50-Man Roster: Decision time on Islanders 2008 picks

A sometimes overlooked part of NHL roster management is the 50-contract maximum. When the Islanders make a decision like the one earlier this week with 2008 pick Jyri Niemi, they're factoring not only whether Niemi has a place on their depth chart and is worth betting the mandatory three-year entry-level commitment -- by far the two most important concerns -- they're also deciding if they want him taking up one of those 50 slots. (Or in reality, less than 50: Teams typically leave slots open as they enter the season so they can, say, break the emergency glass and add a Trevor Gillies.)

Right now, including pending free agents and non-roster players (hello Tony Romano), you can see at CapGeek the Islanders' 50 potential contracts for next season. An important distinction here is that the 50 number relates to the year a contract is valid -- and not to this transition moment. So an expiring free agent's contract does not preclude you from signing Kevin Poulin, whose contract kicks in for next season.

As you can see, from Sean Bergenheim to Brett Westgarth [IOW reminds me Westgarth was traded in March, but you get the drift]] the Islanders have 21 20 pending free agents. That's a lot of openings on the 50-man roster, even assuming several (Schremp, Bergenheim) will be retained. So it's not like Niemi was going to get in the way, and you wouldn't let the 50-contract limit cost you a legit prospect. But if you don't feel confident your prospect is going to be an NHL player, you don't make the mandatory three-year entry-level commitment when you can fill several holes with minor league free agents (like Greg Mauldin and Mark Flood last year).

Extra Picks Mean Extra Decisions

That leads me to another variable that we don't consider on Draft Day when we're celebrating a bounty of picks (2008) or, alternatively, wondering if we spent too many of those surplus picks to move up (2009): In two years, the club has to make fish-or-cut-bait decisions on every pick who isn't in college or Russia. Too many prospects is a great problem to have, really, but it also means decisions like the one Garth Snow and his staff made with Niemi.

And with the June 1 signing deadline fast approaching (and Travis Hamonic already in the fold), the Islanders still have a few decisions to announce (or let pass quietly) on 2008 picks. Namely, Jared Spurgeon and David Ullström.

Status: Islanders 2008 Draft Picks

First, let's reset what Snow and Ryan Jankowski (and their army of scouts) did with that pile of picks in 2008, and where they are now:

1 #9 Josh Bailey Windsor (OHL) Signed and made team in 2008. Passed "Go," collected $200
2 #36 Corey Trivino BU (NCAA) As a collegiate, his rights are retained; has work to do
2 #40 Aaron Ness Minn. (NCAA) Collegiate, didn't meet higher hopes going into last year but returning to the Gophers in the fall; his rights remain
2 #53 Travis Hamonic Moose Jaw (WHL) Signed this week, will be in camp in Sept.
3 #66 David Toews North Dakota (NCAA) After a tough year, is said to be leaving for the WHL, but his rights will remain
3 #72 Jyri Niemi Saskatoon (WHL) Traded to the Rangers for a 6th in 2010
3 #73 Kiril Petrov Kazan (KHL) Will be in prospect camp; as a KHLer ("defector"), his rights remain
4 #96 Matt Donovan DU (NCAA) Promising collegiate building off another great year, his rights remain
4
#102
David Ullström
HV71 (Swe.)
Must be signed by June or Isles lose his rights
5 #126 Kevin Poulin Victoriaville Signed this spring, he'll fill one of the goalie slots in 2009-10
5 #148 Matt Martin Sarnia Signed last summer, learned in Bridgeport in 2009-10 and might win an Isles job in Sept.
6 #156 Jared Spurgeon Spokane Completed a successful junior career; must be signed by June or Isles lose his rights
6 #175 Justin Dibenedetto Sarnia Overager signed last summer, completed season in Bridgeport

The more I revisit that list, the more I still feel good about that haul. Two years later, you can still say they may have gotten a player with every-other pick. Reason dictates it won't turn out that way -- 50% would be an insane average, particularly considering how many late-rounders there are -- but to say that two years later several of these guys still have potential NHL careers isn't bad at all.

(Another hindsight view is, would you rather have Luke Schenn or Nikita Filatov, or Josh Bailey plus the extra lottery tickets those two trade-downs yielded? I was fine with those moves at the time and I'm still fine now.)

Anyway, here's a bit more about the two players the Islanders are about to lose if we don't hear about a signing in the near future:

 

David Ullström, LW/C, shoots right, 6'3", 198 lbs.

In the context of several Swedes who must sign with their NHL clubs by June (Note: My understanding is it's June 1, though several Swedish papers report it as June 15). Those Swedish papers are talking about the risk of HV71 losing Ullström to the Islanders. (That and several articles like it are in Swedish; here's Google Translate.) But they never have quotes directly from the player or his agent, so it's unclear how seriously the Islanders are pursuing it, if at all.

Ullström is big and depicted as a good playmaker who has needed to work on his defensive game. If he were going to meet his potential, you'd definitely want a piece like that over here. The question is whether the Isles think he can reach that level (and secondarily, whether he's interested in coming over). The Islanders' luck with selecting and developing big Nordic forwards is questionable, though so is the suggestion that their Swedes and Finns from one year to the next represents a trend rather than the massive case-by-case crapshoot known as the NHL draft.

Note: When Ullström was drafted, the current transfer agreement wasn't in place, so at the time they would have expected to have Ullström's rights for beyond two years before having to make a signing decision.

 

Jared Spurgeon, D, shoots right, 5'9", 180 lbs.

Spurgeon is the more interesting case to me. As you can see from a couple prominent write-ups, the praise for him after 2008-09 did not drop off in 2009-10. His assistant coach in Spokane, former NHLer Jon Klemm, raves -- the way junior coaches often do -- that Spurgeon's intelligence and patience remind him of Klemm's old teammate Sergei Zubov.

The problem, of course, is the size. It's not that small defensemen can't make it in this league -- but it is harder for them, and the Islanders happen to have small D-men lining their depth chart and prospect pool. So the question facing them, two years after signing Jack Hillen and selecting both Aaron Ness and Spurgeon to join Mark Katic is: Do you bet a three-year commitment on Spurgeon being able to overcome the size mismatch in the NHL? That's a lot of eggs in the small-D-man basket.

Whatever their decision, we'll know for sure very soon.

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