In this next segment of the Path To The Draft, we’ll be going over five players who have a distinct theme this coming year. A few years back many Islanders fans were wondering who was going to replace Brian Strait as the 7th defenseman. My response was always Scott Mayfield. It was an easy replacement, so this next group of professionals (players too old for juniors, but not yet ready for the NHL at the start of this past year) I will simply coin “The replacements.” Believe me this is a good thing folks. When you have 5-6 players who are in the minors on the cusp of replacing regular Islanders players, something is going right. Now I normally only have a top 5 list but with the expansion draft coming up in two weeks, and stressing how important this month is for the franchise, I felt it necessary to bring up six because some players mentioned on this list could very well be a reason the Islanders improve or the organization will make some big, tough decisions about trading their current roster around draft week. Here are the replacements:
***Honorable Mention*** Linus Soderstrom G 95th overall in 2014: Soderstrom started the season with HV-71 as their backup goalie. As the season progressed he became the starter and had a run like that of Cam Ward/Matt Murray. After the regular season was completed he had a goals-against-average of 1.34 and a save percentage of .943. He basically picked up in the playoffs right where he left off and cruised to the Conference Finals where he started to show signs of mortality. When push came to shove, he took his game to another level and finished the Swedish Elite League playoffs with a 2.11 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage, winning the championship. That’s all good. Here’s where I’ll bring him down to earth. He only played in 22 games in the regular season and all the 16 games in the playoffs. While the numbers are outstanding, it’s a small sample space. I was grateful enough to watch him in the second half and into the playoffs. He has the tools, but even he’ll tell you he’s not ready for the NHL. What you have here is a backup goalie who got hot at the right time, and it earned him a contract by the Islanders in one, maybe two years. A full season of a starters role and another playoff run will certainly show what he’s capable of, but from what I’ve seen, he could eventually replace Ilya Sorokin.
#5 Ilya Sorokin G 78th overall in 2014: He’s not with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but Ilya Sorokinhas been lights out in the KHL. For the second year in a row, Sorokin and his club, CSKA (Central Sports Club of the (Red) Army) won the Kontinental Cup (NHL version to the Presidents Trophy), but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. His numbers for this past regular season were a little higher than the previous year (1.61; .929) but he played in 11 more games (39 total). So why do I have Sorokin at number 5 when there is so much hype about him? As I’ve written before, the KHL is not the same as the NHL, not by a long shot. They have teams that could be NHL, AHL and ECHL teams all bunched into one big league. Their arenas size & attendance mostly compete with the ECHL, maybe the AHL if they’re in Moscow which is why Sorokin was so impressed by a packed house for a prospect practice on Long Island. Another reason is his team, CSKA. They remind me of the Washington Capitals, dominate in the regular season yet stumble in the playoffs. They did make a great run two years ago, but they should have won the Gargian Cup this year. Another reason why he’s number five: Sorokin has yet to sign with the Islanders because he has one year left with CSKA. Should he decide to come to New York at the end of next season, he does have enough talent to replace Jaro Halak as the teams new backup goalie. With more time he may replace Thomas Greiss as the starter, with Soderstrom as his eventual backup. Here’s hoping, but I’ll believe when I see it.
#4 Michael Dal Colle LW 5th overall in 2014: Sam Bennet, Sam Reinhart, Nikolaj Ehlers, Leon Draisaitl, William Nylander. What do these forwards have in common? There all in the top 10 in the NHL draft of 2014 and currently playing in the NHL. Did the Islanders make a mistake? What’s wrong with Dal Colle? Nothing actually. It was clear with the signing of Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera last offseason that Dal Colle was to begin his professional career with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Being paired with Josh Ho-Sang he was able to produce a decent rookie season notching 15 goals and 41 points. He’ll probably be sent down to start the season in Bridgeport, but it would not shock me if he were to get a call-up at some point in the season if there are long-term injuries to Ladd or Anders Lee. But that is just what Dal Colle is, a power forward at the left-wing position. Power forwards need time to produce, just look at Anders Lee and Dal Colle is still physically maturing so he’ll need some time as his body catches up with his skill. Another big difference between him and the rest of those names listed? All of them are 21 years of age (except for Bennet, who has the same birth date as Dal Colle) and Dal Colle does not turn 21 until June 20th. So this is a very young draft pick who does not need to be rushed, but I believe he’ll eventually replace Jason Chimera on a third line with a possible line combination of Dal Colle, Beauvillier and Ho-Sang in the near future. At some point, if he’s still here, I could see him eventually playing a top six role, possibly a winger to John Tavares.
