Around here we sometimes say that the cupboard was bare when GFY Neil Smith and then Garth Snow took over the reins from Milbury. Usually when someone hands off a franchise after a few down years, they at least have a decent prospect pool from high draft picks.
The Age of Milbury left the Islanders with almost nothing.
Milbury's drafting faults were hidden in the early years by the Islanders' high picks and can't-miss prospects. But the cupboard was already starting to look bare by the 2003 draft. The four first rounders from the 1999 draft had been traded. The 2000 draft featured Rick DiPietro and Raffi Torres, with Torres being traded before the '03 draft. The '01 draft didn't have any picks before the 4th round and could be one of the worst drafts in team history. Looking back at the '02 Draft, third rounder and Patron Saint of Lighthouse Hockey Frans Nielsen is 10 times the player that 1st rounder Sean Bergenheim will ever be.
Whether it was promoted as such at the time or not, the 2003 NHL Draft was one of the deepest in history. Currently only 8 players from the first round have less than 300 games played, with most of them still active. Only 2 players are under 100 NHL games played, infamous bust Hugh Jessiman and Shawn Belle. The draft was loaded with talent, and for Islander fans, eyes were on Zach Parise, son of former Islander J.P. Parise.
While J.P. wasn't a member of any Stanley Cup team, he was fondly remembered for being one of the key cogs in the Islanders' surprising run in 1974-75 to the Conference Finals. They were the first team since the 1941-42 season to come back from down 3-0 to win a 7-game series. They nearly did it twice, pushing the Flyers to 7 games after being down 3-0. J.P. had 16 points in 17 playoff games and led the team in goals.
Come draft time, Zach wasn't doing too bad himself, either.
He was coming off a true freshman season for the University of North Dakota in which he was second in points with 61 in 39 games. The only other player to have any sort of career in the NHL from that Dakota team was Brandon Bochenski, who played 152 games and is in Europe now. Parise was nominated for the Hobby Baker and was ranked 9th overall among North America skaters before the draft.
Although he was thought to be undersized, most scouts applauded his tireless work ethic and drive for the net -- things still among his best attributes today, and aspects of the game his undersized dad also excelled in at the NHL level. When draft day came and Zach proceeded to fall right into the Islanders lap at 15th overall, fans were salivating.
Then Milbury went up to the podium and announced the selection.
His pick was the son of a former NHL'er, Robert Nilsson, son of Kent Nilsson. With all the ownership instability and media feeding frenzies, there are still so many unknowns about Milbury's time as GM. Unfortunately now we'll just get a simple excuse out of him or a claim that hindsight is 50/50. But what Milbury was thinking or who persuaded him when he selected Robert Nilsson over Zach Parise is a mystery he'll probably take to the grave. Nilsson had shot up the rankings before the draft, but was only considered the 9th-best European skater. To his credit, he had broken the record for most points as a 17-year-old in the SEL.
Of course the argument in the contemporary comparison between Parise and Nilsson was that Nilsson was playing against men while Parise was playing against 18-24-year-olds. But the one issue with Parise, size, was also an issue for the 5'11 Nilsson. To make matters worse and ominous, Nilsson would just about disappear in his second SEL season, posting all of six points in 34 games. Parise would continue to tear up college, getting 55 points in 31 games as a Sophmore and quickly signing with the Devils at the end of the season.
Parise Devilishly Wild Ever After
From there, unless you lived under a rock this summer you know how Parise's story goes. He continues to stand out at every level, lasting all of a year in the AHL before making the Devils. In five of his NHL seasons he's had 60+ points. He was the captain of the Devils, and was largely credited as being the heart and soul of the Devils' playoff push to the Cup finals this past season.
Robert Nilsson, meanwhile? He had a promising start to his Islanders career when he was eventually brought over, posting 20 points in his first 53 games. He then spent the rest of 2005-06 and 2006-07 in Bridgeport. In 2006-07 he posted the highest point total of his career at any level with 66 points in 69 AHL games. He was then packaged with another former Milbury 1st Rounder Ryan O'Marra and a future 1st rounder in the Ryan Smyth trade.
He was 6th on the Oilers in 2007-08 with 41 points in 71 games and part of the "Kids Line" with 18-year-old Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. Nilsson was never able to repeat that total, finishing out his NHL career with a 29- and 27-point season. Only Ganger remains with the Oilers today. Following the 2009-10 season the Oilers bought out the remainder of his contract and no other NHL team picked him up. He's been playing in the KHL ever since.
While Zach Parise was the hottest UFA on the market this summer, Nilsson posted 24 points in 35 games for the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo. A difference of two picks in the same draft, yet worlds apart today. That's why Lou has multiple Stanley Cup rings and runs a franchise that has been one of the best in the league for the last 20 years and Mike Milbury is a commentator for NBC today.
At the 2002, 2003 and 2004 drafts Mike Milbury picked up Europeans. This is somewhat surprising given his general contempt for European players and their style of play during his tenure and in his commentary. But he actually drafted a surprising number of European players during his tenure of horror. Our David Hanssen once pointed out that one of the likely reasons for this was that at the time there were very few agreements between the NHL and foreign leagues. Unlike kids going to college and in juniors who you might have a 2- to 3-year window to sign, teams held the rights of foreign players for much longer without needing to sign them to a deal.
Milbury was also a regular target of the Islanders Alumni, who thought he was bringing the team down. According to one theory, drafting anyone but Parise was a way for Milbury to say this is my team, and I'll run it how I want. Now you might ask, would Milbury shoot himself in the foot just to prove a point? If the shoe fits...