Islanders top 20 prospects

By Martin Christ

It was a chaotic offseason for the New York Islanders, but despite the distractions, their prospects pool has become more solid.

No fewer than nine prospects saw NHL action with the Islanders during 2005-06 and GM Garth Snow has indicated they will be just as committed to youth for the upcoming season.

The defections of Sean Bergenheim and Denis Grebeshkov to Yaroslavl
Lokomotiv of the Russian League hurts only a little because of the
depth of the Islanders prospect list. Notably, defenseman Bruno Gervais is sure
to follow the path blazed last season by Chris Campoli and
Robert Nilsson could deliver impressive numbers up front for the Islanders.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Robert Nilsson, LW
2. Petteri Nokelainen, C
3. Kyle Okposo, RW
4. Ryan O’Marra, C
5. Jeff Tambellini, LW
6. Denis Grebeshkov, D
7. Sean Bergenheim, C
8. Jesse Joensuu, LW
9. Jeremy Colliton, RW
10. Robin Figren, F
11. Bruno Gervais, D
12. Blake Comeau, RW
13. Shea Guthrie, W
14. Dustin Kohn, D
15. Wes O’Neill, D
16. Igor Volkov, RW
17. Ryan Caldwell, D
18. Frans Nielsen, C
19. Masi Marjamaki, LW
20. Rhett Rakhshani, RW

1. Robert Nilsson, LW
1st round, 15th overall, 2003

Although some questioned the Islanders when they chose Robert Nilsson
in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, he now appears to be exactly
what they need. He is an entertaining, highly-skilled forward who should
become a fan favorite. The talented Swede is ready to graduate from the prospect
ranks and should very soon be a first line forward, receiving maximum power-play time.

The doubts surrounding Nilsson were based on inconsistency in effort
and poor defensive play. After scoring only four goals in two seasons of
Swedish Elite League play, some may have doubted his ability to score as well.
During this time, however, he was set back by an ankle injury and the invasion
of North American players to Sweden during the lockout year. He stayed
with the Islanders to start the 2005-06 season, but had his ice time reduced to
about one shift per period, and eventually he was sent to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. There he scored a point per game and gave a flash of his superior skills.

Nilsson’s play earned an early February recall to the Islanders. He
scored four goals and 14 points in the 28 games following his promotion. Nilsson
grew more comfortable as the 2005-06 season progressed and should be a top
six forward for the Islanders in the upcoming season.

2. Petteri Nokelainen, C
1st round, 16th overall, 2004

Petteri Nokelainen’s career has been a combination of swift progress
and disappointing injury. After being drafted 16th overall in 2004,
Nokelainen scored 15 goals in 52 games in the top Finnish league, a season showing
better than expected offensive progress. He made the Islanders out of
2005 training camp but saw less than eight minutes of ice time on the
fourth line during the first few games of the season. After an injury to Jason
Blake, Nokelainen was moved to the second line with Oleg Kvasha and
Mark Parrish and scored his first NHL goal and assist against Brent Johnson
of the Washington Capitals on Oct. 13. Two weeks later Nokelainen
injured his knee in a game against the Boston Bruins and was diagnosed with patella
tendonitis. It was at first thought that the knee just needed time to
heal. Weeks turned into months and he missed 59 games and a chance to play in
his third World Junior tournament. When he finally returned, Nokelainen
could only play in three games before the knee problem flared again. He had
knee surgery during the first week of April and it is hoped he can make a
full recovery for the 2006-07 season.

Should Nokelainen make a healthy return he will play the role of a
solid defensive third liner who can provide offense when given the
opportunity.

3. Kyle Okposo, RW
1st round, 7th overall, 2006

Kyle Okposo scored 176 points for Shattuck St. Mary’s at age 14 and it has been a continuous rise in the hockey world since then. He was the No. 1 choice of the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers and led that team to a championship, picking up the playoff MVP award
along the way. He was chosen seventh overall by the Islanders at the
2006 draft and will be attending his hometown University of Minnesota in the
fall.

