Dead last back in April when the NHL 2008-09 regular season ended, the New York Islanders have so far been one of the real pleasant surprises in the league this season.
The Isles picked up another big victory on Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, too, getting a goal from rookie John Tavares late in the third period to win 3-2. After 26 games, New York is right in the fray among teams in playoff position in the Eastern Conference with a 10-9-7 record - an 85-point pace that would be a 24-point improvement over last season.
A big part of their improvement has come in goal, where the veteran tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Marty Biron has the Isles ranked sixth in the NHL with a .915 save percentage.
I chatted briefly with goalie-turned-GM Garth Snow earlier this week about Tavares, his team and his strategy in rebuilding one of the league's more troubled franchises through the draft:
John Tavares is off to a strong start, leading all rookies in scoring so far and getting a lot of consideration for the Calder Trophy. How impressed have you been with his play so far?
Snow: "He's made the transition very smoothly. He fits in great with our younger players and our veteran leadership - sometimes that doesn't get talked about enough, you need a good core of veterans to lead a younger team. Johnny's come in and fit in really nicely with the rest of our younger players."
After the way last season went for your team, a lot of people are impressed with how they have come out of the gate. What's your read on their play so far?
Snow: "Honestly, we're a .500 team right now, out of a playoff spot. At the beginning of the season, we were losing in a shootout, in overtime, but quite frankly I think we should have a better ranking than what we have right now. I'm sure there are 29 other teams that feel the same way about their clubs. We're just trying to get better every day, practice and every game."
Is the success a sign, though, that your rebuilding strategy may be ahead of schedule?
Snow: "I don't use that word rebuild. We're trying to make the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup like every other team. We don't go in with the mindset that losing is acceptable, and when that word is used, sometimes winning doesn't matter. I don't think I've used that word too much and if I have, it's been very limited. We're trying to win every hockey game we play in. The group that we have in that locker room, it may be young, but that doesn't make it can't have success."
Your team is often mentioned as following in the footsteps of the Penguins in terms of assembling a young cast over time and winning that way. Given their success with drafting high and developing their players, is it fair to say that that's the model you'd like to follow?
Snow: "The Penguins aren't the only team that built through the draft and developed their talent. A lot of other clubs - L.A. comes to mind, Chicago, Washington - it's not just one team that's used that formula to try and have success."
"You know what, we had an open house, town hall meeting with our season's ticket holders and our sponsors and suite holders, almost two years ago, we set a direction, a course where we would build through the draft and develop our talent and sprinkle in free agents when it made sense. I've stuck to that plan. We feel that in order for us to get to where we want to go, that's the direction we have to take."