Mad Mike's Fantasy Island
You’ve gotta like Mike Milbury. He certainly adds plenty of excitement come trade deadline, draft, off season, you name it. If you are an Islander fan, you must hate him with unholy passion. He has only managed to discard the likes of Palffy, Chara Bertuzzi, Jokinen, Luongo, McCabe, Brewer among others and pass up on chances to draft guys like Spezza, Heatley and Gaborik. How he has managed to survive the several owners that have passed through the organization the last several years remains a mystery.
But from all his trades, signings and draftees, he has managed to build the team that he thinks can win, but a team that cant seem to get to the next level. He has tried youngsters, veterans, high paid players, low paid players, good goalies, young goalies, and dozens of coaches it seems. nothing has worked.
One would think that perhaps standing pat and sticking with what is already there rather than bringing in outsiders would be the right thing to do. It would give a chance for the team to grow together. However it is impossible for Mad Mike to not pull the trigger on a deal and really shakes things up. Even the coaching staff isnt safe.
But when you look at the current team and it’s system, you find that the Isles definitely need more change.
In goal, they are pretty solid now and for the future. Though I rather have Luongo, Rick Dipietro should be a fine NHL goalie for years. His sure of himself attitude will serve him well when he has the kind of ability to win games on his own. For now, he is a work in progress. His puckhandling is at an all-star level but the more important parts of his game such as his knowing the shooters and simply playing more consistent need to catch up. The Isles need him to turn into something big as they gave up Luongo, an all star in Jokinen and passed on the chance to draft Heatley or Gaborik, a couple more allstars.
It would benefit Dipietro to have a solid veteran backup. It is not known whether Garth Snow will be brought back. Considering there is next to nothing behind Dipietro, Milbury is going to have to address the goaltending depth of his team.
On the surface it appears the Isles have one of the best bluelines in hockey. With Aucoin, Jonsson, Hamrlik and Niinimaa there is a large abundance of skill. With all of them being in their prime, the Isles appear set on defence for a few more years. However, Aucoin, Hamrlik and Jonsson are without contracts. Their futures on Long Island are in doubt. Jonsson may return home to Sweden for good, while Aucoin and Hamrlik might price themselves out of range for the Isles, especially in the potential new economic world of the NHL.
This has left the blueline with just Janne Niinimaa and a bunch of journeymen. Niinimaa is good enough to be a top 2 guy who can log tons of minutes and play in all situations. His skill allows him to rack up the points and his smarts make him sound in his own zone. But outside of him, there is only the likes of Sven Butenschon, Radek Martinek and Tommi Piettinen who are merely depth blueliners at best.
Though there are no Dion Phaneufs or some other more known top blueline prospects in the system, the Isles can be buoyed by the fact that they have some prospects who could make the big club. Bruno Gervais should be a strong offensive contributor for years to come. There is no question he has skills and smarts to be a powerplay QB and offensive leader for his team. Like most youngsters he needs to get bigger and stronger but Gervais looks like someone who could fill the void left with the potential departures of Hamrlik and Aucoin. He did have a serious injury that hurt his progress. Wes O’Neill is another solid player who has a good offensive upside. He is already fairly solid in his own end using his size and reach. He just needs to get better at reading the play, playing it safe rather than trying to do the impossible every shift. With others like Chris Campoli and Ryan Caldwell in the system, there is some depth on D.
There are no real potential all stars in this group of prospects but all of them could add sufficient depth to the Islanders. But if the Isles happen to lose Jonsson, Hamrlik, Aucoin, it will certainly cripple their defence. The current blueline already lacks toughness and muscle that has hurt them in the playoffs and it has struggled when one or more of the big 4 were missing from the lineup. Keep in mind this is the same team that had the likes of Brewer, Chara, Mezei, Berard, McCabe, Redden, Tarnstrom that would have made the team younger, bigger, tougher and maybe more talented on the backend. This was a glaring mistake made by Milbury to turn his greatest strength to now a potential weakness.
When you look at the Islanders up front, the story seems quite different. Milbury has assembled a nice cast of youngsters that should be part of the team’s core for years to come. And this despite the fact he has moved younger players like Torres, Connolly, Pyatt, and even passed on drafting youngsters like Spezza, Heatley and Gaborik in order to get more veteran, proven talent.
