At some point last summer it looked like the Islanders would coast into their final season at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and play the same lackluster hockey their fans have grown familiar with over the last decade-plus.
Only General Manager Garth Snow had other plans and acquired players in a flurry of moves that not only bolstered the Islanders’ roster, but also gave them a legitimate shot to compete. If all else failed, at least Long Islanders would be able to see some quality games before closing the doors of the Coliseum and heading west to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center next season.
Through his grocery list of needs, Snow filled every hole on the roster with moves that may net him NHL General Manager of the Year honors.
It started in May when the Islanders acquired the negotiating rights to goaltender Jaroslav Halak from Washington. Three weeks later they inked the 10-year NHL veteran to a four-year deal. Halak, who was chosen to this year’s NHL All-Star Game, has maintained a 2.41 goals against average through the first week of February, while recording a 28-11 record. Earlier in the season he won 11 consecutive games, breaking hall of famer Billy Smith’s franchise record.
Just as the season was starting in October, Snow pulled off two highly touted deals to solidify the team’s defensive front. He sent T.J. Brennan, Ville Pokka and Anders Nilsson to Chicago for Nick Leddy. Then he traded a two second-round draft picks in 2015 and 2016 to Boston for Johnny Boychuck. Both defensemen brought instant credibility and winning prowess to the ice, having each won Stanley Cups with their former respective clubs.
Couple the acquisitions with the team’s current star power in captain John Tavares, assistant captain Kyle Okposo, speedster Michael Grabner and shootout legend Frans Nielsen, plus young studs like Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, and this team was instantly a contender and not just playing to appease fans in the Coliseum’s swansong.
It may seem almost too good to be true, but the Islanders entered the all-star break in first place in the Metropolitan Division and with 34 wins as of February 8 are one of the top teams in the NHL.
Normally a franchise has enough pressure to win every year, but this season is different in Uniondale. The impending move to Brooklyn has provided urgency for the team to win. The move to Brooklyn has been on the horizon for a few years, but with less than half the season left, and possibly a deep playoff run still ahead, fans are hoping to capture a little more of that glory that bleed from the walls of the old barn in the 1980s.
Considering the depth on its roster, the youthful spirit on the ice and in the locker room and the proven track record of the team at this point of the season, there’s no reason to think the Islanders won’t make a legitimate run at a Stanley Cup this season. One more magical run would be a fitting end to a building that knows how to celebrate.
Photo: Chris R. Vaccaro