Garth's Choice: Building A Cup Winner 101
Recently, a talking head on NHL.COM responded to a question from a viewer about the upcoming entry draft by saying that the Isles need to draft John Tavares or Matt Duchene rather than Victor Hedman because the Islanders need to score more goals.
Garth might have answered such penetrating analysis from supposed experts and fans by saying "Yeah, and we need give up fewer goals." He might have pointed out that the Rangers scored only nine goals more than the Islanders and went into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed because they have perhaps the best goaltender in the NHL and a solid and healthy, if not elite, defensive corps in front of him.
He might have noted that no team that went to the playoffs gave up anywhere near as many goals as the Islanders did.
The answer he did give is both more intelligent and to the point. He said that he appreciated how excited the fans were by the prospect of a No. 1 overall pick, but his objective in choosing that and all other picks was to build a Stanley Cup champion, not to excite the fans.
I am reminded of Jimmy Devellano's book, The Road to Hockeyville. He went from winning three straight Cups with the Isles to the GM position with the Detroit Red Wings. It is hard to imagine now, but the now mighty Wing franchise was in essentially the same situation the Isles are today. His Islander experience taught him to build through the draft as Garth is doing.
But he also needed to get the fans back, so, in an era before salary caps and with an owner willing to spend as much as needed to win, he overpaid for big name veterans with little left in the tank at the end of their careers like Sittler, Park, and Salming.
Garth has rightly chosen not to go that route, yet fans and even many experts are asking him to do just that with our draft choice. Let's get a big time goal scorer who will excite the fans is the war cry. Getting the immediate gratification of scoring more goals (or giving up fewer) is not how you approach a task as gargantuan as Garth faced last year: building a Cup winner from essentially nothing.
Let's see what he did have. Behind the bench, he had a coach who was brought in to help a team of veterans win now who was ill-suited to leading a rebuilding effort. With losses to free agency, his offense consisted of oft-injured and unproductive veterans, a potential star right wing, a quality power forward, and a number of decent veteran and prospect third and fourth line quality forwards.
On defense, it was even worse. There were virtually no star quality players. The veterans were past their prime and were frequently injured. The younger players were average quality and also were too frequently injured.
Goal should have been a source of strength. After all, the Isles had spent the past decade trying to build their franchise around their goaltender and they had spent their last No. 1 overall pick on a goaltender. Trouble was that No. 1 pick's career had been marked by injuries and inconsistency. And the reliable backup who had held the fort now flew the coop.
To make matters worse, the prospect system was one of the NHL's weakest. There was some depth at forward but, apart from the one right wing, no star quality prospects. There was absolutely no quality at defense or goal.
To start this process, Garth had to look at the team as it was and as it would be in five years—at the end of the 2012-2013 season. By then, he hoped to have a Cup contender. Which players on the team now would likely be gone and which would be there? What kinds of players would need to be added--primarily through the draft?
With the exceptions of DP, Trent Hunter, and maybe Campoli, Comrie, Gervais, and Meyer, all of the veterans would be gone. Garth would need to build from the core up. That meant the top two centers, the top two defensemen, and a prospective replacement for DP. One of the top two defenders would need to be a "franchise" defenseman. The gold standard for franchise defensemen was Denis Potvin. He was a star on offense and defense.
The course of the rebuilding was set, in large measure, by how the chips fell in last year's draft lottery. If the Isles had been given the No. 1 overall, Garth would have drafted Stamkos and no reasonable person would question that Hedman would be chosen No. 1 this year.
If the Isles had obtained the No. 2, No. 3, or No. 4 pick, he would have drafted a franchise defenseman (Doughty, Bogosian, or Pietrangelo), and no one would argue against the need to draft either Tavares or Duchene.
Schenn and Filatov are both quality prospects, but neither is a franchise defenseman or a top line center. The three franchise defensemen were gone, so Garth chose the best center left on the board—and picked up two second round picks in the process. Some argue that Hodgson would have been a better choice for center, but The Hockey News rates Bailey as a first line center and Hodgson as a second line center.
The extra picks in that draft and this one would prove critical in the rebuilding process. Prospects attained in the second and third round would begin to add needed depth and Aaron Ness, in particular, promised to be a top four defender. Adding powerplay specialist Mark Streit and prospect Jack Hillen through free agency added legitimacy to the defensive corps. Unfortunately, Dubie slipped away and no quality backup goalie was added.
Garth made an important step in firing Ted Nolan and hiring Scott Gordon. Coach Gordon had a college background and was hired based upon a system that stressed speed and agility. The trade of Comrie and Campoli took away a top two center and a top four defenseman while adding another first round pick.
To complete the asset picture, the Isles won the draft lottery and were assured of the first pick in every round as well as the additional first rounder, two extra second rounders, and an additional third rounder.
What are his priorities? He needs to get another top two center, two top two left wings, and a frontline goalie prospect. He also needs two top four defenders, one of which needs to be a franchise defenseman—a star on offense and defense.
Since Streit, Hillen, and especially Ness are undersized, and Streit and Hillen are less than stellar in their own zones, both of these defenders would need to be at least 6' and 200 lbs and would need to be very effective on defense. Given Coach Gordon's system, prospects with more speed and agility must be given greater priority.
Obviously, Garth will not be able to get all of this in one draft. In part, his strategy in this draft must be determined by what is likely to be available in the next two drafts since it will likely take two years to fully develop any draft picks. The 2011 draft is shaping up to be quite weak. Garth may even want to trade his 2011 No. 1 for a second rounder in 2010 if possible. He will have to meet these needs in the 2009 and 2010 drafts.
This draft offers a dozen top two centers and three big franchise quality defenders. The 2011 draft offers six star quality left wings in the top ten, but the top three franchise quality defensemen are all undersized. It is vital that Garth add one of the 12 top two centers and one of the three large franchise defenders in this draft. He should add a quality goalie prospect and, if possible, one of the two top second line left wings.
As it stands now—with the No. 1 and No. 26 picks—picking a center with the No. 1 pick would give the Islanders no chance at drafting a large franchise defenseman or—in fact—any franchise defenseman. If Hedman is drafted first, the Isles would still be able to draft a good second line center who might well mature into something more. Thus without a trade up, Garth's No. 1 pick seems obvious.
Garth does not seem interested in a trade involving his No. 1 pick and has ruled out trading Trent Hunter, his prime tradeable roster asset. This is significant as Edmonton with the No. 10 pick may want a power forward like Trent and he comes from less than two hours south of Edmonton.
The only way to improve Garth's position would seem to be trading up from the No. 26. The only way such a trade up can affect Garth's decision is if it is made before the draft begins. Garth may well pull off a surprise that I do not now foresee, but the only obvious way for him to make such a trade up is with Minnesota with the No. 12 pick.
Minnesota lacks second and third round picks and we are the only team behind them with multiple second and third round picks. Unless either Minnesota or a team between them and us thinks that a player available at No. 12 is worth giving up selecting in the second and third rounds, a deal for the No. 12 seems a likely prospect. The weakness of the 2011 draft makes this an even stronger prospect.
How would getting the No. 12 change things? If Garth picked Tavares or Duchene, Hedman would, of course, be gone as would Jared Cowen. Simon Depres, however, MIGHT be available at No. 12. If, however, he is not available, Garth would be forced to settle for either Dmitry Kulikov, if he is available, John Moore, or Ryan Ellis.
Given that Kulikov is the only one of those three likely to be NHL-ready, he may well be gone by then. Moore and Ellis are both very talented, but they are both undersized and we need a large top two in this draft due to the fact that our other potential top fours are all undersized. And we would likely need to wait one to two years before they are NHL-ready. Thus even with a No. 12 pick, it seems too risky for Garth to pick either Tavares or Duchene with the No. 1.
How do things change if we draft Hedman with the No. 1 and a center with the No. 12? Tavares, Duchene, Evander Kane, and Brayden Schenn will all likely be gone. Jordan Schroeder, Jacob Josefson, and Chris Kreider might be available. All three might be first line centers. Schroeder's great Combine performance might make him a top ten pick and Kreider has committed to play for Boston College. That leaves Josefson.
How good is he? His coach thinks he may be even better than Niklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitols was at his age. Backstrom centers Ovechkin's line and scored 88 points this season. Kiril Kabanov, available in the 2010 draft, is said to be the next Ovechkin.
Imagine if we had the No. 2 overall and drafted him? Or if we were good enough to finish out of the top ten and convinced Ilya Kovalchuk to sign with us. The next Backstrom centering a line with next Iginla, and the next Ovechkin or Kovalchuk. And we have Hedman anchoring the defense. To me, picking Hedman seems the safer, surer move by far.
With our No. 31 pick, we should pick Carl Klingberg for our second line left wing. If he is unavailable, Jeremy Morin will do. Then use the Boston pick to get the best available goalie prospect—maybe Robin Lehner or Mike Lee. If Klingberg and Morin are unavailable at No. 31, use that pick for the goaltender and get a second line left wing in free agency. The Boston pick could then be used for another big defenseman like Dylan Olsen.
Picking Hedman may affect what happens in free agency this summer. Johnny Oduya, a tough, gritty, but elite defenseman who got his start in the same Swedish Elite League that Hedman plays in, will be available.
The prospect of mentoring the first fellow Swede since Sundin to be chosen No. 1 overall and the best Swedish defenseman since Salming might be just what it takes to convince Oduya to sign with us. This, in turn, would free Garth to use our 2010 No. 1 on a left wing and might also convince Kovalchuk, who has stated that playing for a Cup winner is a priority, to sign with us.
One writer suggested an admittedly far fetched trade whereby we were able to draft Hedman and Duchene. I am sure that all Islander fans would sign onto that choice!
Since that surely will not happen, Garth should, hopefully, tradeup to the No. 12, draft Hedman and hopefully Josefson and Klingberg as well as a top goalie prospect. Then Garth should sign a quality goaltender backup and Oduya in free agency. With that, he should be in position to complete the core of a Cup contender in the 2010 off-season.
I have been an Islander fan since 1976 and I will continue to be one no matter what happens in the draft. Garth, Ryan, and the scouts know the Islanders and the available prospects far better than I ever could. I hope Garth picks Victor Hedman. If he doesn't, I'll just scratch my head and say "Garth, old buddy, I hope you know your stuff." We are all Islanders!
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