McKenzie: No indication on who the Islanders will draft

Bob McKenzie

6/19/2009 11:49:36 AM

The suspense is building.

For the first time in the last six or perhaps seven years, the clear identity of who will go No. 1 in the NHL entry draft is not known in the days leading up to the event.

Even though London Knight centre John Tavares is the consensus No. 1 choice, the New York Islanders have not committed to taking Tavares one week from tonight in Montreal and there is a very real sense that any one of Tavares, Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman and perhaps even Brampton Battalion centre Matt Duchene could be the top choice.

There hasn't been this much uncertainty or speculation since 2003, when the Pittsburgh Penguins opted for netminder Marc-Andre Fleury over Eric Staal, although this year's situation probably bears a closer resemblance to 2002, when the Florida Panthers held the first overall pick amid speculation over who they would take - defenceman Jay Bouwmeester or scoring winger Rick Nash.

As it turned out, the Panthers believed Bouwmeester to be the top prospect but then Panther GM Rick Dudley received inducements to trade down to the No. 3 spot in an arrangement that made Nash the No. 1 pick to Columbus, netminder Kari Lehtonen No. 2 to Atlanta and Bouwmeester No. 3 to Florida.

There is not likely to be any of that draft-day maneuvering involving the No. 1 pick this year - "I don't envision us moving the (No. 1) pick," Islander GM Garth Snow told TSN, "I just don't see us doing that" - but the choice between an elite-level defenceman (Hedman) and a prolific goal-scorer (Tavares) is reminiscent, to some degree, of Bouwmeester-Nash.

All anyone seems to know for sure is that the suspense and intrigue is going to build. While fans and media and the teams immediately behind the Islanders in the draft - Tampa Bay at No. 2 and Colorado at No. 3 - guess and speculate on how things may unfold, the only man who knows with certainty what will happen isn't saying and doesn't intend to tip his hand until he walks up to the podium with sweater in hand and makes the announcement.

"That's the plan right now," Snow said. "Don't you think (the suspense) is a good thing? Don't you think that's the way it should be?"

The team with the No. 1 pick is entitled to begin contract negotiations with their choice before the draft and it's not uncommon for teams to declare their intention either publicly or privately to the top prospect ahead of time, but Snow said he's likely to spurn those opportunities to keep it a secret until the announcement at the podium on the draft floor at the Bell Centre.

Does he really believe he can keep it a secret until then?

"Yes," he said.

Does he know whose name he'll call?

"Yes," he said.

How long has he known the player's identity?

"Well, when we won the draft lottery (on April 14) I was asked if I knew who we were going to take," Snow said. "I said at the time that I had a pretty good idea but that I wasn't firmly committed to it until we went through the process of doing our due diligence on all the top guys. Let's just say the process re-affirmed what I thought back then. We want the same guy now that we wanted back then."

And that player is…

"Nice try," Snow said.

The Islanders had each of the top three prospects come to Long Island for extensive visits. Tavares was first because his Knights were eliminated from the OHL playoffs before Duchene's Battalion. Duchene was the second visitor and Hedman, who wasn't going to be in North America until later, was the third.

"They are all outstanding players and outstanding young men," Snow said. "You couldn't go wrong with any of them."

Many, including thousands of passionate Islander fans who will watch the draft unfold on closed-circuit TV at an Islander-sponsored draft party at the Nassau County Coliseum, believe there is no other choice than John Tavares, the goal-scoring machine who has played four years of major junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights and starred for Canada in the last two World Junior Championships.

Islander fan message boards and blog sites are jammed with desperate pleas to draft Tavares and threats of cancelled season tickets if they don't. It could be quite an interesting scene at the Islanders' "draft party" at the Coliseum if Snow opts for Hedman or Duchene over Tavares.

"Honestly, and this isn't an indication of who we're taking or not taking, but we can't be concerned with public perception of what people think we should do," Snow said. "We owe it to our fans and ourselves to draft the player who we think gives us the best chance to win the Stanley Cup one day. That's the only consideration we have. That's all that matters. And that's what we're going to do. Whichever player we pick, that's the one we think gives us the best chance to be successful."