The first sign that things had changed with the Islanders did not come this past week, when new majority co-owner Jon Ledecky spoke boldly and loudly about making sure the team has every resource available to improve.
No, it came in the opening minutes of free agency on July 1, the day that Ledecky and Scott Malkin took over controlling interest of the team from Charles Wang.
Knowing that Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin were headed elsewhere, general manager Garth Snow and his front-office staff identified Andrew Ladd as their top target. Ladd may not be the game-changing free agent that Steven Stamkos would have been, but the Islanders saw a fit. And to make that fit, they played the free-agency game in a way they really hadn’t during Snow’s 11-year tenure.
That meant giving Ladd the contract structure that other top free agents were getting: a small yearly salary with a large bonus to protect against losing money because of a buyout or against a possible work stoppage before the 2019-20 season. The seven-year deal is worth $38.5 million.
In the past, Snow wasn’t able to offer such largesse. During the organization’s incredible dry spell with defensemen from 2008-14, the combination of losing games and inability to make those big contract pitches kept the Islanders from making significant changes. Snow dealt draft picks for the rights to Christian Ehrhoff and Dan Boyle but neither was interested in signing, Ehrhoff in particular because the Islanders would not front-load an offer.
Neither of those players made good on the deals they did take, of course, but they were just two of the high-profile rejections the Isles took around the league.
Ledecky and Malkin want to make the Islanders a destination for free agents, and Ledecky seems to know what that entails: player-friendly contracts and a willingness to spend and make sure the amenities are top-notch.
“We should be the world-class destination for free agents,” he said this past week. “If you think about a capped world, everybody can spend to the cap, and we certainly have no constraints on our GM and our staff to spend. We want to create and continue to progress toward John Tavares lifting that Stanley Cup, so we should be world-class in everything we do.”
Ledecky also is laying the groundwork for Snow to make Tavares an Islander for life. He declared at Thursday’s town hall meeting with season-ticket holders at Barclays Center that Tavares “is not going to be a free agent.”
That’s strong stuff, and no one really knows what Tavares is thinking about his contract, which will expire at the end of the 2017-18 season.
But we do know that on July 1, 2017, Snow will be ready to make an offer to Pat Brisson, Tavares’ high-powered agent, that is competitive with the other stars of the league.
On Friday, Dallas captain Jamie Benn, as close an age and statistical comparison to Tavares as anyone in the league, signed an eight-year extension worth $9.5 million per season.
There certainly could be other changes. Ledecky spoke on Wednesday of increasing the financial commitment to the front office and scouting staff, a group that lost George McPhee to the new Las Vegas team this past week. Snow does have a tight-knit group he leans on; would he be willing to make room for more input?
Ledecky expressed full confidence in Snow, and the two have had a couple of years to get to know one another. Ledecky also spoke of continuing progress.
“What’s the standard?” he asked. “We won the first round. We went to the second round. The standard this year has to be, you won the second round and went to the third round. And eventually you have to hoist the Stanley Cup, because that’s what the fans demand. They demand that excellence, on the ice and off the ice.”
It’s not exactly revolutionary to profess a desire to win a title. Wang wanted that, too, and he made his own splash a year after taking the reins, in 2001, when he signed off on three trades in three days in June — for Adrian Aucoin, Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca — that transformed the moribund franchise and increased payroll by 44 percent.
But the realities of the Islanders’ finances dawned on Wang quickly as his attempts to build a new arena were thwarted. After years of tacit understanding that the Isles were a tightly budgeted team, Wang said as much to Newsday two weeks ago. “Don’t forget the constraints [Snow] was working under,” Wang said. “We weren’t a big [spending] team.”
Now the shackles are off. That does not instantly translate into a title. But the first few weeks of the Ledecky-Malkin era for the Islanders has shown that they are willing to spend, willing to do whatever it takes to see the team to a Stanley Cup. That’s a promising start.