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Four Years Later: The New York Islanders' Pivotal 2008 Draft

David Ullstrom is congratulated as first star after his first NHL goal in December 2011.
David Ullstrom is congratulated as first star after his first NHL goal in December 2011.

The New York Islanders' 2008 draft is often mentioned here and in other Isles-centric parts, but it's worth a periodic revisit because things change for young NHL players quickly: Then, and now, that draft was seen as a pivotal moment for the franchise. Then, and now, it contained key ingredients that needed to hit big for the franchise's directional shift to pay off.

The key characters have evolved over the years -- most of them are still just 22 years old -- but a surprising number of them are still key variables in how that shift, which we'll call a move to rebuild in summer 2008, turns out.

Ironically the top selection, Josh Bailey, may end up a few notches from the most important player of the pool. Once again, in the unpredictable slightly-better-than-crap shoot of the NHL draft, collecting multiple picks is good policy.

Four years later, here is where the 13 players selected stand:

1st Round, 9th Overall: Josh Bailey

There are two separate threads of debate on the Bailey pick, and they really shouldn't intersect. The first is whether the Islanders should have traded down twice in that draft, a move that was unpopular among a segment of fans at the time. Looking at how the careers of Luke Schenn and Nikita Filatov have gone, as well as the bushel of extra picks the Islanders collected in the process, hopefully this first question is no longer up for debate. The cupboard was bare, and the Islanders leveraged their pick to go about filling it.

(You can argue that they only should have traded down once, and thus still could have selected Colin Wilson or Mikkel Boedker, but I think that's parsing or going "half-way" in trying to restock with multiple picks throughout the next two drafts.)

The second debate is still quite open: Even granting trading down being advisable, did the Islanders make the right pick in Bailey? After the #9 selection, Cody Hodgson, Kyle Beach and Tyler Myers immediately followed. That's one "mmmaybe," one "who?" (Beach has been slowed by a shoulder injury) and one "would like to have that kid now." Further down you get to Erik Karlsson at #15, but obviously plenty of teams did not value nor project Karlsson to be what he is now.

Anyway, this post is not to get into retro draft debates, but it seems the Bailey question always needs addressing before we move on. The real purpose of this post: Where are the 2008 picks now?

For Bailey, he has 291 NHL games under his belt, 120 points, and it seems both he and the team have come to the conclusion that he's better off at wing than center. The Islanders have plenty of other center candidates in the system, so it's not a big loss if Bailey ends up not being one of their centers. It is a loss, however, if he doesn't turn out to be a producer and/or effective two-way player on the wing.

The end of last season showed promise, but we all know the deceptive siren song of small samples. Ultimately, Bailey enters this next season at age 23 (in October) needing to take that step forward.

2nd Round, 36, 43 and 53rd Overall: Corey Trivino, Aaron Ness, Travis Hamonic

Corey Trivino has ... problems. His was a stalled and rocky evolution at Boston University that ended in expulsion from school and a guilty plea in an assault case. Human compassion says hopefully he can get his life and challenges with substance in order, but from an Islanders hockey standpoint his trajectory quickly looked far from essential to this rebuild.

Aaron Ness: Like Trivino, Ness was selected on his way to college, but unlike Trivino Ness impressed from the get-go and earned an NHL contract after his junior year. His size means people have and will continually doubt Ness, but he impressed in training camp and in the AHL last year. After his first professional season, he's still a prospect with a good chance at becoming an NHL regular.

Travis Hamonic: And this is why you collect picks. Four years later Hamonic is the best player the Islanders selected in the 2008 draft, yet he was their fourth selection and all 29 other teams passed on him at least once. At age 22 he is already the Islanders' most important defenseman. Rebuilds depend on such fortune.

3rd Round, 66, 72, 73rd Overall: David Toews, Jyri Niemi, Kirill Petrov

David Toews, 66th: Toews, one of a few "lesser" brothers of NHL stars the Islanders have drafted over the years, never looked like he would pan out. Trouble advancing at North Dakota led to his departure to Canadian juniors as an overager, but it was never happening. He eventually was given a shot with his brother's organization, the Blackhawks.

Jyri Niemi, 72nd: With 13 selections in 2008, some were bound to not be retained when their two-year (or for NCAA, four-year) rights periods lapsed. Niemi was one of the first to be dumped, and the Islanders fetched a small morsel for him by flipping his rights to the Rangers (an unholy transaction) for a sixth-round pick. (The Islanders would later flip that 2010 sixth and their own sixth to Atlanta for a 2011 fifth, used to select Brenden Kichton.) Niemi spent most of 2011-12 in the ECHL.

