The New York Islanders are a few days away from a possible turning point in their franchise. For the fourth time in their history, they hold the No. 1 overall pick in the National Hockey League Entry Draft. On Friday night, General Manager Garth Snow and his scouting staff will have their choice between Matt Duchene, Victor Hedman or John Tavares.
To get into the minds of Islanders Nation, Puck Daddy sat down at an invisible roundtable with four Islanders bloggers as well as the team's beat writer. Giving us their thoughts on the NHL Draft, the Garth Snow effect and the possibility of the team getting a new arena are former Islanders V.P. of media relations Chris Botta, now of Islanders Point Blank; Dominik from Lighthouse Hockey; B.D. Gallof of Islanders Independent; Newsday's Islander beat writer Greg Logan; and Tim Liodice of The Tiger Track.
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1. You're at the Bell Centre podium: With the first selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Islanders select ______________? Why?
BOTTA: John Tavares. Best player available. 400 goals before his 30th birthday. All the goodness that comes with it. "Can't win you a Stanley Cup"? Gimme me a break. Find some more good players then. [Ed. note: Despite what has been floated out there in the media, Tavares told Botta in an interview that it "would be a privilege to be drafted by the New York Islanders." We will not be revisiting Eric Lindros on Friday night.]
LHH: I'm at the Bell Centre podium, drinking free Molson (which doesn't hold a candle to Budvar, the original "Budweiser" brew), and I'm announcing that the New York Islanders select John Tavares. Five minutes later we hand him his max three-year entry deal, with a wink-wink at a 10-year extension, per Islander tradition.
The reason? From all honest accounts, the Islanders can't go wrong with any of the top three. They should each make outstanding NHL players, and the Islanders need help at every position. So if all other factors are equal, why not go with the kid 80-90% of fans are clearly salivating over, who will bring the most attention and revenue to a club that desperately needs it? Tavares has offensive instincts around the net like few others (I can hear the broadcaster clichés about his "lacrosse hands" during goal replays for years to come).
GALLOF: John Tavares. Tavares is potentially an NHL-level elite scorer. Despite the peanut-gallery over-analysis of JT, he has actually worked on every flaw ever presented to him. Nobody...certainly not Duchene nor Hedman, has played as many games, been as scrutinized, nor performed under the same pressure-level than Tavares. His Worlds performance is proof positive that not only is he capable of the next level, he craves it.
One only has to watch a full season of pucks missing net by those on the Islanders to know how important and how much a goal scorer is needed on this team. The last pure goal scorer to come up through the ranks? Ziggy Palffy. That's a long time missing a top tier star who can make the fans roar.
Speaking of fans roar, notice that 18k+ (at this moment) have gotten tickets thru Ticketmaster. They aren't coming to see any other name come out of Garth's mouth. Isles fans demand a star, and with John Tavares, they get it.
LOGAN: Understand I'm giving you my prediction of who the Islanders will choose, not my personal choice. But I'm going out on a limb to say they will take Matt Duchene. The reason is that most agree he's the most complete player in the draft in terms of have the wheels, playmaking ability and shot to be an offensive force and the leadership, desire and, did we mention his wheels, to be as effective on defense.
LIODICE: John Tavares. Why? There's a few reasons, but two come right to the top. First, the Islanders lack that of a sniper and a major scoring threat. Although Tavares has yet to play an NHL game, his scoring records in the OHL cannot be ignored. You don't break Wayne Gretzky's OHL goal-scoring record by a 16-year old by accident. Second, sheer marketability. John Tavares can be a guy the Islanders can market themselves around and provide them with a little league-wide notoriety as well. Let's look at it this way, who can the Islanders call the face of the franchise right now? Hard to say, right? They want to see someone pot 30-40 goals per year. Those days have been few and far between for Islanders fans.
2. Why not one of the other two top prospects?
BOTTA: Would not get caught dead saying a bad word about either. Great kids, outstanding prospects. Two more terrific entrants in our little ice hockey league.
