What’s done cannot be undone: John Tavares no longer plays for the New York Islanders. But the franchise isn’t simply going to fold up. Life goes on. And as bleak as the present looks for the team, there is a future, and it’s actually pretty rosy.
New York has been building towards that future for a while, but its past few drafts have been especially productive, and 2018 in particular was a boon. “I don’t think we could be more pleased with the way it turned out,” said GM Lou Lamoriello. “We got three quality defensemen, all 6-foot-3 with different dimensions. We got a goalie our goaltending department is excited about and four forwards also with different dimensions as far as skill, size and strength.”
The jewels of the Isles’ 2018 draft crown were right winger Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman Noah Dobson, taken with the 11th and 12th picks overall. That was a nice haul to begin with, but on Day 2, the Islanders struck back with netminder Jakub Skarek, the top-rated goalie in THN’s Draft Preview, plus high-risk, high-reward defenseman Bode Wilde and slippery center Ruslan Iskhakov, among others.
All these players add to an already solid pipeline but, most importantly, the Islanders have pieces in all the right places for down the road.
Even with Tavares gone, New York has a top-flight center in Mathew Barzal, who dazzled the NHL this past season with three separate five-point outings, becoming the first rookie in 100 years to do so and tying Joe Malone in the process. Barzal has the smarts and playmaking skills to be a No. 1 center, and, for the record, he actually won the Isles’ scoring title over Tavares this past season by one point with 85. Barzal won the Calder Trophy in a landslide over Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, garnering all but a handful of first-place votes.
Is Barzal a finished product? Of course not, but he’s on the right path. As he gets stronger, he’ll get better on faceoffs. As he gets more experience, he’ll learn how to fend off tougher competition. He doesn’t need to do it in a day: it will take a couple years. But having that pivot is crucial for New York’s future. Teams such as Carolina and Montreal hope they have a No. 1 center of the future, but there is still a lot for Martin Necas to prove with the Canes and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to grow into for the Canadiens.
One of New York’s biggest pipeline strengths is on the wings, where snipers such as Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows and wild card Josh Ho-Sang reside. Assuming the Isles aren’t competing for a playoff spot this coming season, Ho-Sang should get ample opportunity to prove he can be a full-time NHLer under a new coach in Barry Trotz. And let’s not forget the Islanders still have capable scorers in Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle to shield the kids as they enter the league.
In net, the Islanders have circled the drain for years, but again, the future holds promise. Ilya Sorokin has been one of the KHL’s top netminders the past couple seasons and will be on a contender when CSKA Moscow’s 2018-19 season begins in September. Sorokin is under contract until 2020, and those deals tend to be ironclad in Russia. But once he comes over, he’ll be as close to ready as a goalie prospect could be. It’s prudent he does some time in the AHL first, just to get used to the smaller ice over here, but otherwise he’s a gem. And again: if done right, this rebuild will take a few years. Skarek and Linus Soderstrom are other possibilities.
On defense, Dobson is the key. With his size and mobility, the Memorial Cup winner with Acadie-Bathurst has the chops to be a top-pairing guy. He’ll need more time in junior to develop, but that just means a great chance to dominate at the world juniors with Canada when the tourney hits Vancouver in December. The Islanders already have a nice find in Sebastian Aho and with the sturdy Robin Salo and cannon-shot Ryan Pulock also in the hopper, the defense corps has options.
In the present, New York loaded up on grit by bringing in Matt Martin, Leo Komarov and Tom Kuhnhackl. They will give Robin Lehner what is likely his last chance to prove he can be an NHL starting goalie. A projected bottom-10 finish will yield another high draft pick, which Lamoriello will use in 2019. Heck, it may even be first overall, landing them spectacular center Jack Hughes.
The pain is real for Islanders fans, but at least this franchise is building something. The pieces are coming into place for a brighter future.
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.