Draft Day Around The Corner; Buckle Up & Enjoy The Ride

By Daniel Friedman
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On June 20, 2008, the New York Islanders traded down twice and selected Josh Bailey of the Windsor Spitfires with the ninth overall pick.

Five years have now passed and, in each of the previous four, the Islanders held a top-10 draft choice in the first round. That pattern will be discontinued on Sunday, when the Isles are on the clock for pick No. 15. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2005 for the last time they made a first round choice outside the top-ten, when then-GM Mike Milbury took Ryan O’marra with the 15th pick.

Milbury is long gone and, under the stewardship of Garth Snow, the team’s approach towards amateur scouting and the entry draft has improved dramatically. Several key contributors to the Isles’ ascension have been drafted into the organization over the last half-decade or so.

For a change, the draft was not the central focus of all things Islanders in March and April; not for the fans, at least. However for the front office and scouting department, it will always be a top priority and this year is no exception to that.

As always, there is plenty of speculation about what the Isles intend to do at the draft and an abundance of rumors surrounding whether or not they plan to move their first round pick. Unless the trade involves a superstar coming back to Uniondale, I would hold onto it.

The draft class of 2013 is a deep one with a wide range of quality players. The Islanders are in a good spot at No. 15, so there’s no reason to start getting cute by trading up or down. They don’t pick again until the third round (76th overall), which is a bit frustrating but by no means the end of the world. The franchise isn’t going to fold without a second round pick, especially considering the vast amount of young talent already in the pipeline.

I wouldn’t rule out a trade involving other players or picks, similar to last year’s draft-day acquisition of Lubomir Visnovsky. As for a trade of the “blockbuster” variety, there is some credence to the Roberto Luongo talk and the possibility of a deal for him has definitely been entertained by both the Islanders and Canucks. That said, a lot has to change in order for it to come into fruition.

Put it this way: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Isles did get Luongo and would be equally unsurprised if they did not. Logically, the smart move would be to not trade for Luongo, thereby eliminating the market and forcing a buyout.

Assuming the Isles do not trade their first round pick, there are several avenues they can take with it. I would not expect a repeat of last year’s draft, in which they took all defensemen because there was a shortage in the system at that position.

That being said, my first round pick for the Islanders would be a defenseman — Samuel Morin of the Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL).

If you haven’t heard of Morin yet, you will soon. At 6″7 and 200 pounds, Morin already has a big frame and the scary thing is, he’ll probably fill it out even more over the next few years, as he gets stronger.

He sees the ice well and has a lot of mobility for a big man, which scouts crave. Morin’s positioning is nearly-flawless; he always seems to know where to be and what to do, whether he’s in the defensive, offensive or neutral zone. He blocks shots and is very smart with the puck in terms of making the first pass out of the zone or reading and reacting to situations.

TSN analyst Craig Button describes Morin as “big, territorial, competitive and aggressive,” adding that he “just keeps getting better.”

In many ways, Morin, who is ranked 30th by Central Scouting Services (CSS), is a better defenseman than Nikita Zadorov (ranked eighth). Morin has more size than Zadorov (6″5) and though Zadorov’s more physical, he’s not as smart with the puck, nor is he as positionally-sound.

Should Morin and Zadorov be taken before the Islanders are at bat, Ryan Pulock would be a nice alternative.

A defenseman for the Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL), Pulock is a puck-mover with decent size (6″1, 211) and a cannon of a shot. His numbers went down in 2012-13, but that was largely due to the fact that his team severely regressed and simply did not produce much offense as a collective unit.

In addition to those who have already been mentioned, here are five names to keep an eye on in the first round:

1. ADAM ERNE – LW, QUEBEC (QMJHL): Erne projects as a two-way, power forward-type who has good hands and is physical. His attitude has come into question more than once, however, and the Remparts have suspended him before for team-related incidents. If he can mature, he’ll be a useful hockey player and one any coach would love to have.

2. RYAN HARTMAN – RW, PLYMOUTH (OHL): I happen to like Hartman’s game. Currently playing right wing for the Plymouth Whalers (OHL), Hartman was also part of the “Grind Line” that helped the United States capture gold at the 2013 World Junior Championships. He’s 5″11 and plays a lot bigger than his size, but he’ll have to bulk up if he wants to continue doing so at the NHL-level. Hartman’s capable of making the transition, largely because of his speed. Many scouts regard him as the best skater in the draft.

3. VALENTIN ZYKOV – LW, BAIE-COMEAU (QMJHL): Zykov is an interesting case. There’s a ton of hype surrounding this kid, much of which is unjustified. Zykov is a rugged winger who checks in at 6″0, 207 pounds. He definitely has a nose for the net (scored 40 goals in 2013) and is dangerous in the slot or around the crease but, unfortunately, he can’t skate for beans. That makes Zykov easy to defend because if you can move, you can neutralize him and prevent him from getting in close. He has potential but needs to improve that area of his game or he’ll have a lot of trouble making the adjustments necessary if he wants to succeed in the NHL. If he can become a better skater he can be a legitimate scoring threat.

4. KERBY RYCHEL – LW, WINDSOR (OHL): The son of former-NHLer Warren Rychel, Kerby scored 40 goals in 68 games for the Spitfires in 2013. He has a scoring touch but isn’t afraid to get physical, either, and he’s demonstrated a willingness to stand up for his teammates whenever the situation requires that. Rychel is an excellent skater with solid vision and he’s absolutely worth a look, should he be available.

5. J.T. COMPHER – C, USNTDP: An Illinois-native, Compher spent 2013 with the U.S. National Team Development Program, amassing 50 points and establishing himself as strong player at both ends of the ice. He represented Team USA at the Under-18 Tournament and recorded seven points in as many games. His skating could use some work but that’s really the only area he struggles in. Compher projects as a second or third liner and, though he might be a “safe” pick, he’d be a good one.

Scoring winger Anthony Mantha would be an even better pick, but it’s unlikely he’d still be available at No. 15.

The Islanders would be wise to select a goalie in one of the later rounds. I wouldn’t take Zach Fucale at 15th overall because I don’t consider him to be more astute at his position than some of the players I’ve mentioned above, nor do I think he’s significantly better than the puck-stoppers right below him in the rankings. As far as goaltenders are concerned, this is a weaker draft.

Here are five net-minders the Isles could consider:

1. ERIC COMRIE – TRI CITY (WHL): The brother of former Islander Mike Comrie, Eric was ranked second among North American goaltenders by the CSS. He employs a hybrid style and has good reflexes. In 37 games, he posted a 2.62 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. Comrie might not make it to the third round, but if he’s still on the board at No. 76, they ought to take him.

2. TRISTAN JARRY – EDMONTON (WHL): Jarry appeared in 25 games, sporting an 18-7 record and leading the team with six shutouts, despite being the backup. He finished the year with a 1.61 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage. Jarry was ranked third by CSS among North American goalies, but could slip to the third round because of the smaller sample size. He’ll get his shot next season; the only reason he hasn’t already is because the current starter is among the best in the WHL.

3. MARCUS HOGBERG – SWEDEN JR: Hogberg was ranked third by CSS among European goaltenders. He’s a butterfly goalie who plays big and moves across the crease very well. Hogberg has a knack for rising to the occasion and playing better when under more pressure. He could go anywhere between the third and fifth rounds, so odds are he’ll be there for the taking.

4. SPENCER MARTIN – MISSISSIAUGA STEELHEADS (OHL): Martin was ranked fifth by CSS among North American goaltenders. His stats aren’t impressive (3.02 goals-against average,.906 save percentage), but he had a horribly inconsistent defense in front of him. Martin essentially carried the Steelheads to the playoffs on his back. He does need to work on his rebound control and mental toughness, but he’ll stop the first shot nine out of ten times, as well as virtually anything he can see. Martin is clearly a project, but he’s one that has potential. He’ll likely get drafted in the third or fourth round.

5. CALVIN PETERSON – WATERLOO (USHL): Peterson was ranked fourth among North American goalies by CSS. He’s already committed to Notre Dame, though he’ll spend one more year in the USHL. He played in 35 games during the 2012-13 season, posting three shutouts for a Waterloo team that was porous defensively. His athleticism is a definite plus, as is his rebound control. He’s also very good against breakaways.

The Islanders are high on this kid and goaltending coach Mike Dunham has offered his own praise: “Calvin Petersen is a good butterfly goalie who plays an aggressive, athletic style and takes up a lot of net. He plays calm and does a good job controlling his rebounds. Calvin has a sense of calmness whenever he’s in the net.”

Peterson is projected to go in the fourth or fifth round of the draft.

Scouts are always looking for the diamonds in the rough, the ones who fly under the radar. As is the case every year, there will be players who go unnoticed on draft day that will eventually develop into legitimate NHL talents. Here are three potential late-round gems:

1. VYACHESLAV LESHCHENKO – LW, MYTISHCHI (KHL): An excellent skater who is blossoming into a good offensive player, Leshchenko recorded four points in seven games for Team Russia at the Under-18 Tournament. He’ll probably go in the fifth round and is worth taking there.

2. OLIVER BJORKSTRAND – RW, PORTLAND (WHL): Standing at 5″11, the Denmark-native has quick hands and is an excellent forechecker despite his size (or lack thereof). Bjorkstrand was the WHL’S top rookie scorer. He’s not a great skater but he makes up for that with good puck movement. Bjorkstrand projects as a third or fourth round pick.

3. TYLER LEWINGTON – D, MEDICINE HAT (WHL): Lewington is a reliable rearguard who can contribute a bit offensively as well (26 points). He also sported a plus-14 rating through 69 games in 2013. Lewington is a physical player who has dropped his gloves on several occasions (led Medicine Hat with 131 penalty minutes). CSS had him at No. 66 in their final pre-draft rankings.

One thing I’ve learned about the draft is that you should always expect the unexpected, and that you should not expect to understand the unexpected right away.

People thought Garth Snow needed to get his brain examined after passing on Nikita Filatov in 2008 and, at the time, that sentiment appeared to make sense. Fast-forward to 2013 and it’s become obvious he made the right decision.

If this past year was any indication, it should be a while before the New York Islanders hold a top-ten pick again. It will be interesting to see what moves are or aren’t made but, either way, Snow deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps the draft doesn’t matter as much this year as it did in the past four but it has arrived and, let’s be honest: You’re thinking about it anyway.

Buckle up, enjoy the ride and let things take their course.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN.

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