Over the last 20 years, it has seemed as though the New York Islanders have been through a few “rebuilding” processes. After ex-GM Don Maloney decided to dismantle the Islanders in the mid-90s, the franchise was marred by incompetent and disenfranchised management that did not care for a team that had achieved hockey excellency in the previous decade.
While the Isles had stagnated at the bottom of the standings throughout the late 90s, new ownership in the form of Charles B. Wang and Sanjay Kumar gave Isles fans hope for the future. Mike Milbury was retained as General Manager of the Islanders and embarked on a journey that would eventually help the Islanders return to the playoffs, but wouldn’t help them win a playoff round.
Since his departure in 2006, Garth Snow has taken over the GM duties for the New York Islanders and has dedicated himself to improving the team through the NHL Entry Draft. While the Islanders would make it to the 2006-2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team was composed largely of mercenary-type players, ones that would not fit the mold of the post-lockout NHL as the years would pass. Acquisitions such as Ryan Smyth led Islanders fans to believe that Garth Snow and Charles Wang could, and would, improve the team through free agency or trade. However, the wheels had already been set in motion for a potential rebuild under the short tenure of Neil Smith and the failure to retain Smyth during the 2007 off-season gave even more credence to the decision to improve through the NHL Entry Draft.
Improving through the draft can have its pitfall — and the Islanders have certainly had their fair share of hits and misses since 2006 — but the fan base must be wondering when the rebuild will finally be complete. Unfortunately, there is no accurate measure of how close the Islanders are to being a finished product. The only things that the fans know are the names that have been drafted and how well each of those individuals have been meeting their expectations.
In order to dissect this most current rebuild, one must do their best Sergio Leone impression and ask, who/what are the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to the Islanders?
The Good (2006, 2008, & 2009 NHL Entry Drafts)
2006 – Garth Snow did not factor into the decisions that were made during the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, but the draft picks that were made during that draft have helped the Islanders. Kyle Okposo, Andrew MacDonald, and Rhett Rakhshani were among the most notable Islanders to be drafted in 2006. Players such as Jesse Joensuu, Robin Figren, and Tomas Marcinko were drafted with high hopes in mind, but have yet to have any kind of impact in the NHL.
Kyle Okposo, Andrew MacDonald, and Rhett Rakhshani look to figure into the Isles’ future and the trio has shown that they belong in the NHL through their play. Okposo might have been inconsistent throughout the 2011-2012 season, but the forward has shown enough work ethic and dedication to warrant the belief that his play will improve if he stays healthy. On the other hand, Andrew MacDonald has been one of the very few bright spots for a patchwork Islanders defense. A-Mac has been counted on for big minutes by the Islanders and has developed into a very reliable middle-pair d-man that can eat minutes and even contribute on the offensive side of things. Lastly, Rhett Rakhshani has only played a total of seven NHL games, but has shown enough work ethic and competitive spirit to set him apart from the other 2006 selections that have not panned out for the Isles.
2008 – The most famous 2008 NHL Entry Draft selection by the New York Islanders might have been Josh Bailey, but the 2008 Draft choices were probably some of the best that the Islanders organization made. Aside from drafting Bailey, Snow made some outstanding choices in the form of Travis Hamonic, Kirill Petrov, Aaron Ness, David Ullstrom, Matt Donovan, Matt Martin, and Kevin Poulin. Players such as Jared Spurgeon (traded) have fit in well in the NHL and if Corey Trivino (legal troubles) can get past his recent troubles, then the Isles might have another worthy player from the 2008 Draft class on their hands.
As previously mentioned, Josh Bailey might have been the player with the most upside in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, but he has failed to show why the Islanders traded down to draft the center at ninth overall. Bailey has shown some upside and some flashes of brilliance, but has not been able to consistently hone his skills. Some have argued that the route the Islanders took with Bailey contributed to his regression and lack of development, but the forward showed some promise at the end of last season when he was put on the left wing on a line alongside Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo. Bailey’s development might have been stunted a bit by the Islanders, but his pockets of success have illustrated that there is still an upside to the streaky forward.
Other players such as Matt Martin and Travis Hamonic have already made a significant impact on the Islanders lineup through some strong and physical play. Martin continues to be a physical force for the Isles that doles out a plethora of bone-jarring hits to opponents and Hamonic has shown constant improvement in his overall game as he was entrusted with key defensive minutes during the 2011-2012 season and did not disappoint. David Ullstrom and Kevin Poulin haven’t spent a great amount of time in the NHL, but both players have shown that they also have what it takes to fit into the fast-paced NHL. Prospects such as Kirill Petrov and Matt Donovan might need a couple more years of development in minor leagues, but the Islanders’ 2008 Draft class is shaping out to be one of its best in recent history.
2009 – Drafting John Tavares first overall had a great impact on the Isles, but the 2009 Draft selections that Garth Snow made paralleled the fine selections that he made in 2008. Aside from choosing Tavares as the new face of the Isles’ franchise, Snow drafted a crop of promising players such as Calvin de Haan, Mikko Koskinen, Anders Lee, Anders Nilsson, and Casey Cizikas.
Tavares’ selection speaks for itself as the pivot has drastically improved his game since debuting in the NHL. Tavares’ skating, strength on the puck, and point totals have improved every year and he continues to show everyone why he was worthy of a number one overall selection.
On the other hand, de Haan, Koskinen, Lee, Nilsson, and Cizikas are regarded as prospects that could definitely have an impact on the Isles in the near future. Nilsson and Cizikas displayed their talents in a small sample size during the 2011-2012 season, but Islanders fans are probably hoping that Calvin de Haan’s arrival won’t take that much longer as the team has obvious holes on defense. As tempting as it may be to recall de Haan and insert him into a professional lineup, there are probably fans out there that have breathed a sigh of relief as the Islanders are seemingly taking a very cautious approach with the defenseman’s development.