Okposo, whose father is a Nigerian immigrant, is a powerful forward with few
weaknesses in his game. His strongest move is pushing his way from the
corner to the front of the net and defenders who step in his path are
likely to end up sprawled on the ice. He’s a very likely NHLer, it’s just a question of
how many years Okposo will fill the nets for the Golden Gophers.

4. Ryan O’Marra, C
1st round, 15th overall, 2005

Ryan O’Marra was the first round pick for the Islanders in the 2005
draft and projects to be a second line power forward. O’Marra was a top forward on Canada’s 2005 Under 18 team and remained a strong team player with the 2006 gold medal-winning team despite being used sparingly.

O’Marra totaled 77 points in the OHL with a weak Erie Otter team in
2005-06 and Erie’s failure to make the playoffs allowed him to join the
Sound Tigers for the last eight games of the season. He scored four
goals in the regular season and added two playoff goals in seven games for
Bridgeport.

With the Islanders’ loss of Bergenheim to the Russian league and
Nokelainen’s injury difficulties, O’Marra will have a better
than anticipated chance to make the Islanders out of 2006 training camp. With a June birthday, it’s either the NHL or back to Erie for him this season.

5. Jeff Tambellini, LW
Via trade from Los Angeles, 2006

Jeff Tambellini, a swift winger with a scorer’s touch, was selected by
the Los Angeles Kings in the first round (27th overall) of the 2003 NHL
Entry Draft. After completing a strong career with the Michigan Wolverines,
Tambellini had a tough time to start his 2005-06 season with the Kings.
In training camp, Kings’ coach Andy Murray felt he was playing soft and he
was sent to the AHL where he was a healthy scratch for the Manchester
Monarchs home opener. He responded by scoring 25 points in his next 18 games with Manchester. He was rewarded with a call to the Kings in late November
when he did not register a point in four games. He was sent back to
Manchester and played well but the Kings traded him in early March to the
Islanders, the team that drafted his father, Steve Tambellini, in 1978.

The Islanders kept Jeff in the NHL right through to the end of the
season. His first and only goal came in his third game as an Islander on March
14 against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. He was added to the
Sound Tigers for their playoff series against Wilkes-Barre
where he picked up three points in the seven-game series.

Tambellini appears NHL ready and, barring any repeat of the 2005
training camp incident with Los Angeles, should step into the Islanders’ lineup
out of the 2006 camp.

6. Denis Grebeshkov, D
Via trade from Los Angeles, 2006

Grebeshkov, who felt that playing for his hometown Yaroslavl Lokomotiv
was a better option than playing in the AHL, signed with that Russian Super
League team on July 10. He did not receive the one-way contract he was
seeking from the Islanders and this resulted in the return to his
homeland.

Grebeshkov was the Kings’ No. 1 choice in 2002. After three
seasons, the Kings gave up on their top defense prospect, trading him to the
Islanders along with Jeff Tambellini for Brent Sopel and Mark Parrish
last March. The Islanders kept Grebeshkov in the NHL for the remainder of the
season and he recorded three assists in 21 games with New York.

Grebeshkov was projected to be a top pairing defenseman with offensive
skills similar to Sergei Zubov, but never approached that status in his three
seasons in North America, though he scored 49 points for the Manchester
Monarchs of the AHL two seasons ago.

7. Sean Bergenheim, C
1st round, 22nd overall, 2002

Sean Bergenheim was likely to spend the full 2006-07 season with the
Islanders, but now has followed Grebeshkov to Yaroslavl Lokomotiv. Bergenheim had been disappointed by his AHL assignment back in the 2005 training camp and made the jump to Russia when his contract terms could not be met over the summer of 2006.

