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…

  • 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)

  • Zarny

    Great article, but… which team is going to need to shed good defenders due to cap trouble? From my eye, the guys that could hit the FA market are Byfuglin, Yandle, Lovejoy, Yannick Webber, Hamhuise, Campbell, Coburn, Schenn, and Gunnarsson.

    Of those guys, I’d only have interest in upgrading on Schultz, and maybe bumping Sekera down off the top pairing. So for me, it’s gotta be either Yandle or Byfuglin.

    While I would love to see just how much teams would hate to come play Nurse and Byfuglin, I would also be fine with a D next year that was

    Nurse – Sekera

    Klefbom – Fayne

    Reinhert / Davidson – Yandle

    Sekera and Klefbom sit at 11 points, and could easily get over 40 pts. Nurse and Davidson look like they could get over 20. Add Yandle into that and it’s a pretty mobile looking back end.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      signing ONE more experience NHL d-man isn’t enough in my opinion. if we are going into next year with Reinhart, Nurse and Klefbom and the main 3 young guys, and vet Sekera is still here, then we should be looking at adding TWO veteran guys back there. 2 of Buff, Yandle, Hamhouse, Coburn, Gunnarsson would be my hopes. and yes i am aware of how much it could cost us contract wise to pull this off, but i’m thinking that 3 kids and 3 vets, with Davidson around for the #7 spot (or traded) might just do the trick and finally solve some problems back there.

      • Zarny

        I really think the problems are going to sort themselves out with a little time. Nurse has played all of like 30 games in the NHL, Klefbom coming up on like 70?

        Not to mention the forwards have not all been healthy.

        It’s crazy to think but the we still have not seen the best version of the Oilers due to injury.

        And even with all that and all the problems, the team is only 7 points out of a play off spot.

        So, if we push for a spot this year, which I still think is gonna happen as the team comes back from injuries, suddenly our D problems won’t look so bad.

    • Buke

      Take at look at St. Louis. Something will need to shake loose there and with the emergence of Parayko, they might deal a hell of a D-man. While they have ~2.4M in current cap space according to NHL numbers, when Berglund and Schwartz come of the IR, they will be pressed right up to the cap.

      In the off-season, Lehtera’s cap hit goes up $2M, Backes will need a new deal and raise on the current $4.5M cap hit, Gunnarsson needs a new deal ($2.95M Cap hit)

      They do have Brouwer ($3.7M) and Ott ($2.6M) coming off the books and likely expendable, but they will still need to replace these players.

  • 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.

  • tdese

    Someone like big Buff will be in high demand come UFA so don’t you think he will be overpaid? Don’t get me wrong I would love to have him on the team but we have a few first overall picks picks in the lineup that are going to require us digging deep into our pockets to keep. why not release one now IF it favors the oilers to do so. Lets be honest… its going to be hard to sign all our stars including MCJESUS and lock up a number one dman something’s gotta give.

    • Zarny

      I think there are enough comparable contracts out there that Buff will go somewhere in the region of Seabrook or Giordano. Or around 7 mill – 8 mill. I think 8 mill will be on the high end and it will be from a team that needs to pay a little extra to get him.

      What about this though, Eberle to NJ for Adam Larsson, who at the moment, like Eberle, is no screaming hell.

      Then in the off season sign Buff to take Eberle’s spot at RW, which also gives the team depth at defence as injuries require.

      With Purcell playing well on the top line, it appears you don’t need a crazy skilled RW to play well alongside Hall and Draisaitl. And I would imagine the same rings true for McDavid.

      That gives the Oilers a decent top four defence, an upgrade on size in the top six, and a guy who can swing if the injury bug hits.

  • 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.

  • Oilcounty88

    I think its important for the Oilers to ensure they are following the optimal philosophy one reflective of their Roster when they make critical roster decisions.

    I believe they may be making less than optimal valuations and should leave the entire roster intact including the Defense.Unless some sweetheart deal comes along.Make the Coaches realise the optimal values of the existing players and themselves by FORCING EVERYONE TO SINK OR SWIM TOGETHER….EMBARO ON….NO ONE LEAVES

    This poetry below is why I think they are off-base and are currently underperforming.

    These are not my words….we now refer to Lord Bacon…

    ” It is of great consequence to consider whether sciences should be delievered by way of aphorism or of method. Methodical delivery is more fit to win consent or belief; but less fit to point to action; for they carry a show of demonstration in orb or circle, one part illuminating another; and therefore do more satisy the understanding; but being that actions in common course of life are dispersed, and not orderly digested; they do best agree with dispersed directions. Lastly, aphorisms representing certain portions only, and as it were fragaments of sciences, invite others to contribute and add something; whereas methodical delivery carrying show of a total and perfect knowledge, forthwith secureth men as if they were at the furthest.”

      • BubbaZanetti

        LOL,Pass the Dutchie on the right hand side there Jay{notJ}.lol.

        LOl,I wasnt sure exactly how talking Bacon would go over….but I do know that EVERYBODY LOVES BACON….even my Cat loves Bacon….lol….lol.

        You Spin me round round baby round round, like a river like a river baby,round round round….lol.

        Hidden within the immortalised words of Sir Francis Bacon resides the Rosetta Stone you seek Todd, the language you are trying to teach is NOT NEW ONE….it is a NewAge one….remember here is nothing new under the sun ,as above so below.

        Rumor has it that the most recent established Industry value of an Intuitive Empaths services have been defined @25k/Gm or 2,050,000 per/yr — @2500$/Hr or 615,000 per/yr ,bonus structure TBD, 10% Gross Charity -match in the name of ON by the Club and full Dental/Health Benefits,pick your poison and add a gilded Coffee Mug and an atta-boy to sweeten the deal,or shut the front door.Thats some pretty expensive Bacon…lol….this is what happens when you put more than just lipstick on a pig,instead of making just another pretty face you make very expensive…

        Lord Bacon has spoken,his words are the cipher to understanding the NHS and IDA and IDM and the TSP ect ect…his words contain the complete recipie for the Winning Formula if you can divine it from within his vision.Lol,the Davinci Code of NHL Hockey….lol.

        Add a little Engineering numbers focus and say the outcome is influenced by the variables within the inputs,then add some Bacon and balance all of the variables,bringing together numbers and Intuition ,this is the NHS in its very essence….lol.

  • 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

  • I do like the idea of trying to acquire some D the way the Islanders have, but I think that’s been the plan for quite a while and it’s failed miserably over and over. Fayne was supposed to be better, and he’s looked awful (except the last game). Sekera was supposed to be better, and he’s been all over the map (“competent top-four veteran” is putting it politely.. but there is a better d-man in there than we’ve seen early in the season). The Oilers have cycled through several 2nd pair guys year after year and I’ve felt that they’ve either tried to make them do too much or they just weren’t that good (i.e. they looked good because of being paired with someone good on another team, such as with Nikitin early on when he played with Tyutin or Fedor Fayne with Andy Greene). The Oilers have had very poor success targeting d-men in any way, and I’m not sure why they are so awful at this. Visnvosky was probably the last good defenseman we had here outside of the few home grown D that panned out. No one has ever accused this team of having good pro scouts though.

    Anyways, I love the idea of defense by committee (which is more of what the Islanders have), but I’m not sure why we haven’t been able to achieve that yet. Why did Sekera and Fayne suddenly have lobotomies this year?

    If the Oilers drop Schultz, Ference and Fayne, they’re left with Nurse, Klefbom, Sekera, Davidson. I wouldn’t be upset if Gryba stuck around as 7th. So they need to aim for a couple more top 4 guys to again overachieve (as the new guys may have to play top pair minutes). It’s risky, but no matter how you slice it there are going to be risks involved to somehow fix this blueline.

    Life would be easier if the Islanders would just take Schultz for Hamonic.

  • Concur

    What the Oilers don’t have but need is roster space. It is true that Nikitin and Gryba will be off the books, and Ference will be bought out, but they have make a decision on Shultz and Davidson who will be RFAs. Not only that there is 3 players in the AHL on entry level deals to consider; Musil, Gernat and Oesterle.

    As it looks next year Oilers defence has:

    Sekera – Fayne

    Klefbom – Reinhart


    That is a possible 3 roster spots to fill but more likely 2 because i don’t think they want 8 defence like this year. These roster spots have 5 RFAs to consider; Shultz, Davidson, Musil, Gernat, Oesterle and the possiblity of UFA Gryba. I know it has been mentioned that Fayne was not a Chiarelli hire and could be on the way out and that could open up another roster spot.

    Basically the call has to be made on Shultz and Fayne and then go after that big off season aquisition. Even if they do it now the same rules apply. What I would hope for next year is a roster of:

    Nurse – Byfuglien or other top pairing defenceman

    Klefbom – Sekera

    Davidson – Reinhart

    the winner out of Gryba, Musil, Gernat, Oesterle or other

  • freelancer

    Very insightful. Completely against trading RNH. If you look at the successful teams in the league, many of them have more than 2 top 6 centres, guys who can play either wing or roll three strong lines. Inevitably we will have to trade someone and my money is on Eberle. He just doesn’t seem to fit what Chiarelli wants out of his forwards.

    • Natejax30

      Imagine…”Oilers Trade Nugent Hopkins!”, followed very quickly by “Draisaitl out 6 weeks for shoulder surgery!”

      If we wouldn’t be deep at center today, Lander would be our #2 Centerman.

      Center Depth is vital for an 82 game season. Imparative.

  • S cottV

    I would really like to see what Nuge looks like playing on the wing, with either McD or Drai.

