Garth Snow is nothing if not a man of his word.
It was just about two years ago that Snow, along with his boss, Charles Wang, invited Islanders fans to a series of "open houses'' at Nassau Coliseum. The purpose was to announce the team's "new direction'' - the building of a "consistent contender,'' the team's buzz-phrase coined by Chris Dey, the team president and Wang's son-in-law.
They lowered the scoreboard as a backdrop, showed some videos, brought in a couple of players to schmooze and sign, and turned the floor over to Snow and Ted Nolan, the head coach who was to lead the Islanders' resurgence. Their message was simple: Be patient and great things will follow.
"We explained to our fans we were going to build through the draft, develop some young players and sprinkle in the right free agents, and we haven't deviated from that plan since,'' said Snow, a former backup goalie who had just completed his second season as general manager. "We told them our ultimate goal is to build a consistent contender and a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis.''
But before a game of the 2008-09 season was played, Nolan was fired. Under new coach Scott Gordon, the Islanders followed their 26th-place finish in '07-08 with an even worse '08-09, finishing 30th in a 30-team league. This once-proud franchise was now officially the worst team in hockey.
This year, with 17 games left, the Islanders have matched last year's win total and are a point shy of the 61 points they amassed last year.
But barring a miraculous turnaround the final month, the Islanders appear inexorably headed for another 26th-place finish and another postseason without hockey in Uniondale.
Another trading deadline has come and gone with no real changes, no veteran impact player added to help the youthful core of this team, only a second-round draft pick in next year's entry draft in exchange for defenseman Andy Sutton, who was headed for free agency anyway.
Two years after the Islanders power-point pep talk to their fans, the team remains very much an unkept promise.
Fans: Thumbs up and down
In response, their formerly fanatical fan base has largely deserted them. This year, the Islanders' attendance is the second-lowest in the NHL, 12,500 per game in a building that can hold nearly 17,000.
Four years into his tenure as GM, thousands of Islanders fans have no choice but to wonder if the message delivered at those open houses two years ago was just another Snow job.
"I mean, it's a joke,'' Jeremy Walsh of Garden City said, heading with his young son into Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Bruins. "I come three or four times a year, but when the team's losing all the time, why would you want to? Let's face it, it's not an NHL team.''
But Eric Roth of Plainview, a longtime season-ticket holder, took a more patient viewpoint. "Maybe I drank the Kool-Aid, but I bought into what [Snow] said. We have a good core of very young guys and if we stick with it, it's going to pay off.''
But Roth added, "I want to see this thing really start to turn around next year.''
"If you look at the strides our team has made this year,'' Snow said, "with a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old playing significant minutes, it's a promising future. It's a fun team to watch. It's a young group and we're committed to that direction and ultimately we want to build a consistent contender and a team that can compete for a Stanley Cup.''
The obvious follow-up question, of course, is when?
"I don't have a crystal ball, Snow said. "Obviously, I'd like it to be sooner rather than later. We just gotta get back to playing the hockey we were playing about a month ago and things will fall into place.''
Hot streak doesn't last
That run - 10 wins in 14 games between Dec. 23 to Jan. 21, including wins over six teams that if the season ended today would be in the playoffs and highlighted by Rick DiPietro's shutout over the Devils on Jan. 18 - was certainly an encouraging sign.
But it was followed by 12 losses in the next 15 games, including a crushing 4-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators in the final game before the Olympic timeout, a game the Islanders led 3-1 after two periods.
No. 1 draft pick John Tavares, 19, who started the season on fire, has scored only two goals in his last 34 games. His last goal came Jan. 16. Kyle Okposo, 21, has 13 goals but only one in his last 12 games. DiPietro, who will be drawing an Islanders paycheck until the year 2021, has played 13 games over the past two seasons because of various injuries and is probably done for this season.
Asked what he would have done if his boss ordered him to sign a goalie to a 15-year contract, as Wang is believed to have done with Snow, Bill Torrey, the architect of Islanders teams that won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-83, chuckled and replied: "I would have given it a whole lot of thought. In fact, I would have given it 15 years of thought.''
Snow's predecessor, Neil Smith, gave it about 15 minutes of thought before parting with the Islanders after 41 days.
Snow, who went directly from the ice to the front office, closed the deal Wang so fervently wanted. That gave rise to the conception of Snow as a mere figurehead of a GM, a stooge for an owner more interested in developing his real estate and commercial interests than his hockey team.
Praise from peers
In his defense, Snow has no organizational mentor.
"I think he's doing extremely well,'' said Lou Lamoriello, GM of the Devils teams that won three Stanley Cups between 1995 and 2003. "Look at the progress the team's made. He has a plan and it appears that he has the support of ownership to follow through.''
Torrey, a senior adviser to the Florida Panthers, said: "The No. 1 thing he seems to have going for him is his relationship with the owner. When Charles makes up his mind about something, he's undeterred.''
Snow bristles at such characterizations - "[Lack of experience] was never an issue with me,'' he said. "I've played enough years in this league, been on championship teams, played on an Olympic team. I know what's going on'' - and insists Wang puts "no restrictions'' on him in regard to spending for free agents.
Yet the Islanders are millions below the NHL salary cap - barely above the salary floor - and their reluctance to enter the free-agent fray seems tied to the DiPietro deal and the 10-year, $87.5-million deal Mike Milbury gave to Alexei Yashin, which the Islanders will continue to pay out over the next nine years.
"If a free agent makes sense for us, we'll certainly take a look at it,'' Snow said.
Snow points to the signing of Mark Streit to a five-year deal in 2008 and a four-year deal given to defenseman Andrew MacDonald in February as evidence that the Islanders will spend for the right players. Still, the Islanders have only $30 million in payroll committed to next year's team, and theoretically could spend another $25 million under the cap if they so choose.
In the Garth Snow Era, they have chosen not to.
Snow says part of the problem is the condition of Nassau Coliseum, and part of it is no problem at all.
"For me, this is building a championship-caliber team the right way,'' he said. "I think we're all disappointed by where we're sitting in the standings and nobody here is satisfied. But there's some positive signs here. When I talk to fans, everyone shakes my hand and applauds the direction this team's going, because it is an exciting young group."