Kirill Petrov, 73rd: Collecting picks is tailor-made for low-risk, high-reward selections like Petrov. So with their third selection of the third round, the Islanders grabbed a proverbial "first-round talent" in Petrov, who teams knew was locked up to a multi-year contract in the KHL. Four years later, Petrov's talent shows he was worth the gamble, but this spring opportunity and a reportedly ill mother kept him in Russia for another couple of seasons. Depending on the NHL CBA and other conditions, if he wants to come over in two years at age 24 then the selection will still have been a good gamble. If not, tat pick came up Toews.

4th Round, 96th, 102 Overall: Matt Donovan, David Ullström

This is how drafts go: Six picks in the 2nd and 3rd round with only 2-3 players to show for it, and yet the fourth and fifth rounds produce four players who still look like NHLers:

Matt Donovan, 96th: Like Ness, Donovan impressed in college and earned a contract after his junior year. (Reportedly the Islanders would've had him after his sophomore year, too.) His development has been promising and it's anyone's guess whether he or Aaron Ness -- or 2009 pick Calvin de Haan -- win one of the open jobs in training camp this year. Regardless, Donovan very much looks like he'll be an NHL regular.

David Ullstrom, 102nd: While Niemi was flipped as his rights were about to lapse, Ullstrom was signed and lured from Sweden before the deadline, ans in the two years since his development has trended in the right direction. Another forward with center history but who might be preferred at wing, he opened last season on a scoring tear in the AHL and earned a callup to the Isles. A concussion in the NHL slowed his season, but otherwise all arrows point upward for Ullstrom.

5th Round, 126, 148th Overall: Kevin Poulin, Matt Martin

Kevin Poulin, 126th: Poulin was the quiet pick, the "well despite the 15-year deal you still need goalie insurance" pick. In this goalies-a-plenty age where you really, really, really should not use top picks on goalies, Poulin is the perfect use of a selection to build depth or, more precisely, insurance at the position. Turns out Poulin has become an excellent prospect, with the only question mark being not talent but rather the long-term outlook if the dislocated knee cap he suffered in 2011 ever becomes a recurring problem.

Poulin joins Anders Nilsson in pushing the older Isles goalies for NHL jobs over the next two seasons.

Matt Martin, 148th: Martin was an overage selection who had produced big on Sarnia's Steven Stamkos squad and in the year afterward in his overage season. Arriving at a first contract created some drama -- and Martin needs an RFA deal this summer -- but Martin has progressed each year and looks to be a plus fourth-liner if not better.

6th Round, 156, 175th Overall: Jared Spurgeon, Justin DiBenedetto

Jared Spurgeon, 156: The diminutive Spurgeon was like "the other Ness" from the Isles' 2008 draft haul, and he may well prove to be the better one. Like Niemi and Toews, the Islanders cut bait with Spurgeon rather than sign him to a contract, but he caught on with the Minneosta Wild and is already a regular there. One can understand with the pool of prospects and the quantity of undersized defensive prospects why the Islanders had to cut someone, but it now looks like Spurgeon was one they should have kept.

Justin DiBenedetto, 175: DiBenedetto was a productive Sarnia overager like Martin, and like fellow Sting and Islander Mark Katic, "DiBo" is headed to Europe next season. Also like Katic, DiBenedetto's rights were retained when the Islanders qualified him, so there is the outside chance he could do a Joensuu and return to the fold. About to turn 24 this month, DiBenedetto is an established shift disturber in the Jon Sim mold. Like Sim before him, don't count him out just yet.

Status Report

So out of the 2008 draft's 13 selections -- itself an unusually high quantity -- here's where that Islanders draft stands:

  • 4 proven NHL regulars (though one who is a regular for someone else), including one potential All-Star
  • 4 prospects who still look like decent bets at achieving NHL regular status with the Islanders
  • 3 outright busts -- oddly, all of them in the second or third round
  • 1 possible top-six forward who is nonetheless as KHL-tied today as he was on his draft day
  • 1 AHLer or replacement NHLer whose Europe-bound but whose NHL rights are still held by the Islanders

It is by no means a crop of stars (though Hamonic is on the verge), but it is a healthy crop of quality players, and as these players approach age 23 that first bullet could grow. Bailey evolving rather than stalling would really help, but either way if a few more from the second bullet above become regulars, then 2008 will remain a defining draft for the Islanders rebuild. Not so much for star production (though again, Hamonic) but for essential depth throughout the lineup.

As always time will tell, but the time is getting closer.