The first sign that things had changed with the Islanders was not this week, when new majority co-owner Jon Ledecky spoke boldly and loudly on making sure the team had 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. Garth Snow and his front-office staff identified Andrew Ladd as their top target, knowing that Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin were all headed elsewhere.
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Ladd may not be the game-changing free agent that Steven Stamkos would have been, but the Isles saw a fit. And to make that fit, the Isles played the free-agency game in a way they really haven’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 due to a buyout or against a possible work stoppage before the 2019-20 season.
In the past, Snow wasn’t able to offer such largesse. During the organization’s incredible dry spell with defensemen from 2008-2014, 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 and neither was interested in signing, Ehrhoff in particular because the Isles 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 Isles a destination for free agents and Ledecky seems to know what that entails: Player-friendly contracts, a willingness to spend and making sure the amenities are top-notch.
“We should be the world-class destination for free agents,” he said this 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 towards John Tavares lifting that Stanley Cup, so we should be world class in everything we do.”
Ledecky is also laying the ground work for Snow to make Tavares an Islander for life. He declared at Thursday’s town hall meeting with season-ticket holders in 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 that expires 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 — Dallas captain Jamie Benn, as close an age and statistical comparison to Tavares as anyone in the league, just signed on Friday an eight-year extension worth $9.5 million per season.
There could certainly 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 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 Isles’ 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 they are willing to spend, willing to do whatever it takes to see the team to a Stanley Cup. That’s a promising start.
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