The 2002 first rounder did start the 2003-04 season with
the Islanders. He scored his first NHL goal against Pittsburgh on Oct.
25 and that would be his only goal in 18 games that season. Later that
season scored an impressive five points in seven AHL playoff games with
Bridgeport. The Helsinki, Finland native spent the entire 2004-05 season with
Bridgeport and played solidly enough to earn a selection to the AHL All-Star game.

Despite his disappointment at being demoted to Bridgeport after the
2005 camp, Bergenheim delivered a strong AHL season, including a four-goal
game on Feb. 22, setting a Bridgeport team record for goals in a
game. In 28 games with the Islanders in 2005-06, he scored four goals and nine
points and showed the potential to be a solid NHL center. Whether he makes it back to North American remains to be seen.

8. Jesse Joensuu, LW
2nd round, 60th overall, 2006

Joensuu was projected to be the No. 1 draft prospect out of Europe when
he was a 16-year-old, however, many scouts have felt his skating has not
adequately improved, resulting in a sizeable fall in ranking. This
enabled the Islanders to make him their second choice, 60th overall in the 2006
draft.

Joensuu’s performance at the 2006 WJC was considered a
disappointment. He scored two goals in the bronze medal game but his
critics said at times he appears to be coasting. When at his best,
he uses his 6’4 frame to create scoring chances in front of the net, shows
shifty moves off the rush and displays a quick release and a heavy
shot.

Joensuu will be out to prove the early evaluations of his talent were
not misplaced in the upcoming season. He will play for Assat of the Finnish
league where he scored four goals and 12 points in 51 games during the
2005-06 season.

9. Jeremy Colliton, RW
2nd round, 58th overall, 2003

Jeremy Colliton is a level-headed type who always seems to exceed
expectations. He was the Prince Albert Raiders’ team MVP in his second
WHL season, prompting the Islanders to draft him in the second round, 58th
overall in the 2003 draft.

After a solid junior career, Colliton was assigned to the Sound Tigers to start the 2005-06 season and at times played on the top offensive line with Nilsson and Bergenheim. He was called up to the Islanders following a November Jason Blake injury and averaged five minutes of ice time during his first four games in the big league. He was up with the Islanders for 15 more NHL games starting in early February and scored his first NHL goal on April 15 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was typical of Colliton that he deflected most of the credit to linemate
Bergenheim’s nifty pass. Colliton finished his AHL season with 53 points in 66 games, surprising progress for the first-year pro. If he makes the 2006-07 Islanders, not many will be surprised.

10. Robin Figren, F
3rd round, 70th overall, 2006

The native of Stockholm, Sweden possesses many of the feisty attributes usually associated with Finnish players. He also has a great one-time release that he uses well when posting up on the power play. He is tough to knock off his skates and has the ability to make sharp, shifty
turns.

The Calgary Hitmen targeted him in the CHL import draft when they made a trade to move up to 17th overall. Calgary coach Kelly Kisio recognizes he has offensive talent and should give him top line ice time. Figren scored 30 points in 39 games in the Swedish junior league and should improve on those numbers with Calgary.

11. Bruno Gervais, D
6th round, 182nd overall, 2003

Nothing stops Bruno Gervais. He was not discouraged after being a sixth
round pick in 2003 after a 22-goal season with Acadie
Bathurst in the QMJHL. In fact, he nearly made the Islanders after the
2003 training camp. He was temporarily set back but not stopped by a knee
injury that required reconstructive surgery and all but wiped out his last
year of junior hockey. His recovery was obviously complete when he and Chris
Campoli formed a great defensive pair with the Sound Tigers during
the 2004-05 season.

Gervais split his 2005-06 season between Bridgeport and the New York
Islanders. Though he only played 55 games in the AHL, he finished second
among league defensemen with 16 goals. He played 27 games for the
Islanders, scoring three goals and seven points. In his last 15 games, at a time
when Alexei Zhitnik was out with an injury, he averaged well over 20
minutes per game and appears ready for a full season with the Islanders.
Gervais was sent to Bridgeport for the AHL playoffs and had the odd distinction of
scoring the last goal in the Islanders season (the April 18 loss to Pittsburgh) and the last goal for the Sound Tigers when he scored late in their Game 7 loss to Wilkes-Barre.

