Having wrapped up a miserable season, in which they finished in last place in the National Hockey League, the New York Islanders can take some solace in the fact that they won the draft lottery, so their futility at least paid off in the form of the number one overall draft pick.
Off-Season Game Plan examines what the Isles might be able to do this summer in order build a contending team in the not-too-distant future. Rest assured, it won't be easy.
With the first pick in this summer's draft, the Islanders can debate the merits of London Knights scorer John Tavares or 6-foot-6 Swedish blueliner Victor Hedman, either of whom will play a major role in the franchise's rebuilding process.
"Right now, in our lineup, we don't have a lot of firepower," head coach Scott Gordon told the New York Post late in the season.
That may not have been so much a vote for Tavares as much as a statement of the obvious since the Islanders ranked 29th in the league with 2.42 goals per game. At the same time, the Isles finished 28th in goals against (3.34), so it's not like any individual player will suddenly fix all that ails them.
For his part, GM Garth Snow hasn't ruled out dealing the top pick, presumably if some team (say, the Toronto Maple Leafs?) was willing to pay a premium price, but any deal involving the number one pick has to yield a haul of good young players and prospects that will help long-term.
Instead, the Islanders can use the 2009 draft to build a solid foundation around the handful of quality young players already in the organization. The Islanders have 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including San Jose's first round pick and three second-rounders.
Getting a stockpile of young talent into the system is the right path for the Isles to take because it's the only way they are going to be able to compete consistently; it just might take some time for results (like a playoff berth) to register.
For his part, the team's resident senior, 38-year-old Doug Weight
, told the New York Post
, "There is sun around the mountain. Something good is being built here, hopefully sooner rather than later. Believe me, you're talking to a guy who wants it sooner than later."
Garth Snow/Scott Gordon
Top Prospects: Rhett Rakhshani (15-22-37, plus-4 in 38 GP; Denver-WCHA), Jesse Joensuu (20-19-39, plus-22 in 71 GP; Bridgeport-AHL), Trevor Smith (30-32-62, plus-2 in 76 GP; Bridgeport-AHL), Robin Figren (3-6-9, minus-12 in 49 GP; Djurgardens-SEL).
While the cupboard isn't completely bare up front, the Islanders' top scoring forward was rookie Kyle Okposo, who finished with 39 points.
Okposo struggled early in his first season, but finished strong with 16 points in his final 14 games, giving an indication that he is going to be a legitimate scoring winger soon enough.
The other wingers on the roster don't have the same kind of finishing ability, but at least a few of them will be required to handle scoring roles.
Trent Hunter is a solid two-way winger with good hands who is willing to bang, but he's not the fleetest afoot, missed 27 games with a variety of injuries last season and has yet to come close to duplicating his rookie season of 2003-2004, when he had 51 points and was plus-23.
Hard-working Sean Bergenheim finished with a career-high 24 points, but his strong finish (13 points, plus-11 in his last 20 games) started to scratch the surface on his potential. The 25-year-old isn't going to be a marquee scorer, but he and Hunter both have the potential to net 20-25 goals.
Danish centre Frans Nielsen esablished himself as a legitimate NHL centre. He has some upside as a playmaker and already plays a responsible defensive game. If he can expand his offensive game, perhaps he's a second-line centre; if not, he's a good fit as a No. 3.
38-year-old Doug Weight had a decent bounceback season and earned a new contract from the Islanders, presumably more for his experience and power play contributions (21 of his 38 points came with the man advantage) than what he provided at even strength.
Keeping Weight around also helps ease the expectations on 19-year-old Josh Bailey, who surprised somewhat by making the team out of training camp. Bailey is a creative setup man with lots of potential and he needs time to mature into the offensive pivot that the Islanders envision.
Veteran Richard Park is a versatile, reliable player and, with the rebuilding Isles, he probably got more than ideal ice time, given his skill level.
Similarly, young winger Blake Comeau has been given a chance to play on scoring lines though he may eventually prove to be a better fit as a third-liner with some upside because of his hockey sense.
Though not a true heavyweight, Tim Jackman is the resident enforcer and secured a contract extension thanks to his efforts (including 19 fights) this season.
A proven minor-league scorer, Jeff Tambellini hasn't been able to translate that success to the NHL, scoring just 11 goals in 144 career games. Now 25, he could be vulnerable to losing his roster spot if he can't produce offensively.
Energetic Nate Thompson played for Gordon in the AHL, but should be no more than an extra forward at the NHL level.
Jon Sim still has another year at $1-million remaining on his contract, but was waived and sent down to the AHL last season. He doesn't figure to be in the Islanders' plans, but he's available.