If bloodlines mean anything, then Robert Nilsson should be a heck of a player. The son of Swedish great Kent Nilsson, Robert has all the offensive skills to be a productive NHLer. He can skate, pass, shoot, score and has good hockey sense. He is also willing to mix it up and fight for the puck. Like all youngsters, consistency and strong defensive play is lacking and if he can clean that up, he should have as long if not longer career than his dad.
Petteri Nokelainen is a very different player than Nilsson. He is more of a two way threat who is strong in his own zone and on the PK and has the skills to chip in on offence. Though skating and strength could use improvements, he should be a fine 3rd line type for many years. Nokelainen could join fellow Finn Sean Bergenheim to form a sound checking line for the Isles. Bergenheim is also a solid 2 way player. Though he does not have much offensive potential, he works hard, forechecks well and has the size and speed to be a very good checking winger.
But if more offence is what the Isles are looking for, then they can look no further than from within. Evgeny Tunik is a big power type winger who would be a nice compliment to the soft forwards the Isles currently have. He is still raw but has a decent shot and nose for the net to make him an offensive threat. Frans Nielsen and Justin Mapletoft are not the biggest, strongest players around which is what teams look for at the centre position but they are smart hockey players who are terrific playmakers. With centre being the deepest position the Isles have, it may be hard for these two to find a spot in Long Island.
Jeremy Colliton was projected to be one of the top line wingers for Team Canada at the world juniors. however injuries hurt his chances at that role. But he could fill that role nicely for the Islanders. He is in the mold of a Brendan Morrow or Marty Lapointe in that he may not be the biggest guy on the ice, but certainly one of the toughest in the corners and around the net. He would fill a huge need for NY as they lack players willing to battle for loose pucks or stand in front of the net. Dmitri Chernykh has plenty of flash and dash on offence that could provide the Isles a winger who can mesh with Alexei Yashin. Chernykh along with the others will certain give the Isles some offensive potential for the future.
As you can clearly see, the Isles always seem to put together a very solid group of prospects. There is usually never a shortage of young players on Long Island that have the potential to make the big club. The problem is, Milbury seems content to give these players away to get players who turn out to be overpaid, inconsistent, underproductive or all of the above. The Yashin deal seemed good at the time as it gave the Isles a proven star centre which they have not had with their team since the Pierre Turgeon days. But Chara was the big horse on defence the team lacks now and Spezza has all the potential in the world to be a superstar. Though Yashin is a consistent point-per-game player, he is not worth the $90 plus million he is getting and has prevented the Isles from acquiring any more high price talent. The Peca deal seemed like a good one as well. However he has be constantly hurt and has not been the kind of impact playoff performer that we saw when he was in Buffalo. Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha have some good offensive talent and in spurts shown that they can be real threats. But combined they are not as consistent or productive as the guy Milbury traded to get them in Olli Jokinen. And lets not forget the other player Milbury threw in that deal: Roberto Luongo. Jason Blake was a steal by Milbury. he has turned out to be more than what the Isles expected. But to rely on him to be one of the teams better scorers is a problem. He is more of a gritty role player who can chip in a goal or two. Not someone who should be one of their top goalscorers. Shawn Bates, Aaron Asham, Dave Scatchard are merely checkers. However they at times been expected to play top line roles. They were pressed into those situations because the team simply had no one else. And we have seen year after year players like Mattias Weinhandl and Justin Papineau move up and down from the minors without much success. They are too good for the AHL but not quite good enough for the NHL. Really the only player who has been quite solid has been Trent Hunter. the only problem is that he cant seem to mesh with any of the current forwards the Isles have. Hunter has still produced despite playing with almost everyone else on the team. He is still young and could become a poor man’s Glen Murray or John Leclair with his size and scoring ability.
When you look at the Isles you like their prospects, you like a few of the players they have currently and you are buoyed by the fact they are likely going to make the playoffs every year. The problem is that they are not gong to reach the next level. Isles fans can thank Mad Mike for that. Though Milbury was not helped by the multiple changes in ownership, he should have done a much better job finding a coach who would work out long term, a better job using the assets he had, and a better job creating a plan and sticking to it. Instead he constantly brought in unqualified coaches, adding to positions of strength like goaltending while letting his depth at forward and defence deplete. He never found a trade he didnt like and simply loved pulling the trigger. The lack of direction, the poor trade record would get any other GM fired. But it appears that Milbury is going to be the only survivor on Long Island. And the madness continues….