When the Islanders took to the ice for the first time at Barclays Center against the Blackhawks last month, their lineup lack something significant. No, not the mythical Stud Winger or Crease Clearing D-man, but something that it had in every opening night in recent memory: a rookie. Last season featured Griffin Reinhart and (after an early season callup) Anders Lee, seasons before, Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Nino Niederreiter. This year, no one.
While the Isles are known around the league as an up-and-coming team, they are in fact relatively old. The team currently has the 9th oldest roster in the league. A closer look at the Isles lineup demonstrates this even more starkly: With Ryan Strome in BPT, the Isles’ lineup is the only one in the league without a single skater below age 24 that has played 10 games or more. One team –Detroit – features one below-24 year old skater and the rest of the league has anywhere between 2 and 8 skaters that fall into this category. So even if we assume Strome’s return to the roster, the Isles are well below the rest of the league in this respect.
Another way to look at the issue is the team’s success in graduating its draft picks to its NHL roster. While the Isles have done a fine job with some of its pre-2010 drafts, Brock Nelson is the only Islander in the lineup from all of its drafts since 2010. And the Islanders have had 4 top 5 picks during that period. A quick comparison to other NHL rosters is not encouraging. Teams who have had high picks in recent drafts such as Florida, Colorado and Winnipeg have rosters full of post-2010 draftees. Even teams that have been perennially successful, such as St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Jose, have managed to extract more NHLers from recent drafts than the Isles.
How we got here
There are two obvious causes for this:
1. The Nino Niederreiter and Griffin Reinhart trades. Two of the team’s top 5 picks are not currently making contributions to its roster because they are currently making contributions on NHL rosters of other teams. We can argue about the wisdom of those trades (and boy haven’t we!) but the impact of not having two young, high-first round caliber players on the roster can’t be denied.
2. The Isles' approach to player development. Up until fairly recently, the Isles promoted their high first round draft picks to the NHL in the season immediately following the draft or one season later. This approach was followed for Kyle Okposo, John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Nino Niederreiter. And then, starting with the Isles’ 2011 draft, the approach abruptly changed. Ryan Strome was made to play two more seasons in juniors and another half season in the AHL before debuting with the NHL team. Griffin Reinhart was kept for two seasons in juniors before his Isles debut, although most of the season was similarly spent in the AHL. Both Ryan Pulock and Michael Dal Colle, both of whom have yet to make their NHL debut, seem to be following a similar trend (unlike many of their draft peers: see here and here).
Why should we care?
Sure, as any reader of the LHH comment section will attest, serious fans who closely follow a team’s prospects from draft day naturally are eager to see them on the team. But the lack of under-24 year olds on the Isles’ roster is more than just fan griping. In the present-day NHL’s salary cap economy, having cost-controlled talent on the roster is critical to team’s competitiveness, for obvious reasons: pending UFAs can be allowed to walk and the UFA market can be avoided if a team has a consistent pipeline of young talent upon which to draw. It’s the way that teams like St. Louis, Chicago, Tampa Bay, the Rangers and LA continue to assemble winning teams despite losing star players as UFAs or in salary cap-driven deals.
Garth Snow has successfully built a talented roster over the last several years by smartly managing his assets but with relatively few cost-controlled players making contributions at the NHL level, there is some uncertainty about how he continues to do this as some of the vets hit UFA. For example, who in the organization replaces Kyle Okposo and/or Frans Nielsen’s production when one (or both) of them walk? The Isles have a nice bunch of forward prospects but given the team’s approach to player development, I would be surprised if any of them debuted on the team next year, and even if they did, it would be unfair to rely upon them to make significant contributions as a rookie. At the very least, it’s fair to say that the rest of the NHL is in a better position than the Isles in this regard.
What are the Islanders doing wrong?
It’s difficult to pinpoint what the underlying problem is. Is Islanders management simply too reluctant to give its young talent the opportunity to play (and stay) on the team? Or is it a failure to draft well or properly develop prospects once they are drafted? It’s probably a combination of the three. There’s no good reason why Ryan Pulock shouldn’t at least be given a fair opportunity to play over Marek Zidlicky or Brian Strait or for the constant doghousing of Ryan Strome. There is also at least one clear case of botched player development and I don’t need to write her name, if you know what I mean. (See what I did there?) As for drafting, it’s easy to second guess picking Griffin Reinhart (or even Michael Dal Colle) but none of the team’s high picks were "off the board" so to speak and I’m willing to chalk up any failures to the inherent impossibility of predicting what kind an adult an 17 or 18 year old boy will turn into.
On the bright side, the Islanders have one of the best group of forward, defense and goaltending prospects in the league. They also have a talented and deep group of forwards at the NHL level -- which includes a world-class talent that most other teams who kill for -- locked up for the next couple of years. If their prospects can make the jump to the NHL, the team should be fine. Management just needs to give them a chance.