Gervais will get power-play time for the Islanders and has great offensive instincts. He always manages to get the puck to the net and consistently makes creative, offensively dangerous plays. He just might be among the leading scoring NHL defensemen soon.

12. Blake Comeau, RW
2nd round, 47th overall, 2004

The Islanders have to love the way success and Comeau have become synonymous. The Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan native has won two WHL championships with the Kelowna
Rockets, a Memorial Cup championship, an Under-18 World Championship and a World
Junior Championship.

Comeau brings an all-around game, featuring physical play, persistent
checking and offensive ability. He is more of a playmaker than goal
scorer and is effective digging for pucks along the boards. He saw his
first pro action with Bridgeport in the AHL playoffs last season, picking up
three assists in seven games. He has an outside chance to make the Islanders
out of training camp, but is more likely to spend the majority of the
season back with Bridgeport, where he hopes to add to his string of
championships.

13. Shea Guthrie, W
3rd round, 76th overall, 2005

Playing at Newport, Rhode Island’s St. George’s High School does not
tend to put a hockey player in the spotlight, but it did lead to Shea Guthrie
being drafted 76th overall in 2005 by the Islanders. The NHL lockout
meant the draft took place on July 30 which just happened to be Guthrie’s 18th birthday.

Guthrie was recruited by the Clarkson Golden Knights and he made the ECAC All-Rookie team scoring 26 points in 33 games as a freshman. His achievements would have been greater had Guthrie not had to battle a shoulder injury in late February.

Guthrie told HF that he models his style after the Ottawa Senators’
Mike Fisher and he does show some of Fisher’s abilities. He is a tenacious
player with good offensive tools. Guthrie joins a large group of talented Islander
forward prospects who are showing better than expected progress. His second
season at Clarkson should see him as one of the top forwards in the ECAC.

14. Dustin Kohn, D
2nd round, 46th overall, 2005

Dustin Kohn has progressed from being an offensive defenseman who needed
defensive work, to a conscientious defender who has puck handling and
skating skills. He scored 43 points for the Calgary Hitmen during his
draft year. The 2005-06 season saw him concentrate on defensive improvement
and his offensive numbers dropped to 29 points. He was traded to the
Brandon Wheat Kings and it did not remove his focus.

Kohn gained experience playing two games for the Islanders during the
2005 preseason and was thrilled to have players like Alex Mogilny and Simon
Gagne around him. He also saw action in two late-season games
with the Sound Tigers on an amateur tryout. These experiences
will make his pro transition that much smoother, however for 2006-07 Kohn
will be back with the Brandon Wheat Kings since with a February birthday he is too young to play in the AHL. It should be a season in which Kohn plays a conscientious defensive game without sacrificing his offense.

15. Wes O’Neill, D
4th round, 115th overall, 2004

When O’Neill was chosen as the 115th player overall in 2004, no one
could explain why the big defenseman, who was expected to be an early selection, took such a slide. O’Neill certainly was disappointed and he was determined to prove his
value in his next few season with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In his two seasons
since then, he did break through as a top two defenseman recording 55 points
in 73 NCAA games. He has shown marked improvement, though it is still felt his
decision-making needs work. O’Neill makes good outlet
passes and keeps opposing forwards honest in front of the net.

The 2006-07 season will be his last in college, after which he will likely spend some time in the minors.

16. Igor Volkov, RW
8th round, 246th overall, 2003

With their last choice in the 2003 draft, the Islanders went for a long shot, drafting 20-year-old Russian left winger Igor Volkov. There was some risk with his eligibility not yet established, but the pick was legitimate and Volkov, who had scored nine goals that season, steadily improved over the next few seasons.

