With a big trade at the deadline, a novice G.M. topped off a series of shrewd moves that have revived the Islanders
OBSERVING THE rending-of-garments response in Edmonton to the deadline trade of Oilers left wing Ryan Smyth and the Canadian media's en masse arrival in New York to catch Smyth's debut with the Islanders last Thursday, Isles general manager Garth Snow said drily, "I didn't realize hockey was that big in Canada."
In eight months the sardonic Snow has gone from backup goalie to SI's pick for NHL executive of the year. He stole a march on the NHL last week—and maybe stole a playoff round in April as well—by trading a 2007 first-round draft choice and two prospects for the 31-year-old Smyth, a heart-and-soul player with presence of mind and experience in pressure games. (He captained Canada to two world championships and has won an Olympic gold medal.) A soon-to-be unrestricted free agent who had hoped to re-sign with Edmonton, Smyth (32 goals and 23 assists through Sunday) was weepy at leaving his home province, but he could be New York's Lachrymose Valuable Player before the postseason is done.
In his first game as an Islander, a 3--2 overtime loss to the Blues, he had an official assist, and an unofficial one—for adroitly putting the displaced net back on its moorings just before buzzing New York scored. The Islanders, in seventh place in the Eastern Conference at week's end, aren't a force but can be a factor, which puts them light years ahead of last summer when Long Island looked like Gilligan's Island.
Of all the wacky stuff that happened to the club between June and September—including maverick owner Charles Wang's hiring and firing of G.M. Neil Smith within 40 days following the season, and Rick DiPietro's 15-year-goalie-for-life contract—Snow's move from the dressing room to the front office might have been the most curious. Snow, of course, had always been a conspicuously clever guy, but if that were the main criterion for the job, Stephen Colbert would be running a draft table in June.
Working in a committee approach rather than the traditional chain of command, Snow massaged a team that had won five of 17 playoff games since 1995 by making small but significant additions. Most notably, for $865,000 he signed free-agent center Viktor Kozlov, who had 21 goals through Sunday. But Snow set the table for the Islanders' revival by trading defenseman Alexei Zhitnik and center Mike York to Philadelphia in separate December deals, unloading a net of $5.25 million in salary while acquiring mobile defenseman Freddy Meyer and journeyman center Randy Robitaille. You can connect those salary-dump dots straight to the late deals for top-six forward Richard Zednik from Washington and for Smyth.
The Smyth deal was conceived at the G.M. meetings in February when Snow pulled Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe aside and told him that if he had trouble re-signing his leading scorer, the Islanders would be interested. When contract negotiations broke down 20 minutes before the trade deadline—Smyth wanted a long-term deal worth $5.5 million annually—Snow, after conferring with coach Ted Nolan and spending one minute on the phone with Wang, made the deal. For a team with a muddled organizational chart, the Islanders moved with surprising alacrity. Sort of like a real hockey organization.
ONLY AT SI.COM Scott Wraight's Power Rankings every Tuesday.