Sunday, June 22, 2008

This is gonna take a while

Hockey is the one major team sport that is not played with balls. Yet, more than any sports league – including the NFL – the NHL is the one where the team that best combines skill and balls usually wins the championship.

The Islanders knew before Friday night what the polls on their official fan message board said. The Islanders are well aware how many season ticketholders they have, and what a breakout star could mean to the franchise. They knew that drafting Nikita Filatov – whether he’s actually amazing or not doesn’t matter for a while - would give them an opportunity to sell hope.

And yet they passed on Filatov and Luke Schenn and others and moved from 5 to 7 to 9. Instead of one player they got Josh Bailey on Friday, 2 highly-rated prospects on Saturday and a 2nd and 4th round pick in next year’s draft.

I got home from the city Friday around midnight and my laptop was exploding like the plant from “Little Shop of Horrors.”

What the Islanders did Friday night…well, it took pucks.

*

No question, what the Islanders did is not what I was hoping for. My wish was for Filatov and Schenn to still be there at 5 and for the question to be posed to scouting director Ryan Jankowski: in 12 years from now, who will we be more proud to have as a lifetime Islander – Luke Schenn or Nikita Filatov?

Know this, friends: by their actions Friday night, the Islanders are saying it is their opinion that Filatov is not going to be a perennial 40-goal, ticket-selling star and that Schenn is not going to be an all-world shutdown dman. If they liked them, if they really liked them, be assured the Islanders would have drafted one of them.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Islanders’ decision to pass. Jankowski and his staff – take my word for it, they work hard and they work smart - blanketed both players with scouting coverage and deep inside analysis. Their jobs are to get this right, message board and hilariously fraudulent “expert” opinion in the press be damned.

But make no mistake: by virtue of management’s eye-opening plan on Friday night, Ryan Jankowski joins the list of the 3 or 4 most important people in the Islanders organization.

By all accounts Bailey is a wonderful young man, someone the Islanders will be proud to have wear their sweater. This is a good thing for my pal Janks because he will be linked with Josh Bailey for years to come.

*

As for Kirill Petrov, since the Islanders had more picks than any team in the league, it was absolutely worth taking a shot. I know a team that had Petrov ranked as the top European skater. I guess they were waiting until the fourth round to select him. I hope the North American kids they took in the second and third were worth it.

Reminds me of the time I was at the draft table and the Islanders had a late-developing 23-year old European in their back pocket. I was told he was a fourth defenseman who would play a decade in the NHL. It gets to the 5th round and I say to our guy, “If he’s that good, what the heck are you waiting for”? The Islanders waited until the 8th round and the 228th overall pick to draft Radek Martinek.

*

Spare me the analysis of how teams did on Saturday, based on “value picks” in the later rounds. C’mon people, tell me about the expert who said, “Wow, the Islanders got a 20-minute defenseman in Campoli in the 7th – what a move”! and also said the Red Wings won the draft when they got Datsyuk late.

As for these proclamations how Teams X and Y were this year’s winners, please stop. Yeah right, that kid the Islanders drafted in the 2nd or the Blue Jackets drafted in the 4th or Boston got in the 6th must really be a slam dunk stud. I mean, so what if Jim Nill of Detroit, David Conte of the Devils, the Sharks staff, the rest of the supposed draft masters and, uh, 29 other teams passed on those kids 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 times? Don’t get me wrong. I love the coverage, love people talking about hockey. But let’s not take it seriously.

I mean, with all the wall-to-wall coverage of baseball in America, how come we rarely see such hysterical analysis of the winners and losers of the MLB Draft?

*

I spoke with both Garth Snow and Ryan Jankowski late Saturday afternoon. Garth was very happy about the return on his trades and very proud of his scouts. Ryan, whose dad was also a scout and knows all the ups and downs, was confident his staff made the Islanders’ depth chart look a whole lot better.

My take is what you saw this weekend is rooted in the team’s draft of 2006. After the Islanders picked Kyle Okposo in the first round, they made several deals to add selections in later rounds. The result was the team’s best draft of the decade. The team seems confident they were even more efficient this weekend. This is crucial – not because of any criticism the Islanders may get from the media and the fans, but because the roster really needs it. I cannot overstate that enough.