In fact, Vokov’s offense has improved to the point where he is considered one of the Russian league’s most dangerous offensive weapons. Except for a brief exile to Dynamo, Volkov has been with Ufa Salavat and he scored an impressive 18 goals in 47 games for them during the 2005-06 season. Volkov definitely is a steal for a late-round selection but it’s getting near
the time, now that he is 23, when he has to make the transition to North America.

17. Ryan Caldwell, D
7th round, 202nd overall, 2000

The Islanders called Ryan Caldwell up for a home and home series
against the Pittsburgh Penguins late last season and it was both a thrill and
confidence booster for the 25-year-old rookie. The 6’2 defenseman was given an
average of 16 minutes per game and did not look out of place.

Caldwell’s stock rose when he helped the University of Denver win the NCAA championship in 2004 and was selected to the 2004 NCAA West First All-America team and the NCAA
Championship All-Tournament team. His 15 goals that season place him
second in the nation among defensemen.

Despite the goal total, Caldwell’s game is about sound defensive play
and responsible puck management. He has had his ups and downs in this
regard his first two seasons with Bridgeport but if he can smooth out his game the
opportunity is there for him to make the third pairing for the
Islanders.

18. Frans Nielsen, C
3rd round, 87th overall, 2002

Most European countries already have their NHL trailblazers. The Swedes
had Tumba Johansson and Ulf Sterner. Vaclav Nedomansky was a pioneer for
the Czechs. For Norway it was Espen Knutsen and Anders Myrvold. Frans
Nielsen is looking to make Danish hockey history as the first player to crack an NHL roster.

Following his participation in the 2006 World Championship in which he
scored three goals in six games, Nielsen signed a two-year contract with the
Islanders. The Dane is a good skater with some offensive ability, and he believes the
new zero tolerance rules will benefit his style. He has served his
apprenticeship in Europe by playing five seasons in the Swedish Elite
League and he should see his first North American ice time in Bridgeport.

19. Masi Marjamaki, LW
5th round, 144th overall, 2005

Masi Marjamaki appeared to be a better prospect back in
2003 when the Boston Bruins drafted him 66th overall. Terms could not be
agreed to with Boston and Marjamaki went back in the draft where
the Islanders claimed him 144th in 2005. The Pori, Finland native had
moderate success in his first season with Bridgeport and may soon find
his place on the fourth line with the Islanders.

At the early age of 17, he felt he could best develop in North America
and thus spent three seasons in the WHL. He grew a reputation as a tireless worker who used his 6’2 size well and had some touch around the net. He was nearly a point per game player in his last junior season and though he scored only nine goals in his first pro season, his playoff
showed promise. He scored three goals, including a game winner for the
Sound Tigers and was viewed by many as Bridgeport’s best forward in
their seven-game series with Wilkes-Barre. The Islanders gave Marjamaki a
taste of the NHL when they called him up for the last game of the 2005-06 season
giving him a shift per period.

20. Rhett Rakhshani, RW
4th round, 100th overall, 2006

California native Rhett Rakhshani was born in 1988, a few months before Wayne Gretzky became a Los Angeles King. Not too many years later, his parents took up the hobby of inline skating and included their son in the pursuit. Soon Rakhshani was working on his inline hockey moves under the California sun. He joined the California Wave amateur ice hockey
program and finished a seven-year relationship with them by scoring 121 points
in 56 games during the 2003-04 season. From there it was on to the US
developmental team based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The switch to the cold
climate didn’t slow Rakhshani as he became one of their best offensive
weapons, netting 18 goals in 50 games. In April of 2006 he scored a
goal in the US’s 3-1 gold medal victory over Finland in the U18 tournament.

Rakhshani, who has committed to the University of Denver, was drafted
100th overall in the 2006 draft by the Islanders. He is noted for his fast
starts and darting moves. He adds a gritty side to his scoring talent despite
his 5’10 170 lbs size. Besides making an impression with Denver in the
2006-07 season, he should make the US World Junior team and make the trip to
Sweden in late December.


DJ Powers contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.