The Islanders' current downward spiral is certainly disheartening...especially after a brief period when the team looked almost unbeatable. None of us really thought they were that good. I, for one, do not think they are as bad as they are playing now. The playoffs are probably out of the question, but continuing this tailspin could be really bad for team morale. A win against the contending Predators on Tuesday featuring a goal or two by John Tavares might be just what it takes to turn things around.
Nevertheless, the loss to the Hurricanes, coupled with Toronto's win over the Senators, puts the Islanders a mere five points above the Hurricanes and the Leafs. The prospect that this team might have one of the top three picks in the draft cannot be excluded.
What should the Islanders' approach to the draft be? To answer that question, it would be helpful to look at the team's needs. First, where is the team strong? Center and goal seem to be strengths. John Tavares and Josh Bailey certainly have strong futures as centers for the top two lines and Rob Schremp may even have potential as a top two centerman. Frans Nielsen, though untypically small for a third line center, is quite capable. A few years down the road, Anders Lee--a more prototypical third line center--may supplant Nielsen. While there is no prime choice for fourth line center on the roster, Justin DeBenedetto and Casey Cizikas both offer cause for optimism in the long term.
The reasonably solid play of DP, coupled with the drafting of Mikko Koskinnen and Anders Nilsson as well as promising performances by other netminders in the Islander system seem to leave the team with no real worries for the future in that area. That was a glaring area of weakness in the system and Garth did a good job of fixing it in the offseason.
Another area of reasonable strength is among third and fourth line forwards. Between Trent Hunter, Sean Bergenheim, Jesse Joensuu, Blake Comeau, and a number of candidates in the system, there are no pressing needs there.
Coach Gordon has played with a number of line combinations this season. The one that seems most promising is the Moulson--Tavares--Okposo line. Tavares has been compared to Phil Esposito and it is not hard to see Okposo and Moulson as his Hodge and Cashman. Moulson is 26, but this is really his first significant NHL experience. It is fair to say that all three have significant room for growth. That and the lack of a potent second line built around Josh Bailey are all that stand between this trio and a future as one of the NHL's premier scoring lines.
To accurately assess the Islander defense, it is necessary to look not so much at its' rather spotty present, but at its future. Specifically what will that defense look like in 2013-14 when Mark Streit's current contract ends? Current roster players Jack Hillen, Andy MacDonald, and Dustin Kohn may be part of that future as may prospects Hamonic, De Haan, Ness, Niemi, Kessel, and Katic. Of these, only De Haan, Hamonic, Ness, and possibly Hillen are clearly top four material and only Hamonic has the size to be described as a big, physical defenseman. Typically you want at least two of your top four to be in the latter category.
To complete the picture, it has been said over and over again on this blog and on various broadcasts that the Islanders are lacking in big and physical players. Also, Garth's dealings with the KHL may provide an opening to finally bring Kirill Petrov across the pond, adding him and Schremp to the mix as possible second line forwards.
In considering all this, it seems clear that this team should try to come out of this draft with one top six forward and one top four defenseman--exactly what Katie Strang had indicated earlier in the season. These players should be as big and physical as possible.
Of course, Garth's approach to this goal will be dictated in part by where this team ends up after the lottery. I would divide it up into three possibilities: finishing with the first or second overall pick, finishing with the third overall pick, and finishing with 4-14 overall.
If we have the number one or two overall, Garth's decision is easy. He drafts either Hall or Fowler and then moves up his second round pick to draft either the best forward or the best defenseman he can get. The clear choice in forwards moving up into the first round would be Malmo SEL LW Victor Ohman. There are a number of good choices for defenseman including names like Forbort, Tinordi, and Johns. The strategy if we pick between 4 and 14 would be similar except we would start with either Nino Niederreiter or Erik Gudbranson for the first pick.
The really interesting scenario would be if the Isles get the #3 overall pick. I am confident that Hall and Fowler will go in the first two picks, leaving center Tyler Seguin on the board. Some will argue that Garth should simply select him but I disagree. As I have pointed out, center is a position of strength. A better move, in my view, would be to trade down with Anaheim and get their two first rounders,currently #12 and #15 overall, and their second rounder. With, hopefully, a collection of second and third round picks, Garth can move these picks up and get Niederreiter AND Gudbranson. Getting these two in the first round as opposed to just Seguin, however talented he may be, seems like an obvious move.