Garth Snow’s Vanek Gamble Deserves the Benefit of the Doubt

By: Ryan Kiray (@RyanK_THG)

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Getty Images

Reports surfaced Monday that New York Islanders winger Thomas Vanek had rejected a sizeable contract offer from the Islanders, reportedly numbering Vanek’s tenure with the Islanders. Vanek, 30, was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres on October 27, 2013 in exchange for winger Matt Moulson, a 2014 first round selection, and a 2015 second round selection, a move widely viewed as an epic gamble by general manager Garth Snow and almost as widely as a shocking overpayment. With Vanek set to move on, the move appears to be both a devastating misstep by Snow and a setback for an upstart franchise. It would be easy to crucify Snow in hindsight, but armchair punditry is best applied to an entire body of work.

Since Snow followed the standard and utterly predictable path from backup goaltender to general manager in the summer of 2006, there has been an undeniable and very visible learning curve for the young manager. Only a few months into his tenure, he signed goaltender Rick DiPietro to what has widely been regarded as the worst contract in NHL history, though the extent to which eccentric owner Charles Wang’s hands were guiding Snow’s is a matter of debate. The development of the Islanders from rebuilding team to true contender has been slow and arduous, at times bordering on total standstill, though former general manager Mike Milbury left Snow with a mess of epic proportions prior to his “resignation” in 2006. In short, Snow has not been perfect.

That said, no manager is, and Snow has managed on several occasions to not only outfox his colleagues but also to place the Islanders in a highly enviable position. Prior to dealing Moulson, Snow rescued him from the scrap heap on which he had been placed by both the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins before them. Moulson went on to score 30 goals for the Islanders in three consecutive seasons and helped to propel the Islanders to and through a surprisingly strong playoff performance last season. Snow claimed Michael Grabner off waivers from the Florida Panthers in 2010, whereupon Grabner promptly scored 34 goals for the Isles. He has since settled into a second to third line scoring pace that is his more likely permanent settling point, but Snow managed to turn a waiver claim into a season of 34 goals and a long-term contributor, something that Florida likely wished that they had possessed during a 2010-2011 that saw them finish dead last in the Eastern Conference.

Snow’s cap management has been perhaps the most impressive aspect of his management thus far. John Tavares is currently tied for second in the NHL scoring race behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, and is a respectable 14th in the goal scoring race. Tavares is locked up through the 2017-2018 season at a cap hit of only $5.5 million. Alternate captain Andrew MacDonald plays almost 20 minutes a night, in all situations, and his salary barely breaks the plane of the league’s minimum. That is to say nothing of the breakout season that Kyle Okposo is currently enjoying at a paltry $2.8 million salary. Granted, it is easier to manage a cap situation with young players. It is also impossible to overpay big-ticket free agents when you helm a rebuilding franchise to which high-end free agents will not flock. That said, Snow has done as much with regard to these players as could have been asked of him.

Snow has not been without his missteps, but it is also best to reserve judgment on where the Vanek trade ranks among them. Big moves to push upstart young teams over the top after they have finally begun to realize their promise have worked in the past; think Pittsburgh acquiring Marian Hossa in 2008 en route to a Stanley Cup finals appearance after breaking their missed playoff streak in 2007, or Washington acquiring Cristobal Huet the same year en route to taking Pittsburgh to seven games in an epic and hard fought series a year after breaking their own playoff drought. Snow may have jumped the gun by a year or two on making a similar move for his own team, but it is difficult to fault him for trying, and the results since Vanek’s acquisition speak for themselves. A few penstrokes on a fresh new contract and suddenly Snow’s gamble looks brilliant.

The cost of acquisition, while steep, can no more be judged in a vacuum than any of Snow’s other moves. It remains to be seen what Snow reacquires in an eventual trade of Vanek, but if it is not at least a roster player, prospect, and a first round pick, then market conditions are even more dire than some have predicted. The roster player may not be one of Moulson’s caliber or natural fit, and the first round pick will likely be lower than their own, but trading down a few spots, subbing one prospect for another, and downgrading the forward corps a bit seems a reasonable price to pay on a gamble that could have pushed the Islanders further towards the Stanley Cup. Indeed, gambling on Vanek before the trade-deadline bidding war put the Islanders in a position to recoup some of the expense paid for him; had the Islanders acquired him in February, they would have lost whichever assets they had spent in trade when Vanek elected to move on.  Opening contract negotiations with him before the deadline season heated up allowed them to determine whether or not to move on. While the decision to acquire Vanek may not have paid off the way that the Islanders wished, Snow’s timing tempered the consequences of a gamble similar to those made by many before him.

In short, it is easy to destroy the Islanders and the decision to acquire Vanek in hindsight, and some criticism of the decision is fair. However, to pretend that the move was merely the latest in a pattern of disasters is out of touch with reality on several levels. Not only has Snow’s overall pattern of work been positive, especially in light of the unorthodox manner of his ascent to the manager’s throne, but the timing of Snow’s acquisition of Vanek and the commencement of contract negotiations also allowed him to guard against later repercussions in the event that the gamble did not pay off. The Islanders’ rebuild is far from done, but bear in mind that Snow is not Milbury. He has earned the benefit of the doubt, and it should be applied here.

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