By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — We’re just two days from the NHL Draft, which to the hockey junkie is kind of like a cross between Christmas morning and the Fourth of July.
I will be in Pittsburgh for all the festivities and will be reporting back periodically via CBSNewYork.com and on Twitter, so please prepare yourself for what is often a very unpredictable first round and an intriguing second day as our favorite NHL teams add more pieces to their present and future.
For Islanders fans, the draft consists of a few days of hoping and praying for miracles. Every so often, or not often enough, if you ask the diehards, this team gets lucky and all of its prayers are answered. Look no further than 2009, when the Islanders won the lottery and eventually selected John Tavares first overall.
However, red-letter days like that one just don’t happen all that often. The Islanders aren’t as fortunate as a team like the Edmonton Oilers, who somehow won the draft lottery three years running. All too often, the draft has been a blip on the Isles’ radar, a bump on what seems to always be a long and arduous road. Anyone who has followed this franchise since the mid-1990s has been forced to endure something that would have been comical if it wasn’t so sad and idiotic:
The Milbury years.
Luckily, we are a few years removed from “Mad Mike” and his merry band of mistakes. That said, though, we are now nearing the show-me time of current GM Garth Snow, who is now fully immersed in the fourth year of a rebuild that started so long ago it’s hard to remember and seems to have no end in sight.
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For Snow, who reportedly still bristles over references to his early days as the head of this franchise’s front office, the draft is his opportunity to add another jigsaw piece to a potential turnaround that would dwarf any kind of legacy created by the knee-jerk “circus” perception that has blanketed the team since the Milbury days.
So every draft, just like every free agency period, Snow is forced to not only foster the rebuild, but also to compete against the ghosts. For when he took over, despite the fact that the team pushed into the playoffs early in his tenure, the fact still remained that he had little to no prospect pool to foster any kind of playoff sustainability.
However, it’s important to note that just because so-called “experts” have put a number on the years any suitable rebuild should take, there really is no timetable to determine when kids will become men in the NHL. For their part, Islanders fans just want the pain to end, something that is exacerbated by the franchise’s cloudy at best arena situation, a circumstance that will come to a head one way or another likely before the end of the Nassau Coliseum lease, which runs out at the end of the 2014-15 regular season.
So, the fan base has no choice but to cling on. It’s possible all of this has been for naught. The team may very well move away, but where there’s no hope the ship usually just steers into the rocks. The Islanders and their fans are hopeful the tides will change, and, believe it or not, it’s still too early to say they won’t.
In addition to Tavares, there are other glimmers of light. Three Islanders finished in the top 35 in the NHL scoring race this past season. Tavares ended up eighth with 81 points; Matt Moulson was 22nd with 69 and likely unrestricted free agent P.A. Parenteau was 32nd with 67. On top of that, several draftees started to come into their own. Look no further than Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, who both had excellent second halves. Defensively, Travis Hamonic continued his maturation and is making inroads toward becoming one of the better all-around defensemen in the NHL.
And that’s just a small sample. If more of these players continue to grow, who’s to say that won’t be enough to get the Islanders into the playoffs on a yearly basis? On top of that, if more of them improve, will it be enough to put serious and significant pressure on Nassau County? Will it be enough to get ex-season ticket holders to reconsider and return to the arena?
All of it remains to be seen.
So here we are on the cusp of another draft. Do we dare wish for miracles sandwiched between expectations and desires that are far greater than perhaps this team and GM are capable of fulfilling?
That seems, well, a tad unfair. How about just hoping and wishing and praying for a good prospect?
Yes, that’s a better place to start.
Everyone has their opinion on which prospect the Islanders should draft. We here at CBSNewYork.com even entertained more opinions of ridiculously informed pundits and scouting experts over the past two weeks than just about any NHL team blog. They all offered solid takes.
However, any one of them would likely admit to you that regardless of what logic seems to state no one can ever be sure of what the Islanders will do.
But I have a pretty good idea.
The Islanders operate a draft system that is far more than just psych testing and pure scouting. What was installed, as the Daily News reported in 2006, back when their sports pages actually mattered, was “a probability-based formula for attacking the NHL draft that (Neil Smith) and a psychologist” developed.
The Islanders’ future has been wholly contingent on the draft, especially since Snow went “all-in” on the rebuild four years ago.
So what does that mean? Not many can answer that, and Ryan Jankowski, the Isles’ former assistant GM who enjoys employment with the Montreal Canadiens these days, is not likely to start talking. I think that same system has been the primary draft selection engine since 2006, not their former director of scouts, not Ted Nolan, or anyone else for that matter.
Since nobody “in the know” has actually spoken about what the draft system truly entails, we are left with the consistent historical data of what the Islanders have done. So let’s take a look:
ISLANDERS FIRST-ROUND DRAFT HABITS
The Islanders have not selected anyone outside the OHL, USHL or WHL in the top 10 since 2006. That, especially over the last five or six years, is a pretty solid statement about trust of certain leagues and how each develops players.
