- Craig Custance
On the first day of free agency in 2010, the New York Islanders made signing defenseman Paul Martin their priority. The first moment GM Garth Snow was allowed to call, he was on the phone with Martin making a pitch. Islanders forward Doug Weight also called to heat up the recruitment.
They pointed out the young talent that Snow was accumulating, including future star John Tavares, selected with the No. 1 overall pick the previous June.
Snow ultimately made Martin the biggest offer he would receive during his time in free agency. Substantially bigger than anything else on the table.
Instead, he signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. When Martin's agent Ben Hankinson broke the news to Snow, part of his reason was that he wasn't sure Martin would enjoy playing in the Nassau Coliseum the next five seasons. Especially contrasted against the new building that was being finished in Pittsburgh at the time.
"It's just a team that lost their identity in the fact that there was so much turmoil around the organization with the building and the uncertainty," said Hankinson on Wednesday after news broke about the Islanders moving to Brooklyn. "They were selling youth, and it was tough to predict if the youth was even going to be there in a few years."
Wednesday's news eases some of that uncertainty. Once the lease with the Nassau Coliseum is done, the Islanders will move to one of the most state-of-the-art arenas in North America, even if it's not an ideal layout for hockey.
There are no more concerns about a possible Islanders move to Kansas City or Seattle. There are no more concerns about playing in an outdated building.
Now, with those issues out of the equation, will the Islanders be able to finally attract free-agent talent?
Snow was asked a similar question during the press conference in Brooklyn and didn't exactly answer it.
"We will continue to go at the top free agents and look at any avenue to make our team better," he said.
Going after them has never been the problem. Actually landing them has been.
Last year, Christian Ehrhoff passed on a big offer from the Islanders. A few days before free agency, Snow traded a fourth-round pick to the Vancouver Canucks for the rights to negotiate with Ehrhoff. Two days later, he was traded again when the Islanders couldn't get a deal done and the Buffalo Sabres were able to do what the Islanders weren't -- lock up Ehrhoff long term.
Veteran agent Rick Curran negotiated that deal for Ehrhoff and typically gives his potential free agents the same advice. For the most part, he says, money is going to be similar. So there are more important considerations.
"First of all, there's the team itself. Who your teammates are. How that would fit with what you perceive to be your style of play," Curran said during a Wednesday afternoon phone conversation.
Then comes the environment -- things like the facilities and the enthusiasm generated around the team that often translates onto the ice. Curran told the story of a player who loved an organization but struggled with its inability to fill the arena.
"He didn't like the idea of every time he played a game, he felt like he was at practice," Curran said. "There's no question that the enthusiasm or the lack of fan support goes a long way in taking away from attracting a top free agent."
And then there's ownership and management. How committed is the owner to winning? How successful has management been in the past in building a winner?
For Martin, choosing the Penguins over the Islanders made perfect sense. Pittsburgh more than adequately addressed every one of those concerns.
It's no surprise that, for those reasons, the same franchises typically do well attracting free agents. Players know if they sign with franchises like the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, management will consistently have the resources to win big. That's not the case with the Islanders.
"There's usually a consistency when you ask someone where you most like to play or least like to play. If you can't be on the list, don't be on the bottom," Curran said. "Why is it that the Islanders seem to be on the bottom list? I don't know."
They've erased one concern with the move to Brooklyn. That will be a positive selling point for Snow and his staff when they look to add established veterans to the collection of young talent Snow has done a good job building.
But questions remain, especially about ownership.
"I really like Garth. Garth is phenomenal. He has a good feel for the game and managing the team. But his hands are tied. They run it pretty thin," Hankinson said. "You look at some organizations that have five or six guys with the same experience as Garth does in management. There, you have Garth making the decisions with the owner on hockey."
Despite drafting well and finding some values in free agency, Snow doesn't have the track record of success enjoyed by other general managers competing for those players. That hurts.
It also hurts that his owner, Charles Wang, is someone whose reputation is dubious at best among players and agents. There's a trust factor that isn't there, and the reality is that deals are struck between two sides sharing trust and respect.
If this season is ever played and the Islanders' young talent comes together to make a surprising run in the East, a shiny building waiting in Brooklyn could be just the attraction that gives the Islanders the ability to close deals. But facilities alone won't do it.