When Garth Snow became the Islanders general manager in July 2006, the prospect pool was pretty bare. After the newly drafted Kyle Okposo, there were the likes of Robert Nilsson, Ryan O’Marra and Petteri Nokelainen. Ten years later, Snow has done a tremendous job replenishing the pool. Now it’s time to part with some of them.
The start of free agency saw the departure of Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin. All three homegrown players. Out of the three, Martin was the lone Snow pick, selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. The Islanders replaced the trio with Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and P.A. Parenteau. Ladd and Parenteau were brought in to play alongside John Tavares, Chimera to replace Martin on the fourth line. There is still a void left by Nielsen at second-line center.
Snow also said he could see #Isles adding another forward before the season, either in FA or trade. Tavares/Nelson/Strome/Cizikas set at C.
— Arthur Staple (@StapeAthletic) July 1, 2016
Brock Nelson is far from the two-way center Nielsen is. The 30th overall selection in the 2010 draft had a career-high 26 goals last year but did little else. In order to consider this offseason a success, this position must be upgraded. According to generalfanager.com, the Islanders cap hit is at $63.1M. They have just under five million to play with. Snow still needs to come to terms with restricted-free agents Ryan Strome, Alan Quine and Scott Mayfield. There is little room to bring in a forward via trade without getting rid of some salary. Teams will not be willing to take a bad contract off the Isles hands like a Nikolay Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski or Josh Bailey without getting a prospect or two as part of the deal.
Snow has stockpiled prospects at all positions. Their last five first-round picks have been forwards (Michael Dal Colle, Joshua Ho-Sang, Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier and Kiefer Bellows). The defensemen are led by 2013 first-round pick Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. Goaltending depth has been an issue in recent memory. Snow rectified it by drafting four goaltenders (Stephon Williams, Eamon McAdam, Ilya Sorokin and Linus Soderstrom) over the past few years.
Not all of Snow’s prospects are going to make it. In the ten years since being named general manager, Snow has traded two of his own big prospects. Both under totally difference circumstances.
Nino Niederreiter was selected fifth overall in the 2010 draft. When he made his debut on October 9, 2010, he was the youngest player in the history of the Islanders. The 18-year-old also became the youngster Islander to score a goal. Rather than keep him on the roster the entire season, Nino was returned to his junior team following the first nine games. Niederreiter made the team at the start of 2011-12 where he played the season on the fourth line.
Playing with Marty Reasoner and Jay Pandolfo, Niederreiter scored one goal in 55 games. Niederreiter was basically on the team for his $2.8M cap hit. The following season, Nino spent in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He was not invited to training camp nor was he brought up during the postseason series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Niederreiter asked for a trade as a result. Snow granted his wish as he was sent to Minnesota for Cal Clutterbuck at the 2013 draft. At first glance, it appeared as if New York lost the trade. Clutterbuck has become an invaluable member of the Islanders, scoring ten game-winning goals since becoming an Islanders. Niederreiter has seven during that game. I do doubt that Snow would have traded Niederreiter had he not forced his hand.
Snow and Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli have a history. The Islanders acquired Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the 2014-15 season for draft picks. Snow once again used Peter Chiarelli to his advantage, sending 2012 fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart to Edmonton last year for two draft picks (16 and 33). Snow used the 16th pick to draft Mathew Barzal. The Islanders brass felt Reinhart was not progressing as they had hope. His skating was poor, his puck handling was inconsistent and he played smaller than his 6’4″, 212 pound body. Snow sent him to the only place where he knew he had value, back to his hometown of Edmonton. Snow then used the 33rd pick and his 72nd pick to move up to 28 and selected Beauvillier. Reinhart struggled in his first season in Edmonton.
Snow’s first big move as general manager was at the 2007 trade deadline. The Islanders were fighting for a playoff berth. Snow sent both O’Marra and Nilsson, both former first-round picks by Mike Milbury along with the 2007 first-round pick, which would have been Snow’s first, to Edmonton for Ryan Smyth. The Islanders made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season but lost in the first round to the Buffalo Sabres. Smyth, an unrestricted free agent left via free agency and signed with the Colorado Avalanche. Neither O’Marra and Nilsson made an impact with the Oilers. It’s always easier trading away another regime’s prospect. There is not an emotional attachment.
Back to the present. Out of all of the current crop of prospects, I would deem three untouchable, Barzal, Pulock and Sorokin. Pulock has all but earned a spot on the third-pairing defense. The Islanders wanted to keep in Bridgeport for the majority of last season to improve his play on the defensive side. He will be 22 when the 2016-17 begins. Pulock has a chance to be special. His 105 mph slap shot is well-known. His offensive skills were on display during the 2015 playoffs.
Out of all of the forward prospects, Barzal has the best chance to make the team out of training camp. The Isles could give him the nine-game tryout before sending him back to juniors. Barzal’s skating and play-making skills are at an elite level. He plays an excellent two-way game as well. If he does make the team, expect him to be the second-line center.
Sorokin surprised many by coming to the Islanders prospect camp last month. The Russian dazzled the prospects game, showing plenty of poise. He’s used to playing against men in the KHL anyway. The 20-year-old shut out opponents ten times in 28 regular-season starts. His GAA was a ridiculous 1.06. His 9.53 save percentage was equally impressive. The only problem, and it’s a big one, is whether he will actually play in the NHL. His KHL contract runs at least another year, maybe two. Hopefully the summer trip here last month will help in his decision to come over here in the future.
The change in roster and overall feel of team has put pressure on Snow to deliver. John Tavares’ very team-friendly contract ends in two seasons. The Islanders can start negotiations July 1, 2017. Snow and the Islanders have to give their captain plenty of reasons to stay.