Now, that said, this trend could easily be broken on Friday with highly regarded International players like a Filip Forsberg, a two-way power forward who the Islanders might covet over other one-dimensional forwards and risks, namely Alex Galchenyuk and Mikhail Grigorenko. The same can be said about Finnish skilled wonder Teuvo Teravainen, whose diminutive size on the young end of age 17 might not be as concerning once he fills out more.
DEFENSE EARLY? NOT ALWAYS
Everyone seems to want a defenseman. Well, this draft is ripe with solid blue line prospects, or so just about everyone says. Ryan Murray, one of this year’s top prospects and the consensus No. 2 or 3 pick, is considered NHL-ready.
Are you excited?
Well, not so fast. Murray seems to contradict the Islanders’ top 10 drafting blueprint. Furthermore, we have to now ask just how “NHL-ready” this player is.
Is Murray going to be the best player at his position in the next 5-10 years? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe Morgan Rielly, who likely would have been rated higher than Murray had he remained healthy all season, and who has superior offensive skills, will be. Or perhaps Jacob Trouba, who is left out of many draft conversations on defensemen, yet is considered a sharp and very smart two-way defenseman with excellent skating ability, will be the guy.
Well, then there’s Matt Dumba, who can apparently really throw his body around. Sure, but what else can he do? What is he besides that? Is he a solid two-way and well-rounded player despite his hammering hits and lunchpail work ethic?
Or would the Islanders, perhaps, look at the very slick, composed and skilled Olli Maatta?
This is how I believe the Islanders’ system works and though we might not be privy to the internal widgets or thinking, we can look at results and see certain criteria as to how they approach a draft and how they gauge prospects.
They do not select defense within the top 10 very often. In fact, they haven’t done so at all for as long as most can remember. Think about it: despite having top 10 picks in 2006, ’08, ’09, ’10, and ’11, their only “high” defense selection was Calvin de Haan at No. 12 in ’09, and that was only after getting Tavares at No. 1.
The fact is, I believe the Islanders’ system recognizes that the defensive position is far more difficult to develop. Many of our aforementioned experts agreed on this. The understanding of schemes and the nuances of the position have many variables that the many scouting reports out there have a hard time deciphering.
In fact, if you look at the top defensemen currently in the NHL, most weren’t No. 1 or even top 10 selections. What’s more, many were not even top 20 picks.
So let us extrapolate from this a bit of philosophy:
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF EACH SELECTION
When you have a top 10 pick and are in the process of a rebuild, that pick is vitally important. What has changed due to the cap era, lack of spending parity and, in the Islanders’ case, their terrible arena situation, is that draft choices must become “must-bes.” They must become something on the NHL level.
So when we look at the Islanders’ past first-round choices, we see a lack of international variables or even the sometimes-maligned QMJHL. Instead you see, as I illustrated before, USHL, WHL and OHL selections in the top 10. The idea is to maximize the reward and eliminate the risk factor.
So we can submit that the Islanders’ system has changed thanks to new cap limit realities. Thus, for the Islanders the draft is far more about “accuracy,” where picks, especially in the first round, need to become NHL players.
These are not the old days of gamblers and wheelers and dealers. If you are looking for those, they either consist of teams that are stacked, that can afford the high risk/reward mathematics, or include teams in rapid decline.
So as fans and shortsighted pundits continue to declare the apocalypse is upon Long Island every time the Islanders pass on a defenseman, what they are really doing is failing to look at the entire draft class and how each player fits into the team’s blueprint.
SAMPLE 1: THE ISLANDERS 2011 DRAFT CLASS
As an example, the peanut gallery collectively screamed for Dougie Hamilton last season, someone I said quite clearly the Islanders would not take. The Islanders instead got center Ryan Strome at No. 5 and then grabbed Scott Mayfield in the second round, a defense prospect many thought would be taken in the first round. Then later, they grabbed Andrey Pedan, Robbie Russo and Brandon Kitchon.
That is a defensively rich draft, despite the Islanders having taken a center right off the bat.
If you haven’t learned from these last few drafts, you might want to skip watching this weekend as the Islanders seemingly go conservative in the first round. But what you will miss is the deep philosophy take shape, along with some risk-taking, later as they roll the dice with the likes of a Kirill Petrov, Kirill Kabanov, Casey Cizikas, among others.
It remains to be seen if the Islanders are truly the smartest people in the room, but there is no doubt their prospect system has been replenished and talent lies within, despite it not developing at speeds preferred by righteously impatient fans. In fact, while organizations struggle to have even one top goalie prospect in their system, the Islanders currently have two in Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson.
There wasn’t one draft expert that had a bad word to say about the Islanders’ scouting system, its efficiency and the resulting prospects currently in the pipeline to the NHL. This might be a surprise to many who have been taken in by other conflicting opinions on the Internet or are just fans tired of waiting.
SAMPLE 2: THE 2008 NHL DRAFT
Despite contrary views and just impatient fan sentiment, the 2008 draft stands as a clear-cut indication of the Islanders’ ability to create value and turn around quality. Remember, the Islanders stockpiled 13 picks.
