New York Islanders have tough call when it comes to 2014 vs. 2015 draft

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Isles GM Garth Snow (right) has a big decision ahead when it comes to the NHL Draft. (USATSI)
Isles GM Garth Snow (right) has a big decision ahead when it comes to the NHL Draft. (Getty)

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The New York Islanders and namely general manager Garth Snow took a pretty good beating from fans and media in the wake of the trade deadline. A lot of that has to do with the return for Thomas Vanek, who the team shipped to the Montreal Canadiens for prospect Sebastian Collberg and a second-round pick. Compounding the perceived subpar return for the top trade chip on the market was the fact that the Isles gave up a conditional first-round pick in addition to Matt Moulson to acquire Vanek in October.

The Islanders did give themselves some flexibility in dealing the pick, which was originally listed as a 2014 first-rounder. The way it was drawn up, the Islanders would have the option to defer the 2014 pick that now belongs to Buffalo to the 2015 draft in the event that pick fell within the top 10 of the first round. Lo and behold, it most definitely will now.

When the deal was made, it looked like the Islanders, despite notable deficiencies in a variety of positions, had eyes on the postseason and at worst would have a mid-first-round pick in 2014, one that would be at least relatively easy to part with.

It's hard to say a first-round pick is easy to part with, but not all drafts are created equal. If we're holding up the 2014 class against the star-studded group of 2013 and the anticipated strong class in 2015, it's not the best year.

Though it will be a difficult decision, it's one the club has some time to make. According to CBC's Elliotte Friedman, the Islanders have until June 1 to make the decision about whether they keep the 2014 selection or defer to 2015.

By then, the Islanders not only will know their final record, they'll also know where they stand in the lottery. In the new collective bargaining agreement, the lottery system gives the last-place team a 25 percent chance to earn the No. 1 overall pick and it can't pick worse than second. That should be Buffalo by a fair margin this year.

The Islanders, meanwhile, have the fourth-worst record in the NHL through Thursday's games. If this were to hold, it would mean New York has a 10.7 percent chance of winning the draft lottery and getting the No. 1 pick. In this scenario, the Isles could pick no worse than fifth overall.

A top-five pick in most years is huge and it very well could be again in 2014, but the fact that it would mean losing a 2015 pick in the process is why the matter is complicated.

There's a lot of excitement heading into 2015 because 17-year-old Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid and US National Under-18 Team forward Jack Eichel are the very early favorites to compete for the No. 1 overall pick. There's also expected to be great depth in 2015 beyond the top two picks with a number of high-end North Americans starting to make names for themselves a year early.

As good as that class looks now, mainly because of the two guys believed to be potential franchise-altering players at the top, it's hard to really know until getting into next season just how plentiful the 2015 draft will be.

That puts some pressure on the Islanders scouts to make a definitive call by June 1 on if they can afford to give up what is probably a top-five pick in 2014. It's a gamble, but the Islanders also have to evaluate honestly where they are as a franchise and what their chances are next season. It's entirely possible the Islanders are in a lottery position again after 2014-15.

One benefit for New York is that it has maintained a pretty nice prospect pipeline. The Islanders have already been tapping into it quite a bit this season with a number of young players matriculating to the NHL and sticking. The Isles' prospect ranks are particularly stacked at defense, which would suggest they'll be targeting a forward in either of the next couple of drafts. Or at least probably should be.

There hasn't been a ton of consensus among the major scouting services about the order of the top five this June, but those most frequently in the discussion including the following:

Sam Reinhart: A skilled, smart center who has 99 points this year for the Kootenay Ice, Reinhart started out as the consensus No. 1 pick, but is starting to get pushed. He is the younger brother of Islanders top defensive prospect Griffin Reinhart.

Sam Bennett: Another highly productive forward, Bennett is starting to get into the discussion for the No. 1 pick. He has taken a giant leap forward in his development and is looking more and more like an impact prospect.

Aaron Ekblad: Though the Islanders are pretty stocked on D in the pipeline, Ekblad is a man-child who could potentially step into the league and contribute next season. There's a chance he could go No. 1 overall after putting up big points from the blue line and showing a game beyond his years.

Michael Dal Colle: A super talented winger for the Oshawa Generals, Dal Colle has a budding speed and power game that could lead to a highly productive NHL career. He has 38 goals in the OHL this season and has been surging this draft season.

Leon Draisaitl: The German-born wunderkind has been tearing up the WHL this season and is rocketing up draft charts. He has good size and a ton of potential as he is still growing into his game. He has 99 points for the Prince Albert Raiders in 62 games. Oh yeah, and his nickname is awesome: "The Deutschland Dangler"

You can also throw in talented Swede William Nylander and Niagara Ice Dogs forward Brendan Perlini into the mix as potential top-five picks. That's the group the Islanders will most likely have to choose from, give or take a few more players.

However, if Snow has any inclination that the Islanders are going to struggle next season and be in the running for next year's top five or even top 10, he'll have to weigh the risks. While all five of the players listed above are high-end prospects who would be able to help the Islanders soon, none of them aside from possibly Ekblad come with the type of talent that would make them a franchise cornerstone.

As of right now, it's pretty well decided that definitely Connor McDavid and probably Jack Eichel have the potential to be franchise-altering prospects. They have the type of talent to take teams to the next level. With John Tavares already the star of the franchise, adding another player of his ilk to the table would be a huge step for the Islanders as they transition into their new era in Brooklyn.

McDavid has been considered "the next one" since he was 14 years old tearing up the Toronto minor hockey ranks. He was granted exceptional status to enter the OHL a year early and was better than a point-per-game player as a 15-year-old rookie. He also made Team Canada for the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship and led the tournament in scoring en route to being named the tournament's best forward and helping Canada win gold. This season, he has 95 points for the Erie Otters and was one of the rare 16-year-olds to make Canada's World Junior Championship roster in December. He's a special talent.

Eichel, meanwhile, is a late 1996 birthdate who has been tearing things up at the vaunted National Team Development Program the past two years. He also played at the World Under-18 Championship last year as an underager and was part of Team USA at the World Junior Championship and was one of its most noticeable forwards despite being the youngest player. Even after missing games due to injury, Eichel is second in scoring for the US National Under-18 Team with 67 points in 39 games played. He is committed to Boston University, accelerating a year in school to attend college next fall. He is also being pursued by the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL.

There's a host of other players in this group that have already drawn a lot of attention as well including Travis Konecny, Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski, Dylan Strome (younger brother of Islanders prospect Ryan) and others that could be impact prospects.

By the time June 1 rolls around, the Islanders are going to know whether or not it's best to stick with the prospects they can see right now and can help them as early as next season, or roll the dice and see how next year goes. If the chips fall right, they could land a huge piece to the puzzle in 2015, one perhaps even bigger than anything they can find in 2014.

Sometimes, however, it's best to go with what you know you already have. They'll have a far better handle on what's in front of them in the 2014 draft than what lies a year away.

Snow also has the option of seeking trades to get back into the 2015 first round if he feels it necessary. That will probably be easier said than done, but it's an option. Making the right decision with this pick could soften the blow of the underwhelming return for Vanek.

That may do little to ease the minds of Islanders fans, though. Since 2009, the Isles have picked within the top five of the draft four times and could be about to do it a fifth. Considering what it takes for a team to end up with those picks, the blue and orange-clad faithful would probably be a little happier if they could start picking from a lot lower down the draft board soon.

 
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