x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Will the Islanders do the obvious?

How could the Isles justify not drafting the best young gunner to come along since Sid the Kid? Well, the Isles are not your typical NHL team.

First of all, know this: It's a fool's game trying to predict what the New York Islanders plan to do next. The franchise that traded away Roberto Luongo at the 2000 NHL entry draft so they could select the ever-injured Rick DiPietro first overall - that was also the draft which earned the then general manager Mike Milbury the "Mad Mike" moniker - has pulled some improbable draft moves before.

In fact, the Islanders have made a practice of pulling improbable moves since the four-time Stanley Cup dynasty died off in the mid-1980s. Suffice to say, it is the one thing the team has done well - bucking conventional wisdom - but going against the grain has not exactly worked out. Which brings us to hockey's latest will-they-or-won't-they debate: With the No 1 overall draft pick, will the Islanders select "can't miss" prospect John Tavares, the hot-shot winger from the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) who has the hands and hand-eye co-ordination of a 50-goal scorer? Tavares is the youngster who some project as Alex Ovechkin's future rival in the goal-scoring department. That is not to say he is expected to be another Ovechkin or compete stride-for-stride with Sidney Crosby anytime soon - but Tavares has been the No 1 prospect since he was about 15. This kid knows goals, and he has been dealing with puck pressure since before he was old enough to drive.

So, where is the debate? How could the Isles justify not drafting the best young gunner to come along since Sid the Kid? Well, as mentioned, the Isles are not your typical NHL team. When the rest of the league zigs, the Islanders zag. They have suffered through two-plus decades of strange ownership situations and wonky management. The latest incarnation is owner Charles Wang and general manager Garth Snow. Wang, a self-made billionaire, appears to want a cult-of-personality team with a we-are-family level of loyalty. And that is certainly a nice sentiment, but no one is going to mistake Long Island for Detroit East anytime soon. And Snow, of course, was the team's back-up goalie coming out of the 2004-05 lock out - until Wang fired general manager Neil Smith and gave Snow the promotion of his life.

To be fair, though, it is necessary to point out that Tavares is not without his flaws. His skating has been knocked, as has his attitude. Of course, he's been the most-scouted player for four seasons in the OHL, and he broke Wayne Gretzky's record for goals by a 16-year-old. The thrill of playing in the OHL surely wore off long ago - and his game has been dissected and analysed like few before him. Any flaws have been blown out of proportion; Tavares might not be the best skater, and he might even have some personality quirks. But the positives far outweigh any alleged negatives.

The other factor that might convince the Isles to consider drafting someone else is the quality of a couple other candidates. Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman could be the new Chris Pronger, but is even bigger than the Anaheim defenceman. A two-way, mobile defender who excels in every area of the game, Hedman looks like one of those big defenders who come along every decade or so. He might not have Tavares' explosive upside, but he is more of a sure thing and may convince the drowning Islanders to stabilise their defence.

The other prospect is another OHL forward, Matt Duchene, who actually surpassed Tavares in one scouting company's end-of-season draft ranking. His skating is better, and he improved more during his draft season than Tavares. Then again, remember: We're talking about the New York Islanders. Anything goes. smccaig@thenational.ae