Monday, June 30, 2008

NHL free agency starts at midnight

There aren't a lot of big names out there... The defenders are probably stronger this time around, with Brian Campbell and Brooks Orpik the best long-term values. For forwards, you can get a couple of years of Mats Sundin, who is still valuable but not the complete beast he was earlier in his career. Brendan Morrison, Martin Straka, and Brian Rolston could also be helpful for a few years. The only front-line goalie available is Cristobal Huet - Jose Theodore is either a great idea (former league MVP) or a disaster (nearly played himself out of the league until this past season); Ty Conklin helped save Pittsburgh's season but it's his only long-term success in the NHL.

There are other big names, but they all come with a catch. Jaromir Jagr is likely going to re-sign with the Rangers or leave the NHL; Peter Forsberg is likely to retire entirely because of his ever-increasing injuries; Joe Sakic, Sergei Federov, and Teemu Selanne are right at the ends of their wonderful careers.

Now, a lot of these guys are linked to the Rangers, but that's because they're the Rangers, and are always linked to everybody. The Isles are usually linked to nobody. When they do try to make a splash it usually backfires, such as the injuries that turned Michael Peca into a third-liner, or being unable to re-sign Ryan Smyth after getting him at the 2007 trade deadline. It's so bad that there are rumors that they may try bringing BACK Alexei Yashin - you may remember him as the guy they bought out a couple of seasons ago because his contract was a disaster considering his lesser output.

Of course, the Isles are in this position because the last 20 years have been an utter disaster in the draft. Strong teams draft well. The Isles dynasty was built on strong drafting: Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom, and Brent Sutter were all home-grown. The last 20 years, though - well, not so much.

The following list is not meant for the sqeamish hockey fan. In fact it's pretty much cover your eyes awful, and features a startling number of people you've never heard of, unless you're related to the players:

1989 - #1 overall, C Mats Sundin (Quebec). Isles pick #2 - LW Dave Chyzowski.
Ironically, the Isles now have the #5 and #11 players from this draft - Bill Guerin and Mike Sillinger. Both are good additions, but no longer front-line players. The Isles really could have used either of these guys from the get-go; or Stu Barnes (#4, Winnipeg), Bobby Holik (#10, Hartford), Olaf Kolzig (#19, Washington), or Adam Foote (#22, Quebec).

1990 - #1 overall, Owen Nolan (Quebec). Isles pick #6 - Scott Scissons.
The draft Isles fans still curse about. #2-5, by the way, were Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau, Mike Ricci, and Jaromir Jagr; #7 was Darryl Sydor and #8 was Derian Hatcher. #19 was Keith Tkachuk, the kind of power forward the Isles haven't had since Gillies retired. But the galling pick came at #20 - the New Jersey Devils took Martin Brodeur. For that matter, Toronto took Felix Potvin at #31. The Isles made a habit of passing up great goalies in favor of dubious forwards. Excuse me while I douse my eyes in bleach, and drink the rest.

1991 - #1 overall, Eric Lindros (Qeubec). Isles pick #4 - Scott Lachance.
It's no wonder the Nordiques' franchise won the Stanley Cup after moving to Colorado, after three such drafts in a row. Foote was the only of these top players they kept, but the deals they made with them brought back a wealth of talent. Wendel Clark came over when Sundin left, and one of the players the Isles passed up went back when Lindros went to the Flyers: Peter Forsberg. Also passed up by the Isles: Richard Matvichuk (#8, Minnesota), Brian Rolston (#11, New Jersey), Alexei Kovalev (#15, Rangers), Markus Naslund (#16, Pittsburgh), and Glen Murray (#18, Boston). It's not that Lachance was terrible, but he never quite filled the promise the Isles hoped for, in no small part because he was not well-handled by the team.

1992 - #1 overall, Roman Hamrlik (Tampa Bay). Isles pick #5 - Darius Kasparaitis.
One of the better years for the Isles. Kaspar the Unfriendly Ghost was a quality pest, and the Isles eventually obtained Hamrlik and got good years from him. But Kasparaitis was part of the shameful dismantling of the team in the mid-90's. The Isles passed up on Sergei Gonchar at #14 and Martin Straka at #19 - though they did eventually have Straka for parts of two years and then, like so many other young players, simply gave up on him too early.

1993 - Isles pick #23 - Todd Bertuzzi. Another good pick, given up on too early.

1994 - #1 overall, Ed Jovanovski (Florida). Isles pick #9 - Brett Lindros.
The "better brother," as ex-GM Don Maloney dubbed him, turned out to be even more fragile than Eric Lindros, without the results... he retired from concussions after less than a season's worth of games. The Isles missed out on Jeff Friesen (#11, San Jose), Mattias Ohlund (#13, Vancouver), and Wayne Primeau (#17, Buffalo).

1995 - #1 overall, Bryan Berard (Ottawa). Isles pick #2 - Wade Redden.
The Isles swapped Redden for Berard on draft day (they also got Straka) and Berard was Rookie of the Year. Ever since, things have been worse. The Isles decided that he was going to be too expensive and they traded him at the age of 21. The next season he was injured horrifically, partially blinded in one eye and missing over a full season. He won the Masterson Trophy (awarded for perseverance and dedication to hockey) by returning successfully in 2003, but has bounced around since then. Now he's back with the Isles but is not what he once was. Neither is he Jarome Iginla (#11, Dallas) nor Jean-Sebastien Giguere (#13, Hartford).

1996 - #1 overall, Chris Phillips (Ottawa). Isles pick #3 - J.P. Dumont.
Horrible. Dumont has had the best two seasons of his career the past two years for Nashville. The Isles never got a game out of him, and got precious little out of the guy they got for him, Dmitri Nabokov, who wisely went to play in Russia in 2000. The Isles missed Marty Reasoner (#14, St. Louis), Danius Zubrus (#15, Philadelphia), Marco Sturm (#21, San Jose), and Daniel Briere (#24, Phoenix).

1997- #1 overall, Joe Thornton (Boston). Isles pick #4 - Roberto Luongo, #5 - Eric Brewer.
Given back-to-back cracks, the Isles get it right, only to give up on both players way too early. For that matter, the #3 guy in this draft, Olli Jokinen, was briefly an Islander as well. You'd think a guy that cost Zigmund Palffy would be someone to keep around, but the Isles sent him away after just one season, to Florida - WITH LUONGO - for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. I will now chew on a high voltage wire while standing in salt water.

1998 - #1 overall, Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay). Isles pick #9 - Michael Rupp.
Who? Oh yeah, the guy with 44 points in 263 career games. The guy better than Nik Antropov (#11, Toronto), Alex Tanguay (#12, Colorado), Martin Skoula (#17, Colorado), Robyn Regehr (#19, Colorado), Simon Gagne (#22, Philadelphia), Jiri Fischer (#25, Detroit), and Scott Gomez (#27, New Jersey). The four forwards in that list (Antropov, Tanguay, Gagne, and Gomez) have each had TWO seasons or more with as many points as Rupp in his whole career. In fact, Tanguay and Gomez have never scored fewer than 44 points in ANY season.

1999 - the Isles had three top-10 choices: Tim Connolly, Taylor Pyatt, and Branislav Mezei. All were sent away. That's pretty much all you need to know about the Isles - but I have more.

2000 - #1 overall, Rick DiPietro (Islanders).
The Isles take the guy that they don't need at all because of Roberto Luongo, and pass up on Dany Heatley (#2, Atlanta), and Marian Gaborik (#3, Minnesota). They then take Raffi Torres at #5, which is fine, except that all his best years are taking place out in Edmonton. Meanwhile, Brooks Orpik (#18, Pittsburgh) and Nicklas Kronwall (#29, Detroit) become great defensemen elsewhere, because Heaven knows the Islanders don't need defensemen, right?

Just imagine the Islanders keeping Luongo, Jokinen, Berard, and Bertuzzi, and taking one each of the above two pairs. Just that, with nothing else. That is a complete first-line starting six, even if Bertuzzi is not as good as he was with Vancouver. (This presumes that Berard would never have been injured against Ottawa had he stayed.)

2001- #1 overall, Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta). Isles pick #2... oh, wait, no they don't. They trade this pick to Ottawa in the Alexei Yashin deal. The Senators take Jason Spezza. The Isles don't. Neither do they get a chance at Stephen Weiss (#4, Florida), Mikko Koivu (#6, Minnesota), Mike Komisarek (#7, Montreal), or Ales Hemsky (#13, Edmonton). They do, however, pick Cory Stillman at #101. That's excellent value in the fourth round, right? Oh, what's that you say - he never played a game for the Islanders? I will now slide feet-first into a giant garbage disposal.

EDIT - heh. Should have been a little more careful. They did draft Cory Stillman in 2001, but not that one, who (had I read anything) has been in the league since 1995. In my defense, when I searched, the guy I found was the only one who came up, since the Isles' draftee never made the NHL - but still, I am rather an idiot. Never mind.

2002-2005 - more of the same. Isles take Sean Bergenheim (enigma), Robert "Shmilsson" Nilsson (currently a productive forward in Edmonton), Petteri Nokelainen (currently an awesome center in my NHL 2004 game, and nowhere else), and Ryan O'Marra. They do not take Cam Ward, Jarret Stoll, Jiri Hudler, Zach Parise (a son of one of their former players!), Ryan Getzlaf, Mark Stuart, Mike Richards, Travis Zajac, Wojtek Wolski, Rob Schremp, Mike Green, Martin Hanzal, Nicklas Bergfors, or Andrew Coligliano.

2006 - Isles pick #7 - Kyle Okposo. This they got right, at least if early returns are anything. With luck he'll be the guy they can finally use to anchor a reliable first line. But they lost their 2007 pick (#6 overall) and couldn't get any help for the guy: not Sam Gagner, Zach Hamill, Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter (son of Isles great Brent Sutter) or Colton Gillies (son of HALL OF FAMER Clark) (!#$^*&%!!^#%&~!).

2008 - help? Well, they took Joshua Bailey at #9. But they had the fifth pick. They traded it for #7, and traded THAT for #9, and got three extra picks out of it: a second-rounder next year, and #40 and #68 for this draft. And what did they get with the dealt-down pick? Not Luke Schenn, Nikita Filatov, Mikkel Boedker, or Cody Hodgson. No sirree, they went with Joshua Bailey, who is hopefully good, but was rated lower than any of those four guys. The Canucks grabbed Hodgson at #10, and probably were high-fiving themselves when Boedker was announced at number 8, knowing that the Isles were picking ahead of them.

These guys aren't an NHL team anymore. I still root for them, but they're bush league at this point, and they have clearly not hired the proper front office if in the past three years their big scores are Kyle Okposo and a month-long Ryan Smyth rental. They haven't won a playoff round since 1993; their record since the day David Volek beat Tom Barasso in overtime of Game Seven is 427-542-147 (.448), and their playoff record is 7-24 (.226). The most frustrating thing is that they hit on a decent number of those draft choices and still managed to piddle away nearly every last one of them.

DOUBLE EDIT - more of their lower-round choices hit than the first-rounders. They got Palffy, Travis Green, Bryan McCabe, and Blake Comeau in various second rounds; Zdeno Chara (3), Marty McInnis (8), Vladimir Malakhov (10), Andreas Johanssen (7), Tommy Salo (5), Brad Lukowich (4), Dick Tarnstrom (11), Radek Martinek (8), Franz Neilsen (3), Bruno Gervais (6), and Chris Campoli (7) were or are productive players, with many enjoying good seasons in New York. The last four from that list (and Comeau) are still there, and hopefully leading the team up and out over the next couple of years. You'll have to forgive me for working the first rounds only: twenty years of drafting is a lot of research when you're busy busy. But this does give me a little hope that the scouting staff is pretty good and are digging up useful players. I will take it all back if Bailey turns out to lead a decent draft haul; maybe (dare I dream?) on a par with 1980 (Brent Sutter, Kelly Hrudey, Greg Gilbert), 1977 (Bossy and Tonelli), 1974 (Gillies and Trottier), or 1972 (Harris, Henning, Nystrom, and Howatt).

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