With the first overall pick and a trio of picks between #26 and #37, the Islanders have a bounty of sorts in the upcoming 2009 draft, which has raised hopes of a bumper crop.
If they don't get several promising prospects (hey, we can always hope, right?) the thinking is that maybe Garth Snow can package two of those picks and some change to move up to the middle of the first round and land a second legit future NHLer.
But even more so than the NHL playoffs, the NHL draft is a crapshoot -- subject to disappointment via injury, mental defect, too much time spent chasing a girl, or -- in Alexander Daigle's case -- a Hollywood career (or all of the above?).
[Momentary tangent: Isn't it funny how, depending on the argument you're making, the value of a late-in-a-round or early-in-a-round pick can change?
I have seen the Islanders' 26th overall picks (San Jose's via Tampa via Ottawa) referred to as "practically a 2nd-rounder," and I have seen the Islanders' first 2nd-round pick, #31 overall, referred to as "practically a 1st-rounder." The Islanders either have "practically three firsts" or "practically four seconds" -- you can spin it either way, depending on what position you're talking yourself into.
Which is all demonstrative, once again, of what a crapshoot the draft can be.]
So naturally I'm thinking of the 1999 NHL draft, which is perhaps best symbolized by its #1, Patrick Stefan, the last first overall pick to really be a "Lawton." (Welcome to the NHL, Atlanta; here's your door prize.) In the top-end area, observers knew going in that it was not a pretty draft. I'm ignoring Zetterberg at #210 and Ryan Miller at #138, because obviously they'd have been higher if anyone had any idea how good they'd be. But the top 10 featured names like Stefan, Pavel Brendl, Brian Finley, Kris Beech, and Jamie Lundmark.
It was made weirder by the Sedin thing: Many felt the twins would not be as effective nor happy if separate, but few outside Brian Burke had the guts and assets to pull off nabbing both of them.
Islanders: Four First-Round Picks in 1999
But about that top 10: The Islanders had three of those first 10 picks, and four total in the first round. Considering the overall quality of that 1999 draft, the Isles did okay. But they did not pull anything like you'd hope they'd pull when you hear, "We have four first-round picks!"
#5 - Tim Connolly. All in all, Connolly has essentially become what he was projected to be at the time: Insanely talented with some stamina or heart/learder questions. Whether by "dink"-ish play or by concussions, observers didn't expect him to be an inspirational leader, but his talent was (and still is hard to ignore).
#8 - Taylor Pyatt. When you take a talent like Connolly who you worry just might flake on you, the temptation with a selection just three slots later is to take a solid body with some offensive upside. A guy you hope becomes a top-six forward, but even if he doesn't, he won't be fragile and shouldn't have character issues. The "safe" thinking is that, if Connolly goes soft, you don't want to have used two early picks on fragile offensive talents. So Pyatt's upside: True power-forward. His floor: No worse than Pyatt is now, an able-bodied winger with some hands.
#10 - Branislav Mezei. So you have your offensive talent, you have your sturdy winger, and there aren't any real promising offensive defensemen in the draft (no, Jeff Jillson does not count). Time to go for the big stay-at-home hitter from Nitra, Czechia. Mezei has been serviceable in that role yet is hampered by knee injuries. He has not become what you look for in a tenth-overall pick, but this is 1999 we're talking about. (Seriously, what was in the world water supply in 1980-81?)
#28 - Kristian Kudroc. This was the last pick in the first round (pre-Wild/Blue Jackets). It was two picks after Martin Havlat, 14 picks before Mike Commodore, and 16 before Jordan Leopold. See what I mean? Crapshoot. Even the "but they could have had ___!" comparables in this draft are hardly earth-shattering. Kudroc was another Czech defensemen with some size and a bit of offense. But he played all of two NHL games, with Florida.
The pervasiveness of Web video and e-communication -- along with who knows what other proprietary psychological testing and other advances -- seems to make NHL scouting better and better. Certainly it's doubtful we'll be seeing any true busts at first overall anymore, and probably no more 4th-overall Pavel Brendls (lthough it's worth noting that Glen Sather is still in power and may strike again). The NHL's renewed emphasis on skill allows teams to focus more on skilled prospects who can be developed rather than worry that undersized talents will never survive.
So what can we realistically hope from the Islanders' 2009 draft? Well, something better than 1999, relative to expectations -- and the 2009 crop is definitely stronger than the one a decade ago. The #1 pick should make a faster and greater impact than Connolly. And finding at least a Sean Bergenheim- or Frans Nielsen-like player among those post-Tavares picks would be a nice prize and reasonable expectation.
Beyond that, we take our chances and pray for a Mike Green-type value (29th overall, 2004). A hidden Zetterberg- gem is an unrealistic pipe dream, but the best way to get anything remotely approaching that kind of value-for-position is to have lots of picks -- lots of rolls of the dice that encourage you to take a risk or two for the big score. The #1 pick will alter the direction of this franchise like few Islanders moves this decade. Beyond that, it's gravy: We can't expect, but we can hope ... if we happen to get a little lucky with one of the other picks, it could change this June from a franchise upswing to the beginning of something truly great.