By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — I know Islanders fans have mixed feelings right now.
This late in a season it’s inevitable. Some are turned off by just about everything this team does, feeling that there is no hope on the horizon. Venue issues and fears add into the mix. The long-standing story of no playoffs is, of course, the coup de grace, despite the fact that most of us knew back in early November that the Islanders were not going to make it.
This is a team mired in a very slow rebuild which was not the plan when General Manager Garth Snow had the go-ahead from owner Charles Wang to change gears once they had dismissed then-head coach Ted Nolan. The rebuild plan was to be accelerated by adding key free agents and veterans into the mix. However, they did not anticipate the abject venue plan failures and the fact that the Islanders do not enjoy a good reputation or attraction due to facilities, training, and the like.
So, much to any enduring fan’s chagrin, what we have is a very slow ride, as 33-36-11 with two games to play, a slight improvement over a season ago, seems to indicate.
What can we take away as a positive from another disappointing season, you ask? Despite my previous column citing some noteworthy failures, there are quite a few.
The key element to this rebuild, whether it is accelerated or remains chugging along at a snail’s pace, is the prospects the Islanders have cultivated since changing their system in 2006. They now have not one prospect in the NHL or in development from prior to when they shifted gears philosophically. That should give a clear indication of what they thought of the previous regime, including the long tenured GM Mike Milbury.
“When Garth took over, he realized he had absolutely nothing,” a source close to the situation recently told me.
Snow and the Islanders employ a system that came along with Neil Smith’s brief tenure in the front office, and it is still used today. That system has added many prospects, leading to one stunning and indisputable fact:
Since 2006, no team has more drafted players currently in the NHL than the Islanders.
But since the team has yet to reach its potential, there are those who will try to argue that fact, citing numerous teams who have also done well in the draft. But the fact remains, the Islanders have cultivated a high number draft picks that have made the jump to the show. Moreover, many of the picks from 2008, ’09 and ’10 look to be the real deal and you will see a lot more of them find their way up soon enough.
The silver lining staring from beneath the stormy cloud is the overall development from juniors on up has been successful in getting key players to where they have been projected. No, they are not all stars, but that is not the reality of the draft and subsequent development. The draft is really the attempt to fill out future spots with what a team considers key personnel.
Considering the yawning chasm of the prospect pool, terrible development, and just misguided hockey operations left behind by the Mibury regime, there has clearly been improvement over the last six years.
I’m not sure fans appreciate the wreck that Snow inherited, regardless if you like or don’t like how he got the job in the first place. The truth is Snow has overcome much of the stigma that came along with the “back-up goalie” jokes. Kids are starting to emerge and compete for NHL roles, and no matter how you feel about yet another failure to get into the playoffs, you have to admit the young guys are worth watching.
The players that the Islanders have rescued from the scrap heap and turned into gems on the NHL level, players like Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, Mark Streit and P.A. Parenteau, also need to be recognized. They have become, as compliments, key parts of what this franchise is trying to do.
“Name me another GM who has gone out and found as many gems as he has?” a league source recently said of Snow.
In fact, if it weren’t for Snow finding talent where many thought there was none, this team would be in a far worse place than it is now. I have been critical of some moves and decisions Snow has made, but I would be remiss not to recognize key positives he has acquired and continues to acquire.
It’s undeniable. The Islanders are growing up. Their multitude of talent is now one year closer to realizing its full potential.
The Isles have key skilled players with high ceilings and size coming up through the ranks. Players like highly touted Ryan Strome, plus Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Kirill Kabanov and Kirill Petrov all have potential as top 6 forwards. Also keep an eye on youngsters John Persson and Johan Sundstrom.
Imagine those kids developing to potential and meshing with the team’s current top 6, namely clear All-Star John Tavares, should have been All-Star Moulson, stock through the roof Paranteau (if re-signed), highly talented Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, who had a far better second half this past season, and still top-rated prospect Nino Niederriter, and you have amazing skill, talent and, for once, the potential for playing time competition.
To develop a true winning formula and become a perennial contender, a team must have a dynamic of prospects fighting their way through a healthy level of competition for roles. The Islanders are just starting to show this, and it will continue this summer.
Even Strome, who sources told me last year is a shoe-in to make the big club in 2012-13, now wonders if he will make it next season due to the sheer number of talented kids now vying for spots. This is a good thing.
“Strome must earn his spot on the top 2 lines. Won’t be on the bottom 2,” a source said.
This philosophy will also affect a player like Kabanov, who will likely continue to develop at Bridgeport next season.
The Islanders defense, which is woefully flawed on the NHL level, is also loaded with potential. Matt Donovan, Calvin de Haan and Aaron Ness will all be pushing for spots this summer. Further down the line are key blue line cogs in Scott Mayfield and Andrey Pedan. Add this to Captain Streit, the exciting Travis Hamonic, and agile Andy MacDonald and this defense could look entirely different sooner rather than later.
Are you getting the picture?
In a season or two, this team on the ice will have an incredible influx of youth, plus more in the system thanks to another elite pick in the first round of the upcoming draft.
No matter how much of a headache Rick DiPietro is thanks to Wang deciding to give him a 15-year deal, Snow has solidified the goalie situation. With veteran Evgeni Nabokov signed for another year and kids Kevin Poulin, Anders Nilsson and Mikko Koskinen all in the system, the Islanders are well stocked on futures.
While it’s true 2011-12 was another season of disappointment and more waiting on Long Island, you cannot just look at what was on the ice on Long Island. If you do you are only getting half the picture. The bottom line is the kids that filled out a robust prospect pool and developmental system have another year under their belt.
The Islanders’ time is coming.
Read more columns by B.D. Gallof
All the off-ice issues aside, do you like the direction in which the Islanders are heading? Do you have the patience to let this rebuild take its course? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …