The New York Islanders prospect pool is in better shape than it has been in quite some time. Traditional weaknesses on defense and in goal have been addressed in recent moves, resulting in a solid collection of prospects at nearly every position. The problems that remain include the limited talent at right wing the dearth of elite prospects beyond the top two.
The Islanders have enviable depth at left wing. They have five prospect left wings -– Matt Moulson, Jesse Joensuu, Robin Figren, Matt Martin, and Jason Gregoire -– with legitimate chances for solid NHL careers.
One of those players is on the brink of breaking into the NHL full time. Moulson, previously a member of the Los Angeles Kings, had been an offensive force in the AHL and seen limited action in the NHL. However, Moulson made the Islanders roster this year and has been playing on the top line with Tavares and Kyle Okposo.
Somewhat further away from regular NHL duty is Joensuu. He impressed last year in his first full season in North America, so much so that he found himself in the NHL when the Islanders regulars were decimated by injuries. Joensuu may again see time with the big club this season. If he performs well, this could be his last year in Bridgeport.
The Islanders are sending two new left wingers to their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. After a disappointing season in Sweden, Robin Figren hopes to follow in Joensuu’s footsteps by turning in a strong debut with the Sound Tigers. Unlike Joensuu, Figren has previously played in North America, so perhaps his adjustment will be even smoother. Martin has good size and plays a physical game, but also has a scoring touch. Figren and Martin will compete with one another for ice time and especially power-play time, but are unlikely to see NHL action before Joensuu.
Jason Gregoire had a nice freshman season at the University of North Dakota. The Islanders are content to let him return for his sophomore year to hone his skills. Although his performance thus far has been impressive, he is still a couple of years away from a shot at the NHL.
The stock of Islanders centers has everything the team could hope for. It is chock full of talented players and, unlike the other positions, the Islanders have an elite prospect in John Tavares. Promising players Rob Schremp, Trevor Smith, Justin DiBenedetto, and Corey Trivino ensure the cupboard is not empty.
Three of the center prospects are already playing in the NHL. Tavares started the season with the Islanders and is the leading scorer. He projects as an elite first line center. Schremp, a former first-round draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers, has a second chance with the Islanders after being picked up off waivers. He put up big numbers in the OHL and the AHL, but has yet to see significant time in the NHL. The Islanders seem willing to give him that opportunity. Nate Thompson carved out a role as the fourth-line center last season and is now an NHL regular, though that could change when Frans Nielsen returns from injury.
Smith is back with the Sound Tigers after a strong season. He saw limited time with the Islanders last year but must continue to produce for Bridgeport if he wants to work his way further into the NHL mix. In the wake of a surprisingly productive season, it will be interesting to see what DiBenedetto can do in his first full season with Bridgeport. Expectations are also high for Long Island native Tony Romano.
Trivino and David Toews will be back with their college teams. Trivino will see increased opportunities in his sophomore season now that some key members of Boston University’s championship team have moved on. 2009 draft pick Casey Cizikas is back in the OHL after attending Islanders training camp. David Ullstrom is playing in his native Sweden. Anders Lee moves from high school to the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.
Right wing is undoubtedly the Islanders position of greatest weakness. They have just five prospects of note and only one of them is among the top 20 prospects in the organization. Furthermore, only two are close to NHL ready.
Perhaps the least talented, but most likely to see NHL action this season, is pugilist Joel Rechlicz. Since the Islanders lack an established enforcer, he saw time with the NHL club last year and will do so again this season. Former NY Ranger Greg Moore will be a much-needed addition to the Sound Tigers after three seasons with Hartford. Moore played a few games with the Rangers and could join the Islanders on occasion this year.
The Islanders also have a pair of right wing prospects playing college hockey. Rhett Rakhshani has had a fine career at the University of Denver and elected to return for his senior season as team captain. Expect to see him in Bridgeport next year after he turns pro. Brian Day has also been a force at the collegiate level. He is returning to Colgate University for his junior season.
The most talented of the bunch is Kirill Petrov. The Russian phenom has an outstanding size and skill combination, but has not shown a commitment to playing in North America. He is under contract for three more years with his Russian team. His prospects for playing in the NHL in the near future are slim.
The Islanders have invested heavily in defensemen during the last few drafts and, in so doing, have at long last remedied what had been a position of weakness. They now boast an impressive collection of developing rearguards, though few seem ready to make the jump to the NHL.
The real strength of their defensive prospects lies in recent draftees Calvin de Haan, Aaron Ness, Travis Hamonic, Jyri Niemi, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Donovan, and Blake Kessel. De Haan was impressive in training camp but needed to go back to the OHL for more seasoning. Ness returns to the University of Minnesota with high expectations after a strong freshman campaign. He should continue to improve and eventually follow Okposo from the Golden Gophers to the NHL. Hamonic, Niemi, and Jared Spurgeon will again play in the WHL. Niemi needs to improve after a lackluster season. Donovan migrates from the USHL to DU where he is already scoring a point a game, and Kessel returns to the University of New Hampshire. This group of recent draftees is a long way from the NHL, but de Haan, Ness, Hamonic and perhaps some of the others are likely to get there down the road.
At the AHL level, Jack Hillen and Andy MacDonald have been standout defensemen for the Sound Tigers. Hillen was promoted to the Islanders last year and odds are strong that he will again see time in the NHL. MacDonald could also see NHL action if injuries strike. He will log lots of ice time as one of Bridgeport’s top blueliners. Former draft pick Dustin Kohn seems to be a forgotten man on Long Island. He was solid last year for Bridgeport but will need to do more to work himself back into the Islanders’ plans. Mark Katic makes the jump to Bridgeport from the OHL this season and will be an interesting player to watch.
Much like their situation on defense, the Islanders had neglected the goalie position until a series of recent moves improved the situation considerably. The Islanders now have a bevy of talented goaltenders. Second-round pick Mikko Koskinen has moved over to play pro in North America this year. It remains to be seen how coach Jack Capuano will divide playing time between Koskinen, Nathan Lawson, and Scott Munroe, or who gets sent down to the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL. Koskinen has the highest ceiling of the Islander goaltending prospects, but with so many goaltenders in the system the Islanders have no need to rush his development. He is the youngest of the group in Bridgeport at 21.