Islanders 2008 system audit

By Peter Prohaska

The Islanders have not been much admired around the NHL for their prospect pool in recent years.  But it can safely be said that 2008 marked the first time in a long time that the Islanders seemed to come in with a plan to restock the system.  This strategy was made all the more necessary by having only five picks overall in 2007 (no first or second-round pick).  While this year’s draft represents many of the best hopes for the future, other players from recent years are also coming along nicely.

Centers

Addressing a need for toughness down the middle, the Islanders picked up Nate Thompson off waivers from Boston, and he somewhat surprisingly found his way onto the Islanders’ active roster.  He has proven his ability to mix it up with some skill, and also be effective on faceoffs.  Frans Nielsen has also made it to the bigs so far this year, chipping in four points, and playing upwards of 15 minutes a night.  He too is decent on the dot, and will most likely stick this season if his defensive play remains solid. 

With about a fifth of the season done, Trevor Smith remains on pace to equal his point total from last year in Bridgeport.  One of the more exciting prospects in the system is Justin DiBenedetto (who also plays left wing). He was passed over his first draft year, and somewhat downplayed because of sharing ice time with Steven Stamkos last season.  He continues to be a prolific scorer for Sarnia, however, scoring at better than two points a game so far.  He was recently named the OHL‘s Player of the Month for October. 

Josh Bailey recently played his first NHL game after being the first-round pick this past year.  His selection did not come without controversy, as the Islanders decided to drop in the draft to take him.  He does possess NHL talent, with tremendous vision and playmaking ability, but his skating isn’t much more than average at this stage and he is not primarily a goal-scorer.  He could be characterized as a personality pick, a natural leader, and a very intelligent hockey player.  Because the Islanders could have taken other players with their No. 5 pick, some will compare Bailey to those taken earlier.  He will most likely go back to Windsor (OHL) after his nine-game stint is up. 

2006’s fourth-round pick, Tomas Marcinko, found a way onto the Bridgeport squad after camp.  He had his two years at Barrie (OHL) cut short by injuries, but the Slovakian has been productive throughout.  He was recently a healthy scratch for the Sound Tigers, but has been adjusting reasonably well to the pro game. 

Corey Trivino is a very highly-regarded prospect out of Ontario Junior ‘A.’  His freshman season at Boston University (Hockey East) has been stifled by an early knee injury, which doesn’t appear too serious.  Shea Guthrie, playing his senior season at Clarkson (ECAC), has been limited by injury as well and has played just two games in the young season.  He has been both fairly consistent and unremarkable in his collegiate career, but has the size and possibly the speed to move to the next level. 

Doug Rogers is a Harvard man (ECAC), a junior.  His sophomore season saw excellent numbers and another year like it would solidify his reputation as a very good playmaking center.  Kim Johansson is a defensive center playing in the Swedish juniors for Malmo.  He hasn’t done much of note this year, but last season did see solid scoring for a player whose strength is in his checking. 

David Toews produced gaudy numbers playing Minnesota high school hockey.  He began his freshman season at the University of North Dakota (WCHA) with lofty expectations based on his high school career, his last name, and his draft position (the Islanders took him in the third round this year).  He has appeared in half the games for the Fighting Sioux thus far, but this is a deep and experienced team, and their track record for developing talent in the past decade has been nothing short of excellent.  David Ullstrom is another Swedish prospect, playing in the Elite League, with limited success thus far.  The fourth-round pick is a big man whose scoring numbers in the U20 league showed a special talent, and included 86 penalty minutes.

Right Wing

This forward position starts with Kyle Okposo, coaxed into coming out of his college program to try the big leagues, and proving in just a few games last year that he deserved the early accolades.  This year has been a struggle for the prospect, as he hasn’t yet lived up to expectations.  He’s been getting minutes, easy opposition and decent linemates, but has just one goal to show for it.  He hasn’t been good defensively either, but the same can been said for the entire team.  He possesses more talent than these results indicate, but he’s being outperformed by many other freshmen, who don’t have the luxury of last year’s games. 

Blake Comeau, with over 50 NHL games played, couldn’t secure a roster spot this year and started the season in Bridgeport.  There he’s been decent, an experienced and responsible player, despite his relative youth, who chips in points and shows up every night.  He’s always a likely call-up when injuries occur.  Rhett Rakhshani, taken in the 2006 draft, is an impressive athlete currently at University of Denver. He is almost the same size as Robin Figren (5’10 180) and possesses similar playmaking skill.  Jeremy Colliton saw NHL action in each of the last three seasons, but hasn’t scored a goal since April 2006.  Kirill Petrov was taken in the third round this year.  His size and skills give the impression of an imposing power forward, but his numbers have not yet equaled his potential, and the allure of the KHL may sway a player like Petrov to remain with his Kazan club rather than try his luck in the United States.

Left Wing

The team’s third-round pick (#70 overall) in 2006, Figren has taken an unusual route for a Swede, playing two seasons in the WHL with Calgary and Edmonton.  In the latter especially, he showed exceptional promise as a playmaker.  He is playing this season for Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League, where he has performed well, despite not getting into every game.  It won’t be a surprise to see him make the Islanders next year. 

Another player acquired from Providence, Sean Bentivoglio, had a nice run with the Bruins in the Calder Cup playoffs in 2007, and has been a dependable character in Bridgeport since.  He learned good two-way skills with Niagara of the NCAAJesse Joensuu, a second-round pick in 2006, has a bit more upside.  He is a power forward who actually has the aggressive temperament needed to play that role.  His skating and his scoring are not yet at the pro level, but he has begun to contribute in his first full year in Bridgeport. 

Max Gratchev, Russian-born, but mostly brought up in the North American system, is an intriguing and frustrating prospect.  He is now playing for his third team in the QMJHL, Lewiston, after an injury-plagued 2007-08 season.  He was excellent in his draft year, when he was taken in the fourth round.  Scouts and coaches speak highly of his leadership, and 77 points in 70 games will always attract interest, but he has been an underachiever.  He has to make it through this season intact, but he remains a prospect worth following, despite some atrocious numbers of late. 

Jason Gregoire was a USHL All-Star in 2007-08, putting up great overall numbers.  He is now progressing, getting decent amounts of ice time and chipping in points as a freshman at UND.  His size is a limiting factor right now, but he’s shown a lot of scoring talent so far. 

Jason Pitton is playing with Bridgeport for his third season, but he has yet to register a point, and has to be considered a marginal player at this point, despite his NHL size.  Matt Martin was a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft, a character pick.  He scored goals at a pretty good pace for Sarnia last year, fought when necessary, and had made the team as a walk-on.  In this, his third year in Sarnia, he continues to do all of these things.  Martin is the kind of prospect for whom expectations are modest, but hopes are high.

Defense

Jack Hillen got a few games in the NHL to start the season, but was returned to Bridgeport to get him used to the pro game, which made him look a little out of place in the early going.  Andrew MacDonald is still undersized for an NHL defender, but logs reliable and productive minutes for the club in Bridgeport.  Jamie Fraser needs to improve on his ugly plus/minus from last season, but seems to have a found a comfort zone with his defensive game thus far. 

Dustin Kohn has been scratched from several games in Bridgeport thus far, after a very slow start.  As with most defensemen, adjusting to the pro game can take a couple of seasons, but Kohn showed defensive ability last year, and will have to refocus to gain back the confidence.

Travis Hamonic has real potential, a solid contributor on the blueline.  He has recently been named to the WHL team that will take on the Russian junior squad in late November.  So far, Hamonic has put up very good numbers in a tough league, and a barely minus player, despite heavy minutes for a pretty bad Moose Jaw team.  His size, vision and right-handed shot are all assets he’ll bring to the next level. 

Aaron Ness was a high school superstar in Minnesota, and early numbers indicate he’s still finding his game as a true freshman at the University of Minnesota (WCHA).  He has appeared in all eight games for the Gophers, who are relying on quite a number of young players this season and are undefeated at this point.  He’ll continue to chip in, even as the tougher conference schedule hits stride.  One can only hope for patience from the Islanders, who expressed frustration with the way Okposo was brought along under Gopher coach Don Lucia.  