*

Since we won’t know about the development of these prospects for a while, the Islanders or any other team cannot be praised or ripped for their draft.

The Islanders did make one mistake, however. The team should have utilized the media – external and internal - to set the table.

A hockey staff doesn’t just show up in the draft city and sees what happens. We have to assume the Islanders were considering for a while the concept of moving down and adding picks. Instead of going the “best available player” route, Garth could have done interviews with the team site, ITV and Newsday where he clearly got some version of the following message across:

“Our team is building from within, and to be frank, we are very thin in many areas. If it turns out we just use our picks, great. But if we have the chance to come back with even more talented young players, I have to look at it because it’s a necessity.”

If Garth had got the word out that he was considering bringing home several potentially very good players instead of one potentially great one, he would not have hurt his trade leverage on the draft floor. And the result would not have been a back-page headline that said, “Say It Ain’t Snow: Islanders Trade Down.” More importantly, he would have set a fair level of expectations for his team’s fans. Instead of booing the team’s decision to not draft an 18-year old Russian no one has seen play a game, the reaction might have been, “Son of a gun, he said he might do this…wow, he got 2 picks just to go from 5 to 7?...holy geezus, now we got 4 extra picks to go to 9…Josh Bailey – I love Josh Bailey! He’s the center to play with Okposo”!

Manage the media. Let them help you. They usually have no problem with that. Just be honest with them.

You have to understand that fans on hockey websites every day in June are the die-hardest of the die-hards. The fans that give up their Friday night in June to watch television coverage of a hockey draft on the scoreboard of an outdated arena are…well, there aren’t enough ways to say thank you to fans like that.

You don’t have to let the fans tell you who to pick, but it’s not a bad idea to make them feel like they are a little bit clued in.

Now that everyone has had the chance to see the fruit – some of the high-risk/high-reward second and third round picks – the irony is that if the Islanders had a Draft Party on Day 2, most of the fans would have gone home happy.

*

Friday was a real busy day and night for me at the new gig. The Islanders turned the first round upside down. I got a bunch of texts from friends saying some variation of “WTF”, “It’s chaos” and “You’re lucky you’re not there anymore.” Nah…

I missed it.

5 comments:

7th Woman said...

This just goes to reinforce why you have your own fanbase. You're 100% right. The moves may not have been devastating to diehards had there been some indication of direction during the last month leading up to the draft. Another missed opportunity to garner that "feel good" sense they are so trying to generate. I wil tell you this however, those "die-hardest of the die-hards" don't even want to discuss the idea this may have been a brilliant move. They only have some choice words to say. And you won't be able to print them.

Once again, thanks for putting things into perspective for us.

Chris said...

I wanted to draft Filatov as much as anyone... I was wearing a shirt with his name printed on it, and had a sign that I was unrolling in my hand right as I thought the Islanders were going to say his name.

However disappointed it was not to draft him, in the end I am not unhappy with this draft in its entirety. I think the Isles did a lot to help this franchise.

I maintain that Filatov will be a special player... but, as Ziggy (and Rick DiPietro) have taught us, a special player alone does not make your team a winner.

Josh looks like a great guy, and I welcome him to LI with open arms. I dont need to see Filatov fail to be a great player in order to feel that the Islanders are justified in what they did, I hope they both succeed!

:)
Chris TMC

Shoogah said...

A ray of sunshine on a cloudy day! All of Islanders Country NEEDS to read this post. Thank you, CB!

Quez said...

At first glance, it looks as if the Isles did it again, missing a slam dunk, and passing on the opportunity to draft a franchise scorer or a cornerstone d-man. But we all know the NYI are way more than just a hotshot player away from respectability. Garth and Ryan know this and maybe in 2-3 yrs. when this draft begins to bear fruit, we can draft that years version of Filatov or Schenn and make a run at it. Thank you Garth for at least appearing to have a plan, unlike Mike Milbury who you could distract with a shiny object. Keep the faith Isles fans. Nice work Chris, and good luck.

rich pilon said...

this has eased the massive frustration that existed immediately following the draft...get the word out about this blog...keep up the good insight