doubt in my mind, but to do so, you keep Drai, McDavid and Nuge.

  • Eulers

    There are many possibilities for Chiarelli and the Oilers which do not involve “whale hunting”. We all know how risky that is for the Oilers.

    We have a brilliant core of forwards and some very solid pieces on the blue line. We just need to be patient and see what Chiarelli can do. I certainly feel better having him in charge rather than MacT.

  • Jay (not J)

    Snow’s looked like a lunatic, but lately he looks better and better as his team has become deeper and broader. The Islanders have a lot more in common with the Oilers than sharp looking colors, having spent years as the league’s punchline. I like this article. There’s been a lot written about the Oilers slowing down on trading a center, but this is the first thing I’ve read which suggests that there are real options for the team to consider. (‘Don’t do it because once it’s done it can’t be undone’ is the rally cry of the indecisive)

  • Pope's Nose

    Finally!! See don’t trade centermen too valuable. Oilers will end up back where they were last year and the year before that… so on. I think chia can learn from being on the wrong side of the boychuck trade.

  • Zarny

    @S cottV

    Nuge is already a top 2 C in the league. You don’t have to be big to be a top 2 C.

    The Oilers’ problem isn’t deficiencies in any single player.

    Their problem has been that all of their forwards are too much of the same and they have been surrounded and supported by garbage.

      • Zarny

        I don’t think the question is “should” all 3 be retained. They are all 1st or 2nd line centers; of course they “should” be retained.

        The question is can they all be retained. If Chiarelli is able to move a forward for a top pairing D I’m sure he prefers to return drafts picks or a winger, but that may not be enough. For the right return, I’d move Nuge or Draisaitl but that right return is a very short list and I am very skeptical that trade comes to fruition.

        So for the next year or 2 I see the middle dominated by all 3. But regardless of whether a forward is moved for D or not, the Oilers won’t escape salary cap realities. In 2.5 years Hall, Nuge, Eberle, McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse, Klefbom, Sekera and perhaps Yakupov will get paid. If McDavid resigns for $8M/yr 5 players will chew up $32M. All 9 could cost 50 million. At that point, the Oilers may be forced to move someone just like Chi, Pit, Bos etc. With 3 C that may be the position of sacrifice.

  • Natejax30

    Will we have the cap space next off-season to sign or trade for 2 top 4 d-men?

    We have our 1st pick as currency, along with what I’m guessing is a healthy amount of cap space next season. (Scrivens, Nikitin, Schultz, etc.)

    I’m assuming Schultz is gone at the deadline, which saves us from paying him $4M and opens up a spot on the backend.

    If we can pick up 2 top 4 d-men like the Isles did, that gives us a much better set of blueliners:

    Nurse, Sekera, Klefbom, ???, ???, Davidson, Reinhart

  • Zarny

    Snow was opportunistic which every GM should be.

    There isn’t one path to success. The Oilers have 6 forwards (McDavid, Hall, Nuge, Draisaitl, Eberle, Yakupov) to only 2 young D of note (Nurse, Klefbom). If Chiarelli can find a deal to exchange 1 single forward for a higher end D he should do it.

    The problem is finding that deal. GMs don’t trade players for sh*ts and giggles and every GM motivated to sell will look to move lesser talent first. So in all likelihood Seth Jones will never be available; if motivated Poile will move Ellis or Ekholm.

    And that’s fine. As much as I think Chiarelli should explore trading a top 6 forward it isn’t required. None of Boychuk, Leddy, Coburn, Stralman, Garrison etc. are elite D. At least not top 10-15 D in the league elite. They are all just very good.

    In addition to Snow, Chiarelli would be wise to study the Canucks team that made it to the Cup finals. They didn’t have a Doughty/Keith/Hedman on D. They had a quartet of Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler and Erhoff flanked by Salo and Ballard. Not particularly sexy but very effective.