LHH: Teenagers, mere teenagers. No one can predict what these kids will become, but it's fair to say each has a strong chance of delivering on their hype. So I won't be upset if the Isles pick Hedman or Duchene -- in fact, on some level I'd admire Garth Snow's chutzpah for doing what he thinks is the best hockey decision. But it takes a while for a defenseman to reach his potential, and it would take a while to discover if Duchene is really some Stevie Y about whom myths are created. Tavares provides immediate sex appeal and scoring, and that's what the Islanders need most now. All things equal, go with the surest part of the equation.
GALLOF: Both are flawed prospects in my opinion. Not in they aren't excellent prospects. But, merely in comparison to JT or to even be in the top 3 for that matter.
One of the most annoying things about Victor Hedman is how a kid who plays with Swedish men...hmmm...there might be a punch line in there somewhere, but I think I want to stay on the NHL's good-side this new season. But, how can Hedman not throw some elbows or have more of a mean streak.
Had this been some kid playing men in the US or Canada, he'd been eating the sharp end of elbows and sticks. In Russia, he'd be fed to the dogs without some physical moxy. Those who tout Hedman mention often that he played in a men's league. Yet, despite that smooth skating and talent, he does not yet play like a man. If he did, he might be a tougher decision at the #1 pick.
My biggest gripe with Hedman is I have to question character or at least maturity when interviewed at the Worlds, he blamed their poor showing on teammates. There was no "we". That is something that struck me cold. To me, I am not as convinced on Hedman's domination, just as I don't think Bouwmeester (who he's been compared to incessantly) is the bee's knees to defense either. Great skating. Great rangy size. Great skill. But defend, smash, and take out a bunch of forwards before you ordain them the "next best thing". Maybe I'm old school...but I want a defenseman to actually be a great defender.
Duchene, to me, is not a top 3 talent. He's a top 5. Great kid with some great attributes. But each of his successful years on Brampton, he was not THE guy. He was never THE target. He never wore the bull's-eye. He never sat under the pressure. Great pedigree and he has the makings of a real good player, but he's always been the guy behind the other guys like Cody Hodgson (their best player) and Evgeny Grachev (NYR prospect). That might be great for a team with many scoring forwards and some stars. But not for Long Island. For a guy who has been hyped to the gills, there is no proof that he can be THE guy. I find that strange, yet he sits on the top of many charts, sometimes even ahead of Tavares and Hedman. To me, that is just plain insane.
LOGAN: I can see them taking Hedman, as well. He's a cornerstone defenseman with great size and speed. The only reason to pass him is that they might like Duchene better because of the scoring he might produce up front. Passing on Tavares obviously would be very tough, considering his hands, but maybe you have to consider which of the top three is best qualified to ultimately lead a team for the long-term in pursuit of the Cup. Who is the most team-oriented?
LIODICE: Nothing against those two, I'm sure they are going to be great players in the NHL, but I'll pass on Hedman because right now, finding a true sniper and scorer is at the top of my list. Yes, you don't find big d-men like Hedman every now and then, but the Islanders need the scoring more.
Why not Duchene? To me, he's more of what the Islanders already have, and less of what they don't have. He's a great playmaker and center, pretty much in the same mold of what the Islanders first round choice last year, Josh Bailey is. The Islanders need a scorer to focus more on the finishing and less on the setting up and John Tavares is their man for that.
3. Almost three years after the chaos that ended in Garth Snow getting installed as GM, is this team moving in the right direction? What could he do better?
BOTTA: The team moved in the right direction last season. They needed to be really, really bad. They pulled that off with aplomb for 60 days last winter. Now they get a cornerstone with the No. 1 pick. They need more. Pittsburgh had 5 top-5 picks this decade. The NYI still have a ways to go.
LHH: In the right direction, through a route that was difficult yet obvious to pursue. Milbury's personnel "management" was aimed at short-term fixes -- to put it kindly -- when what the team clearly needed was a patient, methodical rebuild to restock after his (and, to be fair, many bad owners') mistakes. Credit Snow with eventually convincing Charles Wang this was the way to go, even if it took Snow himself a year and a Ryan Smyth spring romance to face this reality.
Though painful, in a sense Snow's decisions since deciding to rebuild have been easy because they're obvious: Hoard assets, patiently develop and evaluate youngsters, don't make panic moves or take on big contracts for aging vets. Repeat. The true tough decisions will come when the Islanders are actually in a position to move from "good" to "great," a.k.a. during Tavares' third contract.
