The Islander rebuild has successfully restocked the team's farm system. Save for a top goalie prospect, the Isles have seen a number of forwards graduate to the NHL and become good, if not elite, players. From John Tavares down to Casey Cizikas, the four lines have been build into a fast, competitive group. Sure, I understand Grabner and Bailey are frustratingly inconsistent, but look at the group as a whole and it's pretty good. Plus, there is Strome and Lee in the NHL waiting for their turn to prove themselves. Strome could be great and Lee could be a decent top-9 player. I believe Vanek completes a playoff-calibre group of forwards. This is why I hope they sign him.
Defenseman always take longer to develop. This is not a secret. Also not a secret is that the Isles have a group of defensive prospects every bit as capable of becoming quality NHLers as their forwards did. Unfortunately for our expectations, we found out how the current development gap in the Isles' system could stop a season in its tracks when some bad injury luck hits. And while the lack of defensive talent this year has been a tough pill to swallow, it can also help shed some light on why one of the teams' most glaring needs isn't going to be a problem for very long.
Calvin de Haan has shown he could be a top-4 guy. In the system are Reinhart, Pulock, Pokka, Pedan, Mayfield and Pelech. All of them have the possibility of becoming a top-4 blueliner. Even Donovan still does. That's seven prospects, not counting de Haan. If only two out of those seven live up to their potential, that gives the Isles 3 top-4 defenseman to go along with Hamonic and Hickey. Strait would round out the top 6. Maybe only one makes the jump next year (probably Reinhart, if you were to take a straw poll). That's OK because Visnovsky is around for one more season. After another year of development, only one more guy would be needed to make the leap for the start of the 2015 season (Pulock?). Is this a crazy hope to hang my hat on? I don't think so.
In goal, Garth didn't hit a winner with any of the draft picks he used. I think this year has proven that. There is no goalie in the system that the team can look to. This is why I hope they sign Hiller or Halak this summer. Teams that jump from rebuilding to competitive need some in-their-prime free agents to fill out the roster. Vanek and one of those two goalies are, in my opinion, those signings. Toss the money at those guys and I don't think leaving the defense to fill in from the system is the giant risk that some fans think it would be. As we all trudge our way though another season of disappointment, hope is a fleeting beast to try and catch. But, it's there on the blueline if you look.
The Isles will probably miss the playoffs this year. Vanek may be dealt and bolt for Minnesota. That would suck because I think he could be an important final piece. Signing Halak or Hiller is an attainable dream. These are much more worrisome for me as a fan than what the Isles will do to fix their defense. I think they already have. They just got caught a year behind.