(Written by Bryan Kumiga)
The upcoming season should be very interesting for the Islanders organization. It is well known throughout the hockey community that the Isles posses one of the best assortments of prospects in the league and this season will be a critical one in the development of all this young talent. With training camp nearing there is always high expectations on prospects to make the big club, however it very unlikely that any Islanders elite prospects will make the NHL this year. The team is already the youngest in the league and has a host of unproven forwards who will finally get some quality playing time. Luongo, often regarded as the best player outside the NHL, will also most likely spend his season in the AHL. The player from this year’s draft with the best possibility of making the team would be Branislav Mezei. His is large, mobile, intelligent, plays within himself, and is already well adjusted to North American life. He is still expected to return to juniors while a young defense corps featuring Eric Brewer, Zdeno Chara, Kenny Jonsson, and Vladimir Chebaturkin continue to mature.
The deep talent pool of the Islanders was further confirmed recently in both Canadian and U.S. Junior National Team camps. As expected Tim Conolly made the American squad but surprisingly so did two other Islander centerman, Brian Collins and Brett Henning. Collins was a big time high school scorer who will attend Boston University next year, while Henning is in the mold of his father, former Islander Lorne Henning, a relentless checker who is reliable in his own end and is capable of chipping in offensively. All the news coming out of this camp was positive however. Mike Rupp continued to draw criticism as he had a weak showing and failed to make the cut. Despite this cut and poor offensive numbers, management maintains that they are confident he will develop and that his power game takes longer to come along.
Several Islanders also had great showing in the Canadian team camps. Team brass referred to towering defenseman Mathieu Biron as a revelation as he stood out displaying excellent all around play and improved skating. 8th overall pick Taylor Pyatt was also impressive as he exhibited his rare blend of size, speed, power, and skill. The most surprising performance came from centerman Chris Nielsen, who originally wasn’t on the invitation list. He demonstrated front line talent but won points with the coaching staff for his adaptability as well as sound defensive play. Last season in Calgary Chris took a back seat while Pavel Brendl lit it up, but Nielsen was one the ice for all the important face-offs and scored several critical goals throughout their season and playoff run.
More good news came earlier in the summer when the Isles signed Jorgen Jonsson to a one year contract. The team feels he can step in as a top six forward and contribute 20-30 goals. Another positive development is that first round pick Kristian Kudroc is committed to play in North America next year. While he has a chance to make the NHL, it is likely that he will get a year of seasoning in Quebec, who snared him with the second overall pick in the recent CHL import draft. Kudroc figures to be a dominant player in juniors with his rare combination of size and offensive ability from the blueline.