The one thing I wish Snow would do better is to share and clearly communicate info with the fans -- you know, the customers the Islanders are trying to win back? -- instead of creating an Orwellian state where everything from injuries to player evaluation is protected or vanilla-ized like a state secret. (Granted, the club has slowly gotten better at communication in the last year.)
GALLOF: Yes, it is moving. But it took a while. One of the reason last season was a crash and burn was due to some mistakes in year 1. Some you can put on Nolan, but a lot in year 1 were signings Garth made that just did not work.
Once he had Wang's trust and Nolan out of the way, and they actually committed to that rebuild, it started to move in the right direction. So, since then, they are on track.
What can he do better? I'd like to see a bit more balls during the draft. Nothing crazy. But last year they seemed very content to sit and wait and take what was there. I'd like them to go after people that they think are a cut above. I'd love to see them strike a deal to move into the top 10 or top 20 rather than just sit and hope guys are still available.
LOGAN: Snow's decision to forget about putting together a patchwork playoff team through free agency was the right one, especially for this market. He has the patience and the backbone to put a long-term plan in place even if some of his moves are open to a lot of second-guessing and criticism. I think the goaltender situation surrounding Rick DiPietro's health might have been handled better. Snow supports DP very strongly and wants the best for him, but maybe there have been times when a more cautious approach to DiPietro's rehab situation with his left knee would have been more prudent. It's hard to hold DiPietro back because he wants to play so much, but I suspect there will be a different approach in the future. Certainly, Snow will begin to fortify the position in free agency and the draft in the vent of a worst-case scenario for DiPietro.
LIODICE: Garth Snow has a clear-cut direction of where he wants this team to go and how they progress and so far he is sticking to his plan. It took him a little while for his plan to develop, but he's getting there. He's being wise with developing his prospects in Bridgeport, something his predecessor did not do very well(not his immediate one, you know who I'm talking about).
What can he do better? Well, he could try and make a run at a top free agent. I think he's been a little hesitant because of the youth movement, and the failures of the 2007 off-season which saw Jason Blake, Victor Kozlov, Ryan Smyth, Richard Zednik, and Tom Poti take off very quickly.
4. Finally, the Lightouse Project. In your opinion, will it ever get done?
BOTTA: Despite the recent handholding, more ugliness lies ahead. But somehow, a fair-enough percentage of the project will be approved. It has to.
LHH: Yes -- barely -- because it makes too much sense for Long Island. (Uh, who else is going to pay to replace your obsolete arena?) It will happen in some altered version. It will happen after yet more political histrionic and grandstanding and 11th hour close calls. But it will happen, because even infamous Long Island politics can't stop this one.
GALLOF: Yes. It will. Isles fans once they started showing to Kate Murray's events, made the GOP very uncomfortable. It made NY State Republican leader, Joseph "I insult Isles fans" Mondello look like a crabbier Howard Beale. It was only after that where Kate Murray agreed to meet and then a meeting later, shook Charles Wang's hand.
Now, that handshake needs to have far more things happen than just words of intent. So Isles fans need to watch carefully and be ready to show up and create pressure if these political hounds try to wiggle out of their promises. That is the ONLY way to assure it happens. To be watchful, be vigilant, and when it gets nasty, to start the pressure to make sure to recall what exactly is at stake.
LOGAN: I do believe the Lighthouse Project will come to fruition in a modified form. Not only will it generate more tax revenue and more jobs, but it's a creative way to make the best use of all that Nassau County-owned land at Long Island's hub. It makes sense even without the Islanders. Most likely, Islanders owner Charles Wang will have to scale back some of his development plans to answer questions about overcrowding, sewage and water use, but he has marshaled enough support at the county and state level to eventually get it past the Town of Hempstead.
LIODICE: Oh what a loaded question. I would love to see it get done. I've lived on Long Island my whole life, and the Lighthouse Project would bring a plethora of residential and businesses to the area, and might entice me to actually stay on the Island.
Will it actually get done, my gut says it will. More action has happened in the past month than in the past 7 or so, so there is light at the end of the tunnel.