The Bad (Bailey’s Development)
As previously mentioned, one cannot look at the development of Josh Bailey and not cringe just a slight bit. Trading down to select Bailey was not a bad choice by Garth Snow, but refusing to let the young pivot play in the World Juniors was the first misstep by the Islanders organization in terms of Bailey’s development (or lack thereof).
This is not to say that Josh Bailey is a bust or a player that simply cannot compete at the NHL level, but one can only wonder how Bailey would have developed if he was given adequate time in the AHL. It could be argued that the Islanders had every right to refuse to send Bailey to play in the World Juniors, but it couldn’t have hurt the organization to send the forward away for several games and have him play alongside players of the same age. Instead, Bailey was left to develop in the NHL and at times it was painfully obvious that the centreman was playing in a league that he was just not ready for.
Bailey’s streaky nature has given Islanders fans a reason for optimism and hope, but the slow development of the young center has given many fans a reason to question the route that the Islanders took with Bailey after drafting him. Of course it is easy to sit back and judge the organization’s moves, but one cannot help but wonder if Josh Bailey would have been better suited playing alongside players his own age until he was completely read to make the transition to the NHL.
The Ugly (Nino Niederreiter)
Not much can be said about El Nino after a disastrous 2011-2012 campaign in which the forward recorded one goal, no assists, and a -25 rating in 55 games played. Much like Bailey, Niederreiter definitely had his developmental hiccup occur in the NHL.
After a nine game audition with the Islanders in the 2010-2011 NHL season, El Nino was returned to the Portland Winterhawks where he finished his season. Many thought that the same fate would await Niederreiter for the 2011-2012 season, but the Islanders decided to keep the forward in the NHL. As a result, the man known as “El Nino” produced less of a threat than a high-pressure system in the Bahamas.
Niederreiter should still be considered as one of the Isles’ top prospects, but one can only wonder how much the 2011-2012 season impacted the young forward’s confidence. Niederreiter’s pairing on the Isles’ third and fourth lines throughout the ’11-’12 season didn’t help either as he would have to play with the likes of Marty Reasoner and a number of other bottom six forwards that did not make the young prospect look any better. Either way, if the Isles’ 2011-2012 NHL season showed us anything, it showed us that Niederreiter is not yet ready to make consistent contributions to an NHL lineup. Playing out the season as the Isles’ cap mule could have done more harm to Niederreiter in the long run, but the left winger will probably have every chance to redeem himself next season, regardless of which league he finds himself playing in.
How Far Along Are the Islanders? – The Unknown
After another disappointing finish in the Eastern Conference standings in 2011-2012, many fans have been left wondering if Garth Snow’s rebuild is on track to succeed at some point. John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald have all taken steps in their development, but the team’s defense has been a question mark for the last few years.
Back in the early 2000s, when Adrian Aucoin was playing nearly 30 minutes a night for the Islanders, the team would battle and usually find themselves in or near the playoff bubble at season’s end. However, the past few seasons have seen the Islanders play without a legitimate number one defenseman. Hamonic and MacDonald have definitely improved as defensemen, but Garth Snow should seriously consider bringing in an established d-man to help with the team’s defense and the development of the youngsters.
Calvin de Haan, Aaron Ness, Matt Donovan, Dylan Reese, and Mark Katic might be waiting in the wings, but Mark Streit is aging and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to acquire an established top four defenseman for a largely inexperienced blue-line. With free agent defensemen supposedly spurning the Islanders in recent off-seasons (Hamhuis, Ehrhoff, & Z. Michalek), the Islanders might not have many choices to freely choose from, but Garth Snow must use every resource in order to upgrade his defensive core. Players such as Mark Eaton, Milan Jurcina, and Mike Mottau could have been patchwork solutions, but the defensemen simply could not deliver the defensive play that the Islanders needed to put them over the hump.
The Islanders have a stocked farm system, but it still takes the right mixture of home-grown talent, FA signings, and trades to complete a team. Garth Snow has definitely stuck to his guns when it comes to developing the Islanders from within, but time is of the essence, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the Isles’ arena situation. Since finishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings won’t alleviate things, the pressure will most certainly be on Snow and the Islanders to produce a winning season in the next few years.
The New York Islanders are stacked with all types of talent, especially with the likes of players such as Ryan Strome, Scott Mayfield, Brendan Kichton, Johan Sundstrom, Brock Nelson (2010), and Robbie Russo. However, the success (or lack thereof) of the 2011 Draft class could be a relative unknown for a few years. This is why it is of the utmost importance for Snow to explore his options in free agency and attempt to sign a defenseman such as Bryan Allen or Jason Garrison. One signing will probably not fix all of the Isles’ woes, but the organization must show that they are serious about winning, even if it means overpaying for a top four d-man. Signing aging defensemen is not the same thing as purchasing wine and this point was beaten to death throughout the Isles’ 2011-2012 season. If Snow and Wang are content by barely staying at the cap floor through various loopholes, then they shouldn’t be surprised by another finish in the Eastern Conference basement.
This much is for certain, if the Islanders want to be taken seriously during free agency, then they must show that they are willing to dish out some money for the necessary building blocks. The Islanders have the talent to become a contender one day, but simply waiting on talent to develop could have serious ramifications for a young squad that is eager to win and succeed in the NHL.
John Tavares and Matt Moulson have shown their dedication to the Isles’ plans and P.A Parenteau has voiced his desire to stay with the franchise that give him a shot at an everyday NHL job. From what it seems, the rebuild in Long Island is going as planned, but for it to fully succeed Garth Snow and Charles Wang must show the rest of the NHL that they are serious about bringing in established talent rather than waiting on the whole farm system to fully develop.