Islanders Draft 'Success': The Milbury Years, 1996-2005

Sean Bergenheim: One of two Milbury first-rounders still with the club; one of the few Mad Mike never accused of sniffing glue.

I was toying with the idea of changing all Mike Milbury references on this site to "He Who Shall Not Be Named." It doesn't make a very good acronym ("HWSNBN...wha-?") and it's hardly the way to be taken seriously when hoping for the occasional real interview from real staff, but on the other hand it's how most fans and commenters here see the former GM, coach and Draft Day Assassin anyway.

The act of typing "Milbury" seems to be like a lingering canker sore to some, while "MM" always feels like an insult to those tasty bits of sugar-plated quasi-chocolate M&M's. So what do you say? Is He Who Shall Not Be Named an acceptable proxy? Ahhh, tell you what: You call him whatever you feel like calling him. We'll all catch your drift. [Edit: Many in comments suggest "Voldemort" to my Harry Potter-oblivious self. Sounds right, no?]

In the meantime, it's getting really close to HWSNBN's favorite time of year -- the season when he used to crush the most hopes in the shortest amount of time while saying something reassuring like, "We're rolling the dice here a little bit." So let's take a quick look back at recent Islanders drafts to dial our idealist "RHETT IS GONNA BE A STAR!!" needles back a bit. It's too early to evaluate the Garth Snow/Ryan Jankowski draft years -- although as you'll see in the conclusion, you can count me as "guardedly optimistic, and a great deal more impressed than under the old regime" -- but for a baseline for our hopes and prayers, it helps to look at the baseline: What came of 1996-2005.

A similar post at Copper & Blue marks 200 career NHL games as the minimum for an NHL career (100 GP for goalies). I'm not totally moved by that -- feels like 250 or 300 is more on the mark -- but in any case I'm going to mention several above and below those thresholds. For first-rounders you want more; for anything beyond the second round you're expecting a crapshoot.

[Edit/addendum: Derek Zona, the author of that post at C&B, also has a league-wide view of how teams did, with the Islanders on top in the 1st -- but again, I'd couch that with the position the Isles were drafting from.]

Ground Rules

Some caveats and explanatory notes:

  • I'm going with 1996-2005 here -- technically the years with HWSNBN in the GM seat, though 2006's "40 Days of Neil Smith" cloud that year a bit.
  • I won't mention anyone without 200 NHL games played unless there are unusual circumstances, though I'll include overall totals of how many guys hit that mark.
  • That C&B post mentions league averages of "success" between 1999-2005 (as in, 61% of all NHL first rounders in those years have hit the 200 GP threshold). You can match those up with the Isles during that period, but I didn't want to limit it to those years, thanks to the GM tenures. Plus, I'm wary of a false comfort in numbers: During that period, naturally the Isles will have more higher first-round picks than most teams, so they should be in the upper-end of the league average -- even without doing anything other than losing often enough to receive lots of top-10 picks).
  • Post-HWSNBN picks Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey already have almost 300 NHL GP between them. But as you'll see, that's not rare for top-10 picks, even under Milbury's watch.
  • For every draft pick, there is a question of assessing and projecting talent at the uncertain age of 18 on draft day, and then there's the separate question of developing that talent. Draw your own conclusions there, because that's where we're really straying into case-by-case circumstances.

Anyway, here we go. We'll start with all first-rounders since HWSNBN arrived (I won't list every pick for the other rounds, but the first round is ... kind of a big deal, you know?)

Islanders First-Round Picks, 1996-2005

Year Round Spot Player GP
1996 1 3 J.P. Dumont 752
1997 1 4 Roberto Luongo 612
1997 1 5 Eric Brewer 682
1998 1 9 Mike Rupp 416
1999 1 5 Tim Connolly 559
1999 1 8 Taylor Pyatt 606
1999 1 10 Branislav Mezei 240
1999 1 28 Kristian Kudroc 26
2000 1 1 Rick DiPietro 281
2000 1 5 Raffi Torres 432
2002 1 22 Sean Bergenheim 246
2003 1 15 Robert Nilsson 252
2004 1 16 Petteri Nokelainen 189
2005 1 15 Ryan O'Marra 3

In addition to those in bold, Bergenheim will easily eclipse the 250-game plateau. Nokelainen is a good bet, though the injuries that shortened his time on the Island could conceivably bite him in the end. In any case, I'd throw those to in with the others as "real NHL careers." So if you include those two, 11 out of 14 first-rounders becoming NHL players isn't bad. (If you restrict it to 1999-2005 and 200 GP the way C&B did, you have 7 of 10, or 70%.)

However, when you consider the number of high first-rounders HWSNBN had thanks to routinely finishing in lottery country, as well as how many he traded away ... well, we know that story and don't need to rehash it here. But by this measure, every first-round pick Snow (and the staff who operated Neil Smith's draft, selecting Okposo) has had thus far should be a success, including the one they pick this month. With Okposo, Bailey, Tavares and de Haan, they're on track and then some. Fully expecting another this year at #5.

 

Islanders Second-Rounders, 1996-2005: Getting Dicier

The second round is of course a far blurrier game: You don't expect to land stars or even have a 50% hit ratio; but over time you should expect to have a few gems. For reference, C&B called 25% (200 GP) league average between 1999-2005.

