By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com
With the Islanders currently stuck in a new patch of losses, the fans are rumbling and grumbling, wondering when this will all finally turn around. Such is life for a fan in a rebuild, especially one that is forced to take more time due to the inability of the team in the malaise to snag key free agents or make smooth moves via a trade to speed up the process.
Instead, we are all forced to hope pray for the continued development of the prospects. It is during these tough times and tribulations that a fan’s focus should switch more to the process and effort. Very often, however, even writers and bloggers will attempt to stir that pot, looking for the same answers.
Developing players seems to vary depending on the recipe, but there is no doubt that the Islanders need theirs to be more than just a dash of project and a sprinkle of hope.
There are a few history-proven routes players can take to get to where they and their fans want them to be. One is like the road traveled by the Flyers’ Sean Couturier, whom the Islanders also liked but happened to have rated below Ryan Strome prior to June’s NHL Entry Draft.
Couturier, in fact, was one of those overanalyzed draft picks whose value dropped, much to the Flyers’ glee. He fell to them at No. 8 and has stuck with the NHL club, averaging a little more than 12 minutes per game this season.
Then you have Jeff Skinner, a player I thought the Isles would potentially select, as they focused on forwards, along with Ryan Johansen, who went to Columbus and Nino Niederreiter, whom the Isles ended up selecting with their first pick. Skinner fell to the Hurricanes at No. 7, thanks to worries about his overall game. Skinner stuck with Carolina and became the youngest player ever to play in the NHL All-Star game, and then captured the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s rookie of the year.
However, these kinds of phenoms that produce immediate tangible returns are rare. There are so many players who ease in slowly, much to the chagrin of many fans who want immediate dividends. Sadly, with draft picks and player development, fans who wait like watching a pot coming to boil are going to be pretty frustrated. This process takes time, and it rarely pays off immediately. Sometimes it takes years and years.
Players who got eased in slowly are also making an impact in the NHL today. Take Tyler Seguin, for instance, of last season’s Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, and even Flyers defenseman James van Riemsdyk. The fact is, the way these guys rose to where they currently are is, indeed, the common route. Just look at the development process the New Jersey Devils have used for decades. Seguin averaged around 12 minutes a game in his first season. Van Riemsdyk played roughly 13 minutes per game.
So, as the Islanders struggle, is it any wonder that rookie Niederreiter averaging just 9 minutes of ice time is causing some fans, bloggers and even writers to worry?
Never mind the fact that the kid’s preseason was interrupted because of an injury, and also a concussion. Add to that a situation where he’s being thrust into becoming acclimated to the league’s speed and style as a rookie and it’s a really big deal. This seems to be forgotten.
If we go back to training camp, as I had reported all summer on my Twitter account, Nino was being penciled in on the first or third line depending on his play and also the play of second-year Islander P.A. Parenteau. In fact, as camp lines were worked out, it was Nino playing with Matt Moulson and John Tavares instead of P.A. But alas, this is a physical game and injuries happen. Nino got injured, and P.A. came back to the top line and has produced ever since.
So now, Nino is used on third and fourth lines as players are juggled due to a terrible offensive outage that is killing the club in the standings. These are elements and issues that are out of both Nino’s and even the Islanders’ control at this point.
The bottom line is it’s just plain silly to worry or fret so early into the kid’s rookie season. Or even worse, it’s not time to compare Nino to kids like Skinner, Couturier and others just yet. Player development is long and unpredictable and usually distorted by those who want magic tonics and quick turnarounds. If the Islanders were a more solid team, Niederreiter’s playing time would be a non-issue.
The Latest Drama
There is some talk that General Manager Garth Snow should have let Nino head to the World Junior Championships. I think this is an erroneous concept for several reasons.
First and foremost, Nino has already played and dominated in the WJC. What would he really learn by doing it again? The growth needed for Nino this season needs to occur on NHL ice, according to NHL speeds and nuances. He would simply be stunting his pro development if he was to spend 10 days in a competition that is rightly recognized by the Isles as not needed in the big picture.
There would be nothing to be gained there.
The WJC is not the NHL and aspects of the style of play compared to what Nino needs are two different things. It might not be ideal for him to play 9 minutes a night in the NHL, but a player must adjust, overcome and even thrive during any ice time he’s given to prove he does indeed belong.
Chances are as this season continues, as long as Nino remains healthy, his ice time will increase. But of course, the only way this can happen is if he’s here and not off playing in an all-star tournament. He must remain a fixture, albeit a small one right now, in the Islanders’ lineup.
Nino is being handled just fine, as is goaltending prospects Kevin Poulin, Mikko Koskinen and Anders Nilsson, plus forward David Ullstrom and defenseman Calvin de Haan.
It is hard to be patient, I’ll give you that, but you have to concede to the Islanders the fact that it wasn’t until the 2008 draft that they were able to begin their rebuild program in earnest. From that draft have come kids who are already contributing in the NHL, namely Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic, Matt Martin, Ullstrom and Jared Spurgeon (who is now in Minnesota). Also from that draft came Poulin, who we have already seen can play at the NHL level. Aaron Ness is likely another who will move to the NHL once he grows and fills out a bit more.
So from that we can extrapolate that the program does indeed work, but the time it will take will test patience. Throw in the cloudy future, what with the arena situation and the fact the team needs to be a playoff contender to apply appropriate pressure on Nassau County, and you have plenty more waiting to do.
Many of us have wondered and have hoped that the Islanders could quicken their rebuilding process and ascension up the standings by upgrading at the forward position and/or along the blue line. Instead, they have only been able to attract free agent fill-ins. We have been forced to wait for the youth to be developed. It’s a tough place for any fan to watch from.
Knowing all this, I’m warning you to not look ahead to next summer’s free agency period. It won’t provide the splash necessary to move this team from a snail’s pace of progression to a quantum leap into home playoff games. What that time will be is more of the same — a time to reflect on hopefully positive development from the youngsters and steady play from the veterans in place or brought on board.
The only key position that needs a more immediate upgrade is among the top two pairings on defense. Snow had mentioned this over the summer as an area he hoped to fill, but was thwarted when a pre-emptive strike to trade for the rights to Christian Ehrhoff did not pan out with him signing.
Players like the recently drafted Scott Mayfield and Andrey Pedan might eventually fill that role, but they are years away, while de Haan is still developing in the AHL.
If there is a move, it will likely be to add key pieces that have some sort of value like a Bailey/Frans Nielsen. I’d put my money on the Isles doing something with Nielsen, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Both these players can be projected as third-line centers next season, with a more-seasoned Strome brought up to center the second line.
The Islanders may also consider trading a first-round pick, but from where I am typing they won’t entertain the thought if said pick is inside the top 5. It’s just too valuable a position to deal and they wouldn’t get equal value in return, all things considered.
So, you have no choice but to hold on to your hats and adjust your seat belts, because it’s probably going to continue to be a bumpy ride.
Read more columns by B.D. Gallof
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