For the next 20 days, our esteemed staff is previewing the 20 biggest questions facing the New York Islanders this season. Please note, I am not psychic, but I did predict that Anthony Beauvillier would make the team in 2016 and Mathew Barzal would get sent back down to the WHL, so maybe I am a little psychic.
Noah Dobson has seen his stock continue to rise after being selected 12th overall by the Islanders in the 2018 NHL Draft. The 18-year-old defender for Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL has been described as an incredibly poised two-way defenseman, having all the tools to succeed, though perhaps lacking any one especially elite attribute. He was viewed as the best defenseman for Canada at the World Junior Summer Showcase, and with the Islanders’ defense masquerading as a complete and utter dumpster fire last season, it’s hard to really say anyone’s spot is secure, contract situation notwithstanding.
But what are the odds of an 18-year-old 6’3”, 176 pound defenseman making the NHL in his first season post-draft and actually succeeding? There’s very little precedent, especially for Dobson’s peers out of the QMJHL. The Q isn’t known for producing elite defensemen, though players like Kris Letang and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who have enjoyed very successful NHL careers, would like a word. Dobson isn’t really a similar player to either of these defensemen, and they played in the Q over 10 years ago. Some of Dobson’s more recent comparables from the QMJHL might be Thomas Chabot and Samuel Girard, who both had promising rookie seasons in 2017-18. The only Q defenseman to play a full NHL season after his draft year was 2009 first round pick Dmitri Kulikov, who started strong but has fallen out of favor with a bunch of teams in recent years. Despite Dobson getting dinged for apparent lack of offensive ability, his 17 goals are the most by any defenseman who currently is in the NHL out of the QMJHL in his draft year. His 69 points are the second highest, after Samuel Girard’s 74 points, though Girard only scored 10 goals.
The one proven NHL defenseman that keeps coming up as a comparable to Noah Dobson is Alex Pietrangelo, the current captain of the St. Louis Blues. Pietrangelo’s path to the NHL was fairly standard, spending the majority of his two post-draft years in the OHL. Pietrangelo did make the Blues out of camp right after being drafted, but suffered an injury that limited his games played before being sent back down to juniors. He also made the team out of camp in his second year, but was released for the World Juniors and then returned to the OHL. Pietrangelo was also selected 4th overall in the 2008 NHL Draft, and so expectations for success were higher coming into camp than they would reasonably for Dobson.
If Dobson were to make the team, a 9 game tryout seems like the best way to do it. The Islanders get to see what they have in the young defenseman and he can challenge some other players who may have gotten complacent. The best case is that he’s too good to send back down to junior, in which case, he’s probably a top four defenseman for this team at just 18. Who cares about burning an ELC year at that point? The worst is that he doesn’t play all 9 games and gets sent back down to the QMJHL, and there’s no harm done.
The truth is that Dobson’s game might be ready, but he needs to add muscle. It’s easy to fend off QMJHL kids at only 176 pounds, but in the NHL where so many guys are skating as fast as they can at 200 plus pounds, it’s not really a recipe for success. As has been noted, he also lacks a truly elite skill as a player, so it makes more sense to let him get as much ice time as possible in junior rather than sheltered and limited time in the NHL. The Islanders also have a lot of defensemen with NHL contracts and a lot of young AHL defensemen who can challenge for those spots. Dobson would have to beat out guys like Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Sebastian Aho, and Devon Toews, who all are older and with far more professional experience. It really doesn’t make sense to push Dobson into the NHL if he’s not head and shoulders better than the competition.
So to get to the point: Does Noah Dobson have a shot to make the New York Islanders roster out of training camp? Yes, he absolutely does. How long will he stay on the roster? That’s up to how ready he is for the NHL. Does it make sense for the Islanders to add him to the roster for just a 9 game tryout? It can’t hurt, but if he’s going to spend a lot of time sitting in the press box, is it really worth it? Dobson can probably learn a lot more by taking advice from Barry Trotz at training camp and during the preseason, and putting on weight while being one of the best defensemen in the QMJHL. If I had to guess, Dobson gets sent back since he’s just not quite ready to play in the best hockey league in the world. That’s not a knock on him, and he’s likely to have a fantastic season between his QMJHL team (the defending Memorial Cup champions) and Team Canada at the World Juniors. For Dobson, that seems like the best course for his development.