    Nuge is not big enough / strong enough – to play consistently in top 2c, if you had a choice.

    McD is a little bigger, appears stronger and a generational talent in the middle.

    Drai is both bigger and stronger and has a classic big man in the middle – high end skill set, that should not be under estimated. I wouldn’t call it generational – but, geez – I would not be surprised if Drai turns out to be a much bigger deal, than a lot of people seem to think. A lot of little big things – like the way this kid lays a backhand pass are tell tale signs.

    I think Nuge could be a high end winger, when paired with a big hard to play against winger who can shoot to score. I could see Drai or McD working into a tandem like this.

    High end winger who can play centre? That might change the landscape about whether to trade him or not, vs others – arguably even Hall, who maybe has more trade value than Nuge.

    • camdog

      If you look at the Oilers roster the past 2 years the Oilers would be at the bottom of the league in number of forwards listed as centres. Every other team converts centres to wingers, the Oilers may be the only team that tries the opposite in trying to play wingers at centre.

      If the coach thinks that RnH reminds him of Joe Pavelski that means he might eventually try RnH on the wing. It may not happen for a couple of seasons, but history says he`s willing to do it.

  • S cottV

    As much as I want us to make the playoffs, the odds are stacked against us. Thus, I think we should stay in the mix for Auston Matthews and/or a high 2016 draft pick. However, why not roll the dice and put the 2017 first round pick into trade play?

    • a lg dubl dubl

      There’s nothing wrong with Reinhart, kids only 21. Was the price paid for GR a little high, maybe, but PC wasn’t getting OEL, Weber, Or Hamonic with those same picks. Reinhart will never be a top 2 dman, but I’d wager he’ll be a second pair for a long time, and that’s alright with me.




      I still think Klefbom is the dman traded for a top 2 dman.

  • This is a great piece, to me this demostrates that we will see the ability of our Gm in how he handles this. If he does his job well the team keeps its talent and finds creative ways to add the talent that it needs. This of course requires the proper talent assement in the pro scouting dept that has has in the past has had poor results. Truly great Gms and teams don’t continue to let talent go in 1 for 1 deals that don’t alow your team to get better just swapping players .

  • 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.

  • Zarny

    The Islanders also have at least four very good young forward prospects (Dal Colle, Ho-Sang, Beauvillier, and Barzal) and one possible blue chip defenseman (Pulock) bubbling under. They took a lot of flak for putting Snow in his position but right now he’s looking like one of the best in the game.

    Everyone knows the cap isn’t going up much next year, if at all. Some teams are going to be even worse off than Boston and Chicago were when Snow made those deals. These teams are not going to be moving a $5 million defenseman for a $6 million forward. Difficult as it is to be patient, dealing RNH or Eberle in a panic now to try and save this year when the Oilers are the rest of this season away from having a ridiculous amount of cap space just to devote to a top defenseman, a goalie, and a couple of skilled depth forwards is madness.

    Move Schultz, Purcell, and Gryba for assets at the deadline, buyout Korpikoski and Ference in the summer, and now we’re in business.

  • Zarny

    If we want to keep RNH, then I dont’ see any other option than converting him to wing. We can’t have a $6M player getting 3rd line minutes.

    McD is #1, and Draisaitl’s size and strength make him a perfect #2. Maybe it’s time to put RNH on the wing. But I have doubts about how effective he can be playing the wing. Winning battles along the boards and in the corners isn’t his forte.

    • ziyan94

      Which is why we do what the Kings did in 2011. When they brought in Mike Richards, they were suddenly 3-deep in 2-way centres (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Richards). The matchups they got were always favourable because of their sheer dominance up the middle. Like Willis said, we need to maintain our areas of strength, we can’t trade from those areas because we’ll spread ourselves too thin

  • Puck_In_Throat

    Let’s also look at Dallas, who did something that most people say is “impossible” – they landed two 1Cs IN ONE SUMMER (Seguin and Spezza).

    They also have had a huge upgrade on D in the last two years with (a) the emergence of John Klingberg, a highly touted prospect (b) the acquisition of Jason Demers and (c) the signing of Johnny Oduya.

    Both Demers and Oduya were had for reasonable money that the Oilers chose instead to throw at guys like Ference and Nikitin.

    In 2016, we have the opportunity to add a few D Men. A quick perusal shows that Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Campbell, and Dan Hamhuis are available. Any one of those guys is instantly our #1. This should be the top priority in the off-season.

  • 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.

  • Spiel

    Major difference between the Isles and the Oilers is that the core of Islanders forwards had actually qualified for the playoffs is 2012-13. In 2013-14, their season was essentially lost when Tavares blew out his knee at the Olympics. Point being Snow knew that he had some players who were capable of leading a team to the playoffs, players who could lead.

    The Oilers, in contrast, have had their core leading the team to the bottom for years.