BEA­CON IN A STORM

Tavares ma­rooned the Is­landers with his de­par­ture, but they have the young pieces and man­age­ment in place to find their way back to rel­e­vance

The Hockey News - - TAVARES -

WHAT’S DONE CAN­NOT BE un­done: John Tavares no longer plays for the New York Is­landers. But the fran­chise isn’t sim­ply go­ing to fold up. Life goes on. And as bleak as the present looks for the team, there is a fu­ture, and it’s ac­tu­ally pretty rosy.

New York has been build­ing to­wards that fu­ture for a while, but its past few drafts have been es­pe­cially pro­duc­tive, and 2018 in par­tic­u­lar was a boon. “I don’t think we could be more pleased with the way it turned out,” said GM Lou Lamor­iello. “We got three qual­ity de­fense­men, all 6-foot-3 with dif­fer­ent di­men­sions. We got a goalie our goal­tend­ing depart­ment is ex­cited about and four for­wards also with dif­fer­ent di­men­sions as far as skill, size and strength.”

The jew­els of the Isles’ 2018 draft crown were right winger Oliver Wahlstrom and de­fense­man Noah Dob­son, taken with the 11th and 12th picks over­all. That was a nice haul to be­gin

with, but on Day 2, the Is­landers struck back with net­min­der Jakub Skarek, the top-rated goalie in THN’s Draft Pre­view, plus high-risk, high-re­ward de­fense­man Bode Wilde and slip­pery cen­ter Rus­lan Iskhakov, among oth­ers.

All these play­ers add to an al­ready solid pipe­line but, most im­por­tantly, the Is­landers have pieces in all the right places for down the road.

Even with Tavares gone, New York has a top-flight cen­ter in Mathew Barzal, who daz­zled the NHL this past sea­son with three sep­a­rate five-point out­ings, be­com­ing the first rookie in 100 years to do so and ty­ing Joe Malone in the process. Barzal has the smarts and play­mak­ing skills to be a No. 1 cen­ter, and, for the record, he ac­tu­ally won the Isles’ scor­ing ti­tle over Tavares this past sea­son by one point with 85. Barzal won the Calder Tro­phy in a land­slide over Van­cou­ver’s Brock Boeser, gar­ner­ing all but a hand­ful of first-place votes.

Is Barzal a fin­ished prod­uct? Of course not, but he’s on the right path. As he gets stronger, he’ll get bet­ter on face­offs. As he gets more ex­pe­ri­ence, he’ll learn how to fend off tougher com­pe­ti­tion. He doesn’t need to do it in a day: it will take a cou­ple years. But hav­ing that pivot is cru­cial for New York’s fu­ture. Teams such as Carolina and Mon­treal hope they have a No. 1 cen­ter of the fu­ture, but there is still a lot for Martin Ne­cas to prove with the Canes and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to grow into for the Cana­di­ens.

One of New York’s big­gest pipe­line strengths is on the wings, where snipers such as Wahlstrom, Ki­ef­fer Bel­lows and wild card Josh Ho-Sang re­side. As­sum­ing the Isles aren’t com­pet­ing for a play­off spot this com­ing sea­son, Ho-Sang should get am­ple op­por­tu­nity to prove he can be a full-time NHLer un­der a new coach in Barry Trotz. And let’s not for­get the Is­landers still have ca­pa­ble scor­ers in An­ders Lee and Jor­dan Eberle to shield the kids as they en­ter the league.

In net, the Is­landers have cir­cled the drain for years, but again, the fu­ture holds prom­ise. Ilya Sorokin has been one of the KHL’s top net­min­ders the past cou­ple sea­sons and will be on a con­tender when CSKA Moscow’s 201819 sea­son be­gins in Septem­ber. Sorokin is un­der con­tract un­til 2020, and those deals tend to be iron­clad in Rus­sia. But once he comes over, he’ll be as close to ready as a goalie prospect could be. It’s pru­dent he does some time in the AHL first, just to get used to the smaller ice over here, but oth­er­wise he’s a gem. And again: if done right, this re­build will take a few years. Skarek and Li­nus Soder­strom are other pos­si­bil­i­ties.

On de­fense, Dob­son is the key. With his size and mo­bil­ity, the Me­mo­rial Cup win­ner with Acadie-Bathurst has the chops to be a top-pair­ing guy. He’ll need more time in ju­nior to de­velop, but that just means a great chance to dom­i­nate at the world ju­niors with Canada when the tour­ney hits Van­cou­ver in De­cem­ber. The Is­landers al­ready have a nice find in Se­bas­tian Aho and with the sturdy Robin Salo and can­non-shot Ryan Pu­lock also in the hop­per, the de­fense corps has op­tions.

In the present, New York loaded up on grit by bring­ing in Matt Martin, Leo Ko­marov and Tom Kuhn­hackl. They will give Robin Lehner what is likely his last chance to prove he can be an NHL start­ing goalie. A pro­jected bot­tom-10 fin­ish will yield an­other high draft pick, which Lamor­iello will use in 2019. Heck, it may even be first over­all, land­ing them spec­tac­u­lar cen­ter Jack Hughes.

The pain is real for Is­landers fans, but at least this fran­chise is build­ing some­thing. The pieces are com­ing into place for a brighter fu­ture.

LOU LAMOR­IELLO

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