Say this about the New York Islanders. Historically, as a franchise, they are prepared to bet big.
It doesn’t always work out – see Alexei Yashin for Zdeno Chara and the right to draft Jason Spezza as just one of a half-a-dozen or more examples of how an ill-advised personnel decision can blow up in their collective faces. (Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. A young Todd Bertuzzi and a young Bryan McCabe for Trevor Linden). But this isn’t about piling on former GM Mike Milbury. It’s about piling on the current general manager Garth Snow.
Even knowing their history, the Islanders rolled the dice again in a meaningful way this past week. With the rest of the hockey world distracted by the NHL playoffs, the Islanders notified the Buffalo Sabres that they would use their first-round pick, fifth overall, in the 2014 entry draft and defer until 2015 transferring the first-round they owe them in the Thomas Vanek deal. The Islanders scout players like the rest of the league, so they are aware that not one but potentially two generational players could be up for grabs in 2015 – Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters and Jack Eichel of the U.S. under-18 national development team.
It is the sort of draft that only comes along once in a while, one that can shift the fortunes of a franchise in one fell swoop, one that gets general managers dreaming about ping pong balls and the luck of the lottery draw.
And now, assuming they stay bad for at least one more year, the Sabres will get two cracks at McDavid and Eichel – and wouldn’t it be something if they ended up with both? Hockey in Western New York might never be the same.
The Islanders, meanwhile, are gambling that the return to health of John Tavares and the decision to sign goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a four-year contract, thus stabilizing a woefully erratic position, will make them a playoff team - or if not a playoff team, close enough that the chances of winning the draft lottery and moving into a top-two position are negligible.
It’s a bold gamble, given that the Islanders play in the 16-team Eastern Conference and you’d have to figure that at least three of this year’s non-playoff teams – the Washington Capitals, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators – all have a far greater chance of pushing for a playoff spot than they do.
Vanek, of course, played just 47 games for the Islanders this past season before being flipped to the Montreal Canadiens at the trading deadline - and also cost them the services of Matt Moulson, in addition to that intriguing future first-round pick.
Moulson was eventually shuffled off from Buffalo to the Minnesota Wild, where the fit wasn’t great. Moulson has excellent hands, but his middle-of-the-road speed, which didn’t seem to affect his scoring totals as much in the East where he rode shotgun with Tavares, never translated well to the track-meet style of game they play in the West. A return to Long Island as an unrestricted free agent makes the most sense for Moulson - and for an Islanders’ team that really, really needs to be better next season.
Vanek, meanwhile, has long been rumored to be Minnesota bound, but the way he’s struggled in the playoffs, you’d have to think the Wild will think twice about how much they’d be prepared to spend to bring him in. Minnesota will have extra salary-cap dollars freed up by Dany Heatley’s expiring contract, some of which they will have to dedicate to resigning goaltender Darcy Kuemper and forward Nino Niederreiter, both restricted free agents.
Kuemper, a revelation as a rookie pressed into starting duty in the second half, will get a chance to battle goaltender Niklas Backstrom – two more years at $3.416-million, recovering from off-season surgery – for the No. 1 job. Josh Harding, who didn’t play after Christmas, after adjusting his medication for multiple sclerosis, has a year left at $1.9-million. Ilya Bryzgalov, who played the majority of their games through two playoff rounds, is a UFA.
Presumably, the Islanders want the No. 5 overall pick this year because they traded away the No. 5 overall pick in 2008, Niederreiter, to the Wild for Cal Clutterbuck. This is one decision they better get right.