Islanders at the Draft: Is There Another Tavares In the House?

Batting “clean-up” at the annual Entry Draft, the Islanders are in a position to — well — clean-up. Not that they’ll hit the gold mine with another John