By Daniel Friedman
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Garth Snow began his extensive rebuild of the New York Islanders back in 2008 and, finally, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — and it’s not an oncoming train.
This is the best group of prospects the Islanders have had in nearly two decades. It’s essentially a who’s who of premiere young hockey talents – featuring the likes of Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Pulock, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Scott Mayfield.
For many of the players, this was their first trip to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and over the coming days and months, they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure it’s doesn’t end up being their last.
They went through rigorous workouts and on-ice drills for three days, culminating in a scrimmage and skills competition Thursday night in front of approximately 5,000 fans who came out and rocked the old barn.
Nestled in Section 216, I scanned the ice surface for capability, for finesse and for potential. I studied the known commodities (i.e. Strome, Reinhart), as well as those who might’ve flown more under the radar.
If I had any doubts about whether or not Strome was prepared to move up the ranks, they were all but erased this week.
He was a clear-cut above the rest and appeared hell-bent on playing in the NHL next season. “I think about it every day” said Strome, when asked how hungry he was to be there in 2013-14. “Everything I do, day or night, relates to being on the Islanders.”
Griffin Reinhart, who went fourth overall in 2012, had a productive camp as well. His skating was noticeably better and I asked him if that was something he’d been prioritizing. “Definitely,” he responded. “A big part of that was just me growing into my body. I was big at a young age and now I’m getting used to that.”
Though he still needs to add more muscle, Reinhart has made significant progress and is headed in the right direction.
Another year in the WHL would do him good — something he openly acknowledged — but Reinhart believes he’s ready for the big show: “I think I’m ready to take it (the next step), but that’s not for me to decide. If I don’t make it, I’ll go back to Edmonton and then do everything I can to make it the next year. Obviously there’s a spot that’s opened up (with the departure of Mark Streit) but there are a lot of guys who want that spot.”
Reinhart also weighed in on Ryan Pulock, the Isles’ first round pick in this summer’s Entry Draft, stating that he’s played against him in juniors and that “he probably has the best (slap) shot in the league.”
As for my impression of Pulock; he made one, that’s for sure.
Interestingly, Pulock was in front of the net during most defensive drills, as opposed to the blue line. That was a smart move by the coaching staff, because everyone knew he could shoot, that he could move the puck. He certainly showed that over the last three days. It’s his all-around game that needs work, which is what prospect camp is meant to expose.
When I asked Pulock if there’s a specific part of his game that he’d drawn attention to in this camp, he essentially echoed my sentiment: “Defensive zone coverage,” he said. “I have the offensive skills; they’re good enough. Now I just need to work on my defensive skills and be tougher on guys.”
I also asked him if that’s something the coaches have been stressing. “For sure,” allowed Pulock. “It’s all about attention to detail and listening to advice. It’ll help me become a better player in the future.”
Pulock was one of seven players chosen by the Islanders on July 1st, six of which participated in the camp. Of those half-dozen, there were quite a few standouts.
Victor Crus Rydberg, who was chosen in the fifth round (136th overall), caught my attention almost immediately. I noticed that he had solid wheels and excellent hands, but his decision-making and positioning were what ultimately sold me on him as a potential gem.
“It’s different from Sweden,” he said. “The rink is smaller and it’s a tougher game. I’ll play in the OHL next year and that’ll help.”
At least, that’s what he told me. If he was having trouble adjusting, I couldn’t tell.
Naturally, I was curious to see how accurate (or inaccurate) my initial assessment of Crus Rydberg was. During the scrimmage on Thursday night, I focused intently on him whenever he was on the ice.
He scored the first goal for the Orange team, converting on a quick wrist shot from the slot and, later, made a gorgeous move in the skills competition.
I still can’t describe it; surely the goaltender he beat can’t, either. What I can tell you is that he’s practiced it before: “I first did that (move) when I was 15-years old,” he recalled. “It’s the first time since then that it worked.”
He made smart plays and was able to maintain puck-possession better than virtually anyone not named Ryan Strome. I mentioned this the other day, but will repeat it for emphasis: I see a lot of Frans Nielsen in Victor Crus Rydberg.
For some players, being a later-round draft pick can be a source of motivation, but to Crus Rydberg, it’s just a minor detail. “It’s not about what round you’re picked,” he says. “You always want to do your best; you just have to come to play.”
Similarly, Alan Quine (sixth round, 166th overall) made a strong case for himself. He skates well and can probably deke in an elevator. In fact, he basically had Eamon McAdam out on Hempstead Turnpike, as he one-handed the puck into the back of the net during last night’s shootout.
Quine describes himself as a two-way player and I see that in him; but he needs to fill that frame of his and get stronger. He could blossom into a useful skater for the Islanders down the road.
Speaking of McAdam (third round, 70th overall), he was sharp throughout the week. The thing I noticed about him was how fast he moved across the crease and his knack for being square to the shooter.
On Tuesday, I had a chance to speak McAdam and wanted to know the first thing he noticed when he stepped on the ice. His answer was simple, but it was an accurate reflection of the acclimation process these kids go through: “How strong everybody is,” he remarked. “Everyone’s bigger, faster, stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced.”
At times, he was a little too aggressive and he certainly has what to work on, but McAdam looked good. Refreshingly, he looked nothing like his pre-draft stats suggested he would. He made a handful of quality saves during the scrimmage, including some fairly tough ones.
Other observations from prospect camp:
— Calvin de Haan is healthy and in tip-top shape. He’s also added muscle, which is a major factor. Don’t pencil-in Matt Donovan for the opening night roster just yet. If de Haan can stay in the lineup, he has a chance of making the team. “He’s been through some tough times,” admitted Isles’ head coach Jack Capuano. “But guys have battled through it and had good careers. He’s healthy, he’s positive, he’s confident. He wants to be a part of the New York Islanders next year and we want him to be as well.”
— Defensively, Scott Mayfield was the best player on the ice at any given moment. He was steady, physical (when he needed to be) and smooth in transition. Mayfield isn’t quite there yet in terms of being NHL-ready, but he’s oh-so-close. I asked Mayfield for a quick status report: “I feel like I’ve gotten better every year, I’ve gotten bigger. Those six games in Bridgeport helped me see where I was at.”
— Kirill Kabanov was more polished than I last remembered him being. For Kabanov, the issue isn’t that he doesn’t create scoring chances; it’s that he doesn’t convert on them. He needs to shoot more, make better use of space when it becomes available to him and make smarter decisions with the biscuit.
— Brock Nelson and Anders Lee are absolutely deserving of a shot at making the Islanders. Nelson’s wrist shot is both accurate and devastating, while Lee is becoming a more physical player along the boards. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Lee. “I just have to go out and play my game. I’m working on my skating and on protecting the puck.”
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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