You might recollect that draft, it was the one where the fans were screaming for Nikita Filatov, who ended up a bust with the Columbus Blue Jackets, bounced around a bit and is now playing in Russia. Instead, Snow moved back, collecting picks and causing fans to walk out of the Islanders’ own draft party.
One of those accumulated draft picks turned into defenseman Hamonic, who might already be superior to slightly overrated Luke Schenn, who was picked at No. 5 overall.
Though Bailey, who was selected No. 9 overall, is still struggling to develop into more than a third-line center or wing, we did see some glimmers of hope last season as he matched points with Michael Grabner. The jury is still out on what Bailey will become, but it’s a reach to suggest that his selection just inside the top 10 was a misguided venture.
The Islanders’ system allowed them to select more than just one NHL-level player. In fact, nine of those 13 picks have actually seen NHL time, while as many as eight might turn into everyday players.
That’s a key statistic considering the pre-2006 Islanders cannot offer up the same percentages.
SYSTEM: NO IMMEDIATE DIVIDENDS
What might be frustrating to fans is that these drafts do not find the magic beans of immediacy, unless of course your team is in the running for players like Drew Doughty, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tavares, Steven Stamkos, etc., or perhaps are sitting pretty for generational players like Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin.
But, alas, reality often bites.
Even in the case of wishing for immediate returns, most draft systems lean towards best-projected career as opposed to immediacy, unless we’re talking about a playoff contending team. That’s why the Islanders went for Strome, while Sean Couturier was plucked by the cup-mandated Flyers. The Flyers, Rangers, Red Wings and other perennial contenders can afford the more ready, off-centered and even the risky and wild projects, while teams like the Islanders cannot afford to be wrong. To add to this, the Isles also seem to be looking for the higher long-term projected ceiling on a player.
This is a possible result of the small market and difficult predicament that the Islanders find themselves in. Their only choice is to collect more NHL-geared talent and hope it begins to pay off, regardless of that player’s unforeseen development timetable.
JUST THE ISLANDERS?
The fact is the Islanders’ draft system is hardly the only system out there. Many teams now use a bit of secret sauce to concoct the criteria they use to assess prospects. It’s a shame that not enough is written about this.
What is a prospect’s hockey foundation? Will they still grow and get better with age? Do they exhibit strong hockey sense and smarts? Do they have something besides just size or speed? Does their personality and traits lend them to being a better team player, easier to coach and more competitive? Are they especially athletic?
All of these are attributes go beyond the pure scouting assessments and seem to show that the Islanders’ system looks a bit deeper than just what lies on a scout’s scores or write-up.
Though the Islanders’ farm system is still teaching players about winning, each jigsaw piece that the franchise’s future rides on must take it upon itself to get better. That is what training camp and each upcoming season must be about, regardless of where the team finished in the standings the season before. The Islanders must start winning, but we must also see that mixture of players producing at higher levels throughout the organization.
If the Islanders’ “system” is to succeed in the coming season or two we must see more young and nurtured players pushing out those placeholder veterans that have simply been filling the gaps each season.
People are going to scream for this and that at the draft. It’s the nature of the beast. But the bottom line with the Islanders is they will do what they deem prudent within the framework of their blueprint for the future, and, who knows, whomever they select in the first round may yet be another valuable addition to one of the best prospect systems in the NHL.
So now we’ve reached the point of guessing what the secret and special Islanders sauce might go for this year. We will look at three forwards, sticking to historical data and guessed criteria.
1. Filip Forsberg – His two-way play and skill matters, but will he be available at No. 4?
2. Teuvo Teravainen — He has skill, speed, elusiveness and is very young. He was initially my gut feel as their first pick.
3. Alex Galchenyuk – He’s riskier, though skilled, and scouts are high on him despite injury. Could the Isles take him? It’s feasible, but I’m not wholly convinced.
What about Mikhail Grigorenko, you ask? I don’t think the Islanders take a shot inside the top 10 with some of his red flags.
DARK HORSE: Selecting Zemgus Grigensons or Radek Faksa could surprise everyone, but both could easily go in top 10. Don’t discount a surprise option here, especially if Forsberg is already gone.
DEFENSEMEN: Could the Islanders finally go blue line in the top 10? Well, this draft is deep on defense, so they could indeed if we believe our Q&A series experts. So based on that, I will throw some names out there:
1. Morgan Rielly – He has the pieces the Isles might value over the “ready-now” Ryan Murray, including vision and offensive upside galore.
2. Jacob Trouba – Always be concerned about the quiet ones, especially this two-way defender. He has been eclipsed by others, but shouldn’t have been.
3. Matt Dumba – He’s young, brash, skilled, has a high work ethic, but I’m not as convinced as others are, and I think, in end, the Isles won’t be either.
As for Murray, I’m sorry but anyone who infers that just because Murray visited the Islanders at Syosset’s IceWorks he’s their final pick is wrong. It’s that simple.
DARK HORSE: The underrated Olli Maatta is a very good defenseman who has hockey sense and smarts. He might be what the Islanders truly covet over the hyped-to-the-hilt rest of the blue line draft class.
Read more columns by B.D. Gallof and follow him on Twitter at @BDGallof
Who is your final choice as the Islanders’ first-round pick? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …