Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” – a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. Today, as I continue my alphabetical journey through the NHL I bring you a look at the New York Islanders. As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Top Prospect: Ryan Strome, Centre
Born Jul 11 1993 — Mississauga, ONT
Height 6.01 — Weight 183 — Shoots Right
Selected by the New York Islanders in round 1 #5 overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Ryan Strome brings high end offensive potential to the Islanders. The talented Ice Dogs centre has been driving the Ice Dogs offence for the last two years when he scored at a pace of nearly 1.6 points per game. He was also an offensive catalyst for Canada’s Bronze Medal winning 2012 World Junior Championship squad, scoring 9 points in 6 games. He missed time this season after being sucker-punched in a January game and receiving some facial fractures, but came back strong and finished the season, and was a dynamic player in leading Niagara to the OHL final where they lost to London.
Strome has all the offensive talent you would look for in a young player. He is a terrific skater. He has good top end speed, good acceleration, and his great ability to change speeds, and terrific agility help him to beat defenders. He is also a terrific stickhandler, with great puck protection, and silky smooth hands and moves (click here to see the goal that made Strome a youtube sensation). Add to that the creativity and confidence to try anything and he is extremely dangerous off the rush. Strome has the vision and creativity to be an outstanding playmaker as he is able to feather passes through the smallest of openings, and set up teammates with quality scoring chances. As a sniper, he is NHL ready, having a fantastic wrist shot and release, an excellent slapshot, and a great one timer.
Strome’s issues are on the defensive side of the puck. He improved that aspect of his game last year but there is still a ways to go. He needs to get better in the faceoff circle especially if he is to face NHL caliber centres. He also needs to work on his defensive zone coverage as he does have a tendency to puck watch and stop moving his feet which can cause him to be beaten by his man in coverage. He could also stand to add some upper body strength for when he will be required to contain bigger, stronger pros off the cycle.
The Islanders hope that Strome can eventually team with John Tavares to provide the team with an elite 1-2 Punch at the centre position. At this point in his career, Strome is looking like a ‘tweener, he has dominated at the OHL level, and there isn’t a lot more for him to learn there. However, he might need a little bit more development time, and its not clear if he’s NHL ready. It will be difficult for Strome to work on his defensive game in a league where he will be a dominant offensive player, as he just won’t be challenged in his end of the ice at even strength very often. The AHL would be an ideal option, unfortunately Strome can not play in the AHL until the 2013-14 season under the current rules. While the CHL/NHL agreements are up in the air, its not a rule that is expected to change in the new deal. Unless Strome comes in to training camp and dominate, the Islanders will face a difficult decision, whether to send Strome back to a league where he will dominate the competition and play big minutes at a level that is below his talent, or bring him to the NHL a little early and be forced to carefully manage his minutes and role. It was a decision they faced last season with Nino Niederrieter and the wisdom of keeping him in the NHL has been questionned.
Top Prospect #2: Brock Nelson, Centre/Left Wing
Born Oct 15 1991 — Warroad, MN
Height 6.03 — Weight 205 — Shoots Left
Selected by the New York Islanders in round 1, #30 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Brock Nelson really came into his own this season at North Dakota playing on the first line for the
Fighting Sioux now nameless UND squad. Nelson showed the powerforward potential that made him a first round pick in 2010, in his sophmore year scoring 28 goals and 47 points in 42 games. He spent time at both Centre and Left Wing for the Sioux. After winning his second WCHA conference title, but losing in the NCAA tournament, Nelson decided to turn pro and signed his ELC with the New York Islanders, joining the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for 4 games at the end of the year. He is the nephew of 1980 US Olympic “Miracle” team member Dave Christian, who also played 1000 career NHL games, mainly with the Jets, Capitals, and Bruins.
Nelson is the prototypical power forward prospect. He has great size and a strong and powerful skating stride. He has great speed, agility and balance and can drive a defenceman wide on the rush and take the puck hard to the net. He has quick soft hands in tight and can score off the rush, or on tip ins, and rebounds when set up in front of the net. He has an NHL ready wrist shot and release which he uses to great effect if defenders back off too much on him. He has a great one timer, which he often unleashes on the powerplay. Nelson uses his outstanding size and strength to win battles on the boards, and to fight for space in front of the net.
Nelson is also known for his defensive ability. He is a tenacious backchecker who pressures the puck smartly and efficiently. He continues to use his size and strength to win board battles. He contains opponents to the outside and does a great job of always keeping himself between his man and the net. His long reach helps him to cut down passing lanes and create turnovers. Going forward Nelson has the complete package.
I realize that I am going against conventional wisdom in calling Nelson the Islanders’ second best prospect, but I am a huge fan of this player. I feel that other reports on him have consistently underrated this player and that he is a real up and comer amongst NHL prospects. Nelson probably needs a year in Brideport to adjust to the speed of the pro game, and the rigours of a longer season than he was accustomed to in high school and college hockey, but I feel he will continue making strides forward and will be a real force to be reckoned with when he makes the NHL.
Top Prospect #3: Calvin de Haan, Defence
Born May 9 1991 — Carp, ONT
Height 6.00 — Weight 180 — Shoots Left
Selected by New York Islanders round 1 #12 overall 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Calvin de Haan has held a lot of promise as an offensive defenceman, and the Islanders moved multiple picks to trade up and get the young defender at 12th overall in the 2009 Draft. The Islanders took John Tavares 1st overall that year, and hoped that by getting the powerplay quarterback he had played with in Oshawa, the two would carry their chemistry to the NHL. Whether that can still happen remains to be seen, but de Haan’s development to date has not gone as expected. He has been hampered by injuries (mostly shoulder injuries), and lower than expected production at the AHL level. However despite this, the high talent level that made de Haan such a valued commodity at the 2009 Draft is still present, and he is still far too young to be given up on at this stage. It is hoped that de Haan can stay healthy long enough to begin to live up to those expectations this season.
De Haan`s offensive game comes from his great decision making and poise with the puck. He is a patient player with good puckhandling, and puck protection abilities and is able to waits for openings in the defence to emerge. He walks the line extremely well opening up passing and shooting lanes. De Haan`s slapshot is extremely accurate, and he does a good job of getting shots through and keeping them low, however he could use more power behind it.
Skating wise, De Haan`s top end speed is merely slightly above average, however he does have good agility, edgework, and crisp pivots. He is not one who often leads the rush, but a good first pass out of the zone can be used to create a quick transition. His high hockey IQ leads him to join the rush at opportune occasions, and to pinch in from the blue line at just the right time.
Defensively de Haan`s ability to read the play well and good positioning are strong assets. His ability to move the puck quickly is important to helping spend minimum time in the defensive zone. De Haan is a willing shot blocker but needs some work on his technique and not over committing himself too early. He also must get much stronger as he could stand to win more board battles and better contain opponents. Increased upper body strength could also help him to reduce the number of injuries he has sustained to date.
De Haan certainly has the potential to make the Islanders squad out of training camp this year, but there are no guarantees. He will need to show that he bulked up over the off-season and is physically ready to handle the rigors of the NHL game in order to earn a spot on the big club. He very well could star the season back in Bridgeport to work on his strength and some aspects of his defensive game.
Sleeper Pick: Casey Cizikas, Centre
Born Feb 27 1991 — Toronto, ONT
Height 5.10 — Weight 192 — Shoots Left
Selected by New York Islanders round 4 #92 overall 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Like Jon Merrill, who was profiled yesterda, Casey Cizikas is another young prospect with a troubled past. However, the big difference here is that Cizikas has spent the last two years with his nose clean and without any hint of trouble. It would appear that the young man has moved past the tragic incident that marred his draft year and the legal questions that caused a player of his caliber to fall much lower than he would otherwise have been picked. Cizikas has gone on play for Team Canada in the 2011 World Juniors, bringing home a silver medal. He would go on to lead his Mississauga St. Mikes team to an OHL finals appearance which included a game 7 OT loss to Owen Sound, and a Memorial Cup Final loss at home to Saint John. He would follow that up with a solid rookie season in the AHL, and a callup to the NHL where he would play 15 games for the Islanders. Most analysts, and many of the lawyers I’ve talked to believe that the incident that has marred Cizikas early career is very much a murky issue with tragic consequences. While we certainly feel for the family who lost a young man that day, many believe that the wrong verdict was rendered and that this unfortunate incident was indeed entirely accidental and related to the physicality of a game like rugby. Fortunately, Cizikas appears to have moved past the incident, and while it will probably always haunt him in some way, it will not hold him back from an NHL career.
Cizikas is an extremely good skater and is often the first man on the puck on the forecheck. He is great at creating offence off of the forecheck putting pressure on opposing defenders and causing turnovers in the offensive end of the ice. He has decent vision and can set up linemates after pouncing on the loose pucks. He also has a decent shot, but could use a bit of a quicker release. His hands in tight are good and he can pounce on rebounds and tips. Cizikas can occasionally pull out the odd dangle and will show flashes of surprising high end skills as well. However these are a little too infrequent at this point to project Cizikas as a top 6 player.
Cizikas is defensively responsible and plays an agitator’s role despite his size. He pressures the puck extremely well and is not afraid to get involved in scrums with bigger, stronger opponents. His high pressure game causes a lot of turnovers, and Cizikas has the speed to quickly turn these into transition offence. He is willing to sacrifice his body to block shots and works hard with a tenacious drive to win loose pucks. Cizikas is an effective penalty killer who can be a threat short handed as well.
After playing 15 games with the Islanders last season, Cizikas will enter camp looking for a bottom 6 role on the big club. He certainly has the talent to earn a further stint with the big club, but will need to have a good camp to do so. The Islanders have a number of good young players and the competition for spots is high. Cizikas’ NHL future likely lies in a 3rd line role where his energy and defensive responsibility will be important traits going forward. Any extra offence he can add in that role will be a welcome addition.
After years of high draft picks the Islanders have assembled a good supply of young talent. The prospect pool is deep in all positions. As we can see the centre depth is extremely strong, and will complement superstar young centre John Tavares nicely. The Islanders have a solid defence core that will be built around Travis Hamonic, Griffin Reinhart and Calvin de Haan. Matt Donovan, Ville Pokka, Scott Mayfield, and the plethora of newly drafted defencemen provide depth. On the wings the Isles boast young NHLers like Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, and El Nino, and boom or bust prospects David Ullstrom, Kirill Kabanov, and Kirill Petrov. It may not seem that deep but some of the excess centres may be converted to wing going forward. In goal they have their goalie of the future in Kevin Poulin. What the Islanders must now do is find the proper mix of veterans to help this young group mature into a solid NHL team, and compete in the tough Atlantic Division.
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