For better, and more frequently worse, Islanders fans have spent the last decade with general managers who enjoyed wheeling and dealing at the draft. Mike Milbury earned the “Mad Mike” moniker for his draft-day deals, which stand out as some of the worst trades of the modern era.
However, there is no need to dwell on Milbury’s antics at the NHL’s annual Entry Draft, and while Garth Snow has frequently pulled the trigger on moves at the draft, none of them saw the sort of wholesale change of direction that was common under Milbury.
The 2007 Draft was Snow’s first as general manager, and he didn’t have much to do, having dealt away his two highest picks for rental players (the first round pick to Edmonton as part of the compensation for Ryan Smyth and the second round pick to Washington for Richard Zednik). 2008 and 2009 were different situations, however, and Snow was busy at both drafts.
The 2008 Draft: Four Picks For Four Spots
Snow entered the 2008 Draft with the fifth overall pick, and the consensus selection in that slot was talented Russian forward Nikita Filatov. Filatov was coming off a tremendous season in which he had lit up the Russian Super League’s second division, but he was probably better known for his work at the U-18 and U-20 World Junior tournaments, where he was phenomenal. The Islanders however coveted Windsor Spitfires centre Josh Bailey, who was widely expected to go somewhere between 10th and 15th overall (for example, TSN’s Bob McKenzie had him slated at 12th overall, while The Hockey News projected him to go 14th). While Bailey boasted a wide range of skills, many scouts felt that he would never be a top-tier offensive player in the NHL. The Islanders disagreed, and then-assistant general manager Ryan Jankowski told NHL.com that “we take the best player, and Josh Bailey was it.”
Despite the Islanders’ opinion of Bailey, Snow could feel reasonably confident that if he moved down from fifth overall he would still be able to take the player his scouts wanted. So he made a series of trades, sending the 5th overall pick to Toronto (they took Luke Schenn) in exchange for the 7th overall pick and some conditional picks which turned out to be the 68th overall selection in 2008 and the 37th overall selection in 2009. Then he sent the 7th overall pick to Nashville (they selected Colin Wilson) in exchange for the 9th and 40th picks. Snow later dealt the 68th overall pick to Toronto in exchange for the 72nd and 102nd selections.
All told, in exchange for moving down four spots, Snow accumulated the following assets:
- 40th overall (Aaron Ness)
- 72nd overall (Jyri Niemi)
- 102nd overall (David Ullstrom)
- 37th overall, 2009 (later traded)
As a rule, the difference between the fifth overall pick and the ninth overall pick is not all that big; they are generally the players who fall into the second tier of available prospects – right below the really high-end prospects who go in the first three or four picks. In this specific instance, where the Islanders rated Bailey ahead of the other available players, there was literally no value in hanging on to that fifth overall pick.
Snow did, however, gain significant value from moving down. A general rule of thumb for second/third round picks is that one in four will play 100 NHL games, and when Scott Cullen analyzed the success rates of players picked between 1995 and 2004, he found a slightly higher success rate. Here are his numbers for picks in those positions:
- 37th overall: 32% chance at 100+ NHL games
- 40th overall: 32% chance at 100+ NHL games
- 72nd overall: 26% chance at 100+ NHL games
- 102nd overall: 23% chance at 100+ NHL games
In other words, Snow could reasonably assume he added at least one future NHL’er to his team, and possibly two, by moving down those spots before taking the player he was going to take anyway.
As for what actually has transpired with those players, Snow’s been both fortunate and unfortunate. First off, the decision to trust his scouts on Bailey looks bright in retrospect; Nikita Filatov couldn’t play under Ken Hitchcock and returned to Russia, while neither Colin Wilson nor Mikkel Boedker (picked 7th and 8th) have established themselves as NHL players to this point. So far, Bailey and Luke Schenn appear to be the best two picks in the 5-9 range, although it’s early enough that we can’t be confident that will last.