Here's Life Under Milbury, Second-Round version:

Year Round Spot Player GP
1996 2 29 Dan LaCouture 337
1997 2 31 Jeff Zehr 4
1998 2 36 Chris Nielsen 52
2003 2 58 Jeremy Colliton 42
2004 2 47 Blake Comeau 168
2005 2 46 Dustin Kohn 22

 

Second-round picks, like the NHL's version of the few decent items at a yard sale, were bartered like gently used power drills during this era. So the Isles went without any from 1999-2002. (That hurts a lot less when you have multiple firsts in consecutive years.) As a result, Milbury has two "hits" out of six second-round shots in this era -- I'm counting Comeau as a hit, as he'll surely stick long enough to make 200 and probably 250 games (hopefully many more, of course). LaCouture isn't exactly a score -- and at #29 in 1996, he falls into that "practically a 1st" territory that glass-empty/glass-full pundits use to label all late- or early-in-the-round picks to suit their argument.

While acknowledging defensemen typically take longer to develop, I'm not figuring Kohn to make that list of 200 or 250-gamers. Granted, I've only seen 22 games of him, so I hope to be proven wrong. But thus far I can't see it.

Post-Milbury, we still have Jesse Joensuu (#60, 2006) with a fighting chance, as well as that fun 2008 trifecta of Corey Trivino (36), Aaron Ness (40) and Travis Hamonic (53), whose current potential is in the reverse order of their selection; Hamonic is quite a ways ahead. Last season there was Mikko Koskinen in the second round, at #31 one of those "practically a first" picks who has a solid shot at being a player, such as we can say that before he's played his first NHL game.

 

The Rest of the Notables, 1996-2005

So those are the first and second-rounders of Milbury's era. By volume it looks alright -- but again, this is why I'm not sold on the "percentage versus league average" method for evaluating the Islanders: I simply can't toot their horn too much for getting an NHL player in the top ten of the draft. That's nearly shooting fish in a barrel. (Query: Has anyone ever actually shot fish in a barrel, or is that just a fun saying? And why, exactly, would someone with the means to do so waste their resources in both ammo and aquatic food? It's like saying, "That's as easy as lighting your house on fire." Sure, I bet I could pull it off, but absent a shady insurance investigator I can't fathom why I'd try.) Worse, looking at that list of top-ten first-rounders does not warm the heart.

So I was flexible on the 200-250 GP threshold with the first two rounds. I'll likewise be flexible with the rest, though I'm also going to leave off every selection who neither made that threshold nor met my ambiguous standards. Here's what that leaves...:

Year Round Spot Player GP
1996 3 56 Zdeno Chara 847
1999 8 228 Radek Martinek 389
1999 4 101 Juraj Kolnik 240
1999 3 78 Mattias Weinhandl 182
2002 3 87 Frans Nielsen 166
2003 6 182 Bruno Gervais 278
2004 7 227 Chris Campoli 320

...And that's it. Ten years, 73 picks beyond the second round, seven players (9.6 %) you could say have or are having NHL careers. Weinhandl's still doing fine in Europe, so you could theorize that he might have finally stuck in the NHL. Kolnik stuck long enough to meet the threshold, but in a fairly unremarkable way. Chara and Martinek represent two smart gambles that paid off handsomely. Nielsen was a nice bet considering his size and background, and he's starting to pay off in spades. Campoli and Gervais were always nice relative to their draft spot, but in the end they are the kind of depth you find in the free agent bin.

If you restrict this post-second-round survey to the 1999-2005 period as C&B did, you get six out of 49 (12%) (or excluding Weinhandl as they would have, five out of 49, 10%). By either measure, it exceeds the NHL average from 1999-2005 of 8.7% but not by a significant margin.

Some of the flotsam that was not mentioned: Jiri Dopita (1998 5th, #123), 73 career games (none with the Isles), whom the Islanders traded for a 5th-round choice and who later was swapped back and forth between Philadelphia and Edmonton (for a 2nd and then for a 3rd, respectively). ... Evgeny Korolev, drafted in the 8th round (192) in 1996, then again in the 7th round (182) in 1998, and logged all of 42 NHL games with the Islanders.

2006-2009, post-2nds

By comparison (and I hesitate to do this, because we're always more optimistic about recent picks before they've had enough time to let us down), the picks beyond the second round the last four years still hold promise: Guys like Andrew MacDonald and Rhett Rakhshani (2006), Blake Kessel and Mark Katic (2007), Kiril Petrov, David Ullstrom, Kevin Poulin and Matt Martin (2008) and Anders Nilsson, Casey Cizikas, Anton Klemenyev and Anders Lee (2009) definitely give you the idea that there are gems in that litter.

Of course, I guarantee Milbury and staff once felt the same way about Justin Mapletoft, so...

 

Conclusion: HWSNBN Haunts Less and Less over Time

So what can we learn from this? As ever, the draft is a crapshoot that gets only crapshootier beyond the first and particularly beyond the second round. Perhaps the biggest single decision for a franchise is to not blow your top-ten pick -- when you get it -- on the wrong kid.

But beyond that, while Milbury and his staff were no draft gurus, their amateur scouting wasn't their worst trait (and really, every staff has big hits and misses in the amateur lottery). As ever, it's what Milbury did on draft day -- trades, rash decisions, U-turns -- and after draft day -- trades, rash decisions, U-turns, encouraging his picks with praise such as the "sniffing glue" comment about Brewer -- that really hurt. Thankfully, as we move further along in time and Snow and Jankowski continue restocking the cupboard, we can start to visualize a time in the future when Milbury's mulligans just won't matter anymore.

This franchise may not know where it's playing in 2015. But if its amateur scouts continue to hit and their selections continue to develop, it will be a team people will want to watch play, come Queens or high water.

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