KING'S POSITION: The Kids Are Alright
When the Islanders opened the 2005-06 season, much of the focus was on the off-season acquisition of five veteran players, and rightly so. Adding defensemen Alex Zhitnick, Brad Lukowich and Brent Sopel, along with forwards Miroslav Satan and Mike York drastically altered the makeup of the squad and the style of play this team would employ. What may have been overlooked, however, is that the Islanders have very quietly held on to seven original draft picks from 1999-2004, with each of them filling an important role for the current team. Not including Lukowich, a draft pick of the Isles back in 1994, the scouting department is responsible for placing one goaltender, three defensemen and three forwards on the current 22-man roster.
It all begins in goal for the Islanders, where Rick DiPietro (1st round, 2000) starts his first full season as the bonafide number one netminder at age 24. The Rick will have the chance to try to carry New York deeper into the playoffs, and also to represent Team USA at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy in February. As the first goaltender ever drafted number one overall, the pressure is squarely on his shoulders now, just the way he likes it. It is very early in the season, but as Wednesday night in the Garden proved, there is already a pronounced difference in the leadership role he is taking both on and off the ice.
On defense, rookie Chris Campoli (7th round, 2004) has been very impressive in his first few weeks as an Islander. The smooth-skating 21-year old scored his first NHL goal on his first shot opening night in Buffalo, and has not looked out of place as the full-time D partner for two-time Stanley Cup winner Lukowich. Campoli is getting some additional ice time on the second power play unit, and has been thrown into a few big spots on the penalty kill with the Isles two men down. Radek Martinek (8th round, 1999) and Tomi Pettinen (9th round, 2000) are currently sharing a D spot alongside Janne Niinimaa, but both should see considerably more ice time as the season progresses.
Up front, the Islanders feature a pair of first round picks and a third-rounder coming off a great 2004-05 in the Swedish Elite League. Petteri Nokelainen (1st round, 2004) has done a nice job lately filling in for the injured Shawn Bates. As the Islanders' youngest player at just 19 years old, he is centering a line with the two longest-tenured Isles in Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish. He had a goal and an assist in Washington, and has recently earned some time on the penalty kill to further utilize his speed and tenacity. Robert Nilsson (1st round, 2003) is the 20-year old playmaker that started the season on the top line with Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan. Steve Stirling has recently been working him into one of the power play units, where he should see his ice time and point totals increase. And let's not forget Mattias Weinhandl (3rd round, 1999), who has had some great scoring chances early on and can work on both sides of the special teams squads. It should only be a matter of time before he develops some chemistry with a pair of linemates for five-on-five hockey.
There are also plenty of top Islanders picks just a phone call away playing for the Islanders' top farm team in the American Hockey League, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Last weekend I had a chance to sit down with Tigers goalie Wade Dubielewicz in Philadelphia, and he was just raving about the early season play of youngsters Sean Bergenheim (1st round, 2002), Bruno Gervais (6th round, 2003) and Masi Marjamaki (5th round, 2005), to name just a few.
To steal an expression from the poker world - "You gotta know when to hold 'em" - is also true after drafting NHL players these days. It appears the Islanders have done a nice job of doing just that, along with mixing in some more experienced players acquired via trades or free agency. The hope for the franchise is that the combination of "home-grown" young talent and veteran leadership will result in a royal flush for New York hockey fans down the line.