With the first pick in the draft, the Islanders will have the option to select prolific goal-scorer John Tavares. Tavares would provide a much-needed finishing touch for a team that didn't have a single 20-goal scorer in 2008-2009.
The Isles could use a couple of top nine forwards to simply upgrade the skill level and adding any veterans will help add some measure of stability to such a young team.
While premier free agents aren't likely to see the Islanders as a choice destination, strong veteran skaters like Marty Reasoner or Radek Dvorak might be of some interest and it could also be worth taking a shot at hitting a home run with a project like Tomas Kopecky or enigmatic Maxim Afinogenov.
Top Prospects: Dustin Kohn (4-13-17, plus-6 in 58 GP; Bridgeport-AHL), Jamie Fraser (7-14-21, plus-13 in 66 GP; Bridgeport-AHL), Andrew MacDonald (9-23-32, plus-7 in 69 GP; Bridgeport-AHL).
Last summer's big free agent signing for the Islanders, Mark Streit, may have been the best signing of the year. He led the Islanders in points and plus-minus and it went largely unnoticed because the team around him didn't perform. Naturally, there are countless questions following Streit on the depth chart.
Though he was limited to just 23 games by a broken foot, mammoth defenceman Andy Sutton played well when he was in the lineup. Ideally, he could be counted on to play a top-four role, but he's also played more than 65 games just twice in ten NHL seasons so it's tough to lean on him too much.
Bruno Gervais shows some promise and played much better as the season went along, but he's also asked to handle a heavy workload, logging 21:35 of ice time per game. Maybe he is, in fact, a top four defenceman, but it's also possible that Gervais is not yet ready for that responsibility.
Stay-at-home defenceman Radek Martinek is generally overlooked and, at his best, can be part of a shutdown tandem but, like Sutton, he can't stay healthy, playing more than 70 games just once in his six-plus NHL seasons.
Undersized Freddy Meyer can be effective as he's mobile and more than willing to throw his body around, but he only played 27 games this past season due to a groin injury and struggled even when he was in the lineup. Meyer comes at a reasonable cost, so it's probably worth giving him another chance next season.
Veteran agitator Brendan Witt endured a miserable season, posting a league-worst and career-low minus-34 rating, while also publicly calling for changes to Gordon's system because, in Witt's mind, it wasn't working.
Perhaps moving Witt will help Gordon get his system in place more effectively, but it may not be easy to deal a 34-year-old who appears to have lost a step and is still due $3-million in each of the next two seasons.
Jack Hillen has shown some ability as a mobile puck-moving defenceman, yet he'll need to improve defensively if he's going to provide anything more than organizational depth.
If the Islanders are going to make a serious effort to upgrade the blueline, they could obviously use the first overall pick to draft Victor Hedman, the Swedish prospect who could play a significant role immediately.
Failing that, or even in addition to that, the Islanders should try to solidify their blueline unit by targeting relatively young guys who may be able to play a top-four role while growing with the rest of the youth movement. Any of Johnny Oduya, Ville Koistinen, Dennis Seidenberg or Francois Beauchemin would represent a significant upgrade.
Of course, the most popular name attached to the Islanders in free agency would be that of Mike Komisarek, the hard-hitting Montreal Canadiens defenceman who hails from Long Island and provides the same kind of physical defence that Sutton does, only better and more consistently.
Komisarek will come at a big price, which could be tough for owner Charles Wang to swallow, given the losses he claims to be accruing on an annual basis.
Since the Islanders lack top quality prospects on the blueline, any moves to secure additional organizational depth at the position would be welcome.
Top Prospect: Jase Weslosky (16-13-2, 2.70 GAA, .913 SVPCT in 33 GP; St. Cloud State-WCHA)
If the Islanders are going to see substantial improvement in the coming years, they're going to need Rick DiPietro to get healthy and become a legitimate number one goaltender. As recently as the All-Star break in the 2007-2008 season, DiPietro looked like he was headed in that direction, but injuries have hindered him ever since.
The backup role could easily go to Yann Danis, who made the most of his opportunity this season when DiPietro and Joey MacDonald were out.
Danis would seem to be a reasonably-priced option, but if the Islanders want a more established veteran backup, particularly if DiPietro faces any setbacks while rehabbing from his latest surgery, they could look at the likes of free agents Mikael Tellqvist, Scott Clemmensen, Stephen Valiquette or even Martin Gerber.
1st - John Tavares, Victor Hedman.
30th - Tim Erixon, Jordan Caron, Chris Kreider.
The Islanders have approximately $32.5-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Islanders needed last year: Three top six forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender
Who did they add? Mark Streit, Thomas Pock, Doug Weight, Josh Bailey, Nate Thompson, Joey MacDonald, Yann Danis.
Trent Hunter, Brendan Witt.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca