Islanders' draft day stakes can't get much higher
Building through the draft has become crucial for the struggling Islanders franchise
Most Islanders fans want John Tavares, but Victor Hedman may fill a bigger need
GM Garth Snow's pick may spark a fan revolt when the Isles need an attraction
To say the stakes will be high on Long Island as the NHL Entry Draft commences on Friday night is putting it mildly. The first overall pick held by the New York Islanders is widely seen by its beleaguered fan base as a crucial step in restoring hope and confidence in a team that has been struggling through fits and starts and frustration for nearly 20 years.
Certainly times were simpler back when the Islanders entered the NHL and had their first draft pick. His name was Billy Harris and the year was 1972. He played 623 games for them and became part of one of the franchise's most heralded trades when he and Dave Lewis were sent to L.A. for the Kings' Butch Goring. That was on March 10, 1980, and Goring became the final piece to the Islanders' championship team that would win four consecutive Stanley Cups beginning that spring.
Taking Harris first overall in the draft was only the beginning under GM Bill Torrey, who enjoyed a remarkable run of draft productivity. Over the next several years, the Islanders dynasty took shape with the selection of players like Lorne Henning (17th overall) and Bob Nystrom (33rd) in 1972, Denis Potvin (1st) and Lewis (33rd) in 1973, Clark Gillies (4th), Bryan Trottier (22nd), Dave Langevin (112th) and Stefan Persson (214th) in 1974, Ken Morrow (68th) in 1976, Mike Bossy (15th) and John Tonelli (33rd) in 1977, Steve Tambellini (15th) in 1978 and the Sutter brothers, Duane (17th) and Brent (17th) in 1979 and '80 respectively.
So, if that initial decade knitted a dynasty, the Islanders' draft record since has been spotty at best. Pat LaFontaine (3rd in 1983) was the last star connected with them as a dominant team. There were glaring misses with Brad Dalgarno (6th) in 1985 and Dave Chyzowski (2nd) in 1989. Actually, any restocking, retooling, or rebuilding for the '90s went awry in those last few drafts of the '80s, with the 13th pick in '87 being Dean Chynoweth -- now back in the fold as an assistant coach -- and 1988's selection of Kevin Cheveldayoff (16th).
The Islanders made some astute picks in the '90s, only to see those players go on to success in other locales. Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, Jason Strudwick, Brad Lukowich, Wade Redden, Jan Hlavac, J.P. Dumont, Zdeno Chara, Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer, Mike Rupp, Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt would seem to form the core of a team ready to compete from the goal on out, but they never had a chance to gel in the same manner as the Islanders of the '70s.
What might have been became what's going on now as GM Mike Milbury's impatience coupled with penny-pinching ownership undermined any chance for those picks to become a competitve team. And as the Islanders continued to struggle through this decade, the draft became ever more crucial to their long term success as they ceased to be an attractive destination for top free agents.
Which brings us to current GM Garth Snow's dilemma of what to do with the first overall pick on Friday. The masses are clamoring for John Tavares, the scoring phenom long regarded as the consensus Number One. The Islanders have doled out in the neighborhood of 20,000 free tickets to their draft party at Nassau Coliseum, turning their selection status into a celebration. Should Snow decide that towering defenseman Victor Hedman or two-way forward Matt Duchene is the better player for the Islanders' team construction, well, that celebration could quickly turn into an angry demonstration.
Snow cannot consider that possibility, though. He must coolly decide which player makes the most sense for his embryonic Isles, a team that centers around 19-year old Josh Bailey and 21-year old Kyle Okposo up front and the return to health of goaltender Rick DiPietro -- the first overall pick in 2000 after Milbury's stunning draft day trade of Luongo to Florida. This team is hoping that youngsters Franz Nielsen, Blake Comeau and Jeff Tambellini develop enough to carve out roles in this latest rebuilding. All are forwards. Of the Isles' prospects on defense, none are taller than Dustin Kohn at 6' 2", who is slight at 182 pounds. Yet Kohn was the defenseman they picked highest (46th in 2005) during the last 10 years.
Thus the speculation that Hedman at 6' 6" and in possession of potential that has drawn comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Jay Bouwmeester, must be the priority for the Islanders. Snow has staunchly refused to tip his hand, and public outcry aside, I can't say that I disagree with the pro-Hedman argument. But then I won't have to calm restive fans who are thirsting for the kind of young, dynamic, marquee scoring star that Tavares is projected to be. Some patrons are threatening to cancel their season tickets if he is not delivered, and hanging over Snow's ultimate decision are the franchise's financial woes and quest for a new arena complex that owner Charles Wang has said is crucial to the team remaining on Long Island.
And then there is the matter of the draft's inherent unpredictability. Even in the Islanders' headiest days, Torrey's staff had lean yields, with 1975 first-rounder Pat Price (11th) playing 162 games before becoming an expansion pick of the Edmonton Oilers prior to the '79-'80 season. Morrow later saved the Isles from being shut out in all six of their picks from 1976, as he famously came off the Miracle on Ice team of the 1980 Olympics to play for their Cup-winning team that spring and become a mainstay on their blueline for a decade. But as this gallery shows, the top overall pick is no guarantee of a savior.
No doubt, stakes rarely come much higher on draft day than they will for the Islanders this year.
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