#3. Devon Toews D 108th overall in 2014: As I was down in the locker room after one of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers games, I asked head coach, Brent Thompson about Toews and he simply said “He’s an NHLer.” It’s a statement that is never used lightly and the last time I heard a coach say something like that about another player, Doug Weight said the same thing about Brock Nelson. Toews is unbelievably fast, he can put up points and he’ll eventually be Calvin de Haan’s replacement, because he’s solid in the defensive zone. With his skills, Toews could be a top four defenceman and there’s a reason why he was paired with Ryan Pulock. One of the quietest draft picks is turning out to make some noise and I wouldn’t be shocked if he was a call-up for the Islanders and he never returns to the Sound Tigers. He’s a complete under-the-radar prospect who had a great career in Quinnipiac and is just waiting to get the call to New York.
#2. Josh Ho-Sang RW 28th overall 2014: After being sent home after the first day of practice for being late in last years camps, Josh Ho-Sangmay have found a home in New York after all. What you have seen in this player is maturity, professional maturity and it’s now paying off for the Islanders who traded up in the first round to select Ho-Sang. After some growing pains to start the season, Ho-Sang began to put everything together, including his work ethic and commitment. The reward in the second half of the season was a player of the month award and a call-up to the Islanders. In Bridgeport he racked up 10 goals and 36 points in 50 games. With the Islanders, he recorded 4 goals and 10 points in 21 games. He has the speed and the stick handling skills to make many defenceman just look silly. If he continues to buy into the team concept and physically matures, he’s a legitimate top winger for John Tavares and will replace Josh Bailey. He’s not there yet, but he should make the team out of camp and a reuniting of him, Beauvillier and Jason Chimera for a third line will be fun to watch as well as some power-play time to help set up his teammates.
#1. Ryan Pulock D 15th overall 2015: There hasn’t been this much hype about a defenceman in a long time. The big question this past season was this: Why wasn’t Ryan Pulock called up at all this season? We all know by now that he has a blazing, slap shot that may rival Shea Weber or Johnny Boychuk. So I wanted to find out who Ryan Pulock is without that shot. Turns out, there were many people who have seen him play for years now and compared him to Scott Mayfield, or Griffin Reinhart. My rebuttal to that claim is that he is faster than both, and they conceded that point. Could Ryan Pulock make a living as a defensive defenseman in the NHL? What can he do with the puck instead of shooting it at the net and almost injuring people in the process? Everyone in the AHL and the ECHL knew about the slap shot, so many teams began to play Bridgeport differently, hence Pulock began to develop his play with and without the puck and diversified his game, making a pass instead of shooting and improving his skating along with being paired with aforementioned Toews. The result? In 51 games the past two seasons, his assists totals jumped from 17 to 31 and 24 points to 46. What also helped was that Pulock got top-pairing minutes in the AHL, something he would not receive in New York, especially with former head coach, Jack Capuano. In my humble opinion, I do not believe Pulock was ready to begin the season with the Islanders anyways, despite his brief playoff appearance last season. However, with his overall game improving, I believe he’s a replacement for either Johnny Boychuk or Travis Hamonic as top four defenseman. He, along with Ho-Sang for a full season would help alleviate the power-play woes and it wouldn’t shock me at all if Pulock racks up 30 points, minimum, next season.
In my 10 years of following/writing the draft and seeing the Islanders prospects, I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything this deep or talented since maybe the mid 90’s of Bertuzzi, Palffy, Berard, Chara and Luongo. I’m not saying these prospects will amass to what those players did in their careers, but I can’t recall the last time the Islanders were this deep. Throw in the junior prospects and the Islanders are set for possibly the next five-seven years, maybe longer. Am I surprised that Travis Hamonic or Calvin de Haan are rumored to be traded? Not at all, especially when the Isles have enough in the pipeline to replace these players now. Would I be shocked if Ryan Strome or Brock Nelson ever got traded to another team? Not when I have Mathew Barzal and Josh-Ho Sang improving. If Anders Lee were to move on to greener pastures, I would be ok with Dal Colle replacing him because he would be ready by then. This is why you’re hearing Islanders head coach Doug Weight challenging the prospects and making themselves a case to not send them back to Bridgeport or juniors. This group is why the Islanders hired Luke Richardson and Scott Gomez, to enhance what these players like Pulock, Ho-Sang and even Toews already bring to the ice. This group is also why the Islanders could make a move or two to improve the immediate roster because at some point there comes a time when there’s enough in the system when you can take that chance and make a run at the Stanley Cup and not have to worry about how depleted your organization is because having a deep prospect pool is vital in this salary cap era. Coming up in a couple of days, I’ll be going over the graduates, prospects who have been in the Islanders organization for five years and I no longer consider them prospects.