Unfortunately for Snow, none of the other picks has really emerged to date. The 37th overall pick was sent away in 2009. Smallish defenceman Aaron Ness has struggled to put up points at the college level, while Jyri Niemi’s development stalled and he was subsequently sent away for a sixth round draft pick. David Ullstrom, who was an over-ager at the time of the Islanders’ selection, is only now emerging as a regular in Sweden. Either Ness or Ullstrom might yet emerge, but as of right now they’re a long ways from regular NHL employment.
Even so, I would argue strongly that Garth Snow’s performance at the 2008 Draft was exceptional.
The 2009 Draft: From Stockpiling To Spending
2009 saw Snow essentially do the reverse of what he did in 2008: instead of trading down and stockpiling later selections, he moved up at the cost of some of his draft picks.
The Islanders owned two first round selections at the 2009 NHL Draft; the first overall pick, thanks to a lousy season, and the 26th overall pick, which came to them along with Dean McAmmond in exchange for sending Mike Comrie and Chris Campoli to Ottawa. With the first overall pick, Snow and his staff opted to select the consensus choice, John Tavares.
However, whereas the year before Snow had been quite confident he would be able to trade down and still select Josh Bailey, he was not confident that the player his scouts had keyed in on – Oshawa Generals blue-liner Calvin de Haan – would be available at 26th overall. So Snow traded up, sending four draft picks (26th, 37th, 62nd and 92nd) to Columbus for the 16th overall pick and the 77th overall pick. Still not comfortable that de Haan would be available at 16 – despite the fact most scouting services had him slated for the bottom half of the first round – Snow traded up again, flipping the 16th and 77th picks to Minnesota for the 12th overall pick. Later in the draft, he re-acquired the 62nd and 92nd picks from Columbus for the 56th overall pick.
To make things a little clearer, in order to move from 26th overall to 12th overall, Snow sacrificed the following picks:
- 37th overall (Matthew Clark)
- 56th overall (Kevin Lynch)
- 182nd overall (Erik Haula)
For 14 spots in the first round, the sacrifice of two second round picks and one seventh round pick isn’t all that much, and it was significantly less than what Snow gained the year before in exchange for moving down from 5th to 9th. Again from Scott Cullen, the odds of those picks turning into NHL players:
- 37th overall: 32% chance at 100+ NHL games
- 56th overall: 28% chance at 100+ NHL games
- 182nd overall: 10% chance at 100+ NHL games
It’s worth noting here that the 182nd overall pick is worth significantly less than any of the other picks we’ve looked at; after the first 100 picks the available talent drops off dramatically.
None of the players drafted with the picks Snow traded away are doing especially well, but then again neither is the Calvin de Haan selection. Unfortunately for the Islanders, de Haan’s season was derailed by a torn labrum which required surgery, and he wasn’t able to really step forward from his draft year performance.
Snow’s performance over these two drafts suggests a few things about him as an NHL general manager. First, Snow exhibited confidence in his scouting staff, believing that their takes on Josh Bailey and Calvin de Haan were more accurate than the consensus. Frankly, that strikes me as a somewhat dangerous belief (although in the case of Bailey it appears to be working out) as there’s little evidence to suggest the Islanders are better at scouting than the NHL as a group. Second, over these two years I think it’s safe to say he did a better job leveraging his assets than the managers he was trading with did; he got quite a windfall for four spots in 2008 (four players in or very near the top-100 cut-off line) and only gave up two top-100 picks in 2009 to move up 14 spots. Third, it shows that Snow doesn’t operate under a ‘many bullets’ strategy that places an emphasis on stockpiling picks; rather, his actions appear to be highly responsive to the requests of his scouting staff. That’s both good and bad; good, because the ability to acquire targeted players is a good one, and bad because as I said above there’s little to suggest the Islanders are significantly better at scouting than the NHL as a whole.
It is, however, a significant improvement from the Milbury era.
As with other articles, this was originally intended for an NHL annual.