Shane Sims is a blueline regular for the Ohio State Buckeyes (CCHA), a program which has come a long way in the past few years.  He doesn’t possess overwhelming physical attributes, but has shown good offensive abilities as well as a mean streak in recent years.  Tyrell Mason is serving as Captain of Clarkson (ECAC) in his senior season, but has just one assist so far.  A skilled defensive playmaker for most of his amateur career, his  opportunities for pro hockey appear fairly limited at this point.

Blake Kessel has also just begun his freshman season at the University of New Hampshire (Hockey East) and registered an assist.  He is an offensively minded defenseman who will see plenty of skilled offense this year to give the opportunity to focus on that side of his game.  Having James vanRiemsdyk on the squad should help his counting numbers, and being close to his older brother Phil has helped Kessel focus on the sacrifices necessary to achieve success at the next level of development.

Emil Axelsson was a seventh-round pick back in 2004, but he’s been stuck in the Swedish Allsvenskan (one below Swedish Elite League) ever since.  He possesses intimidating size and loves hitting, but that seems to be about the extent of his game.

Jared Spurgeon is a smallish, but very talented power-play specialist taken in the sixth round this year. Jyri Niemi, the Finnish kid with the cannon shot, was a third round pick this year.  He has been a little off his scoring pace from last season, but he has the tools to make an impact at the next level: imposing size, a 97 mph shot, and good skill in his own end.  He did have a bit of an injury problem last year, but looks to be healthy again and is a leader in all areas for the Saskatoon Blades.

Simon Lacroix was drafted by the Islanders in 2007 (7th round) after a breakout year in Shawinigan (QMJHL).  His numbers were down a little bit, some of which can be attributed to missing a few games with injury.  This year he has already exceeded his goal mark, and the team is much improved.  For a long-shot draft pick, Lacroix may turn out to be a pleasant surprise.

Goaltenders

Goaltender continues to be the most troublesome area for the Islanders.  The gigantic unprecedented contract signed by Rick DiPietro was supposed to have given the franchise cost certainty and stability at the position.  Instead, with DiPietro battling a series of injuries, the lack of a real backup poses difficulty for the team.  Joey MacDonald has been average between the pipes, but even his youth can’t make up for his numbers: not bad, not enough.  In Bridgeport, Peter Mannino, a top college free agent, and Yann Danis, a career AHLer with some NHL experience, have split duties. Though Mannino was better early on, Danis, who had more experience, got the call-up.

Jase Weslosky has had a bit of a tough start to the season at St. Cloud State (WCHA), but he has put up decent numbers in a tough league in his first two years.  Stefan Ridderwall toils over in Sweden, where his team has been struggling some due to untimely goals.  Both Ridderwall and Weslosky were taken in 2006; the Islanders did not draft a goaltender in 2003, 2005, or 2007, took Sylvain Michaud in the final round of 2004, and used a fifth-round pick in 2008 to take Kevin Poulin.  Poulin is an athletic, but unorthodox keeper who gets routinely lit up in the QMJHL, but has steadied his game somewhat.  He may find a niche, if he masters his technique and finds consistency, but remains a question mark for the system.

Overall, this draft year was a good one for the Islanders.  They wisely decided to hedge some bets.  The crop of centers coming up includes many proven performers at the junior level, and many players who will graduate from prospect status this season.  Both wings have some exciting prospects, but could use a little more depth overall.  Defense can finally be said to be a real strength for the Islanders organization.  They have a number of youngsters in the system now with a knack for moving the puck effectively, a skill so essential to the transition game, and a key component of Scott Gordon’s puck pressure system.  Goaltender is a spot of concern, clearly.  This may have to be something the Islanders address through free agency, but certainly at the next draft.  It is obviously a difficult position to cultivate and scout, but the colossal gamble on Rick DiPietro already appears to be trending badly.  Garth Snow and the rest of the organization know that they won’t contend for the Cup for the next few years, but they can take pride in rebuilding.  It will take a fair measure of patience to offset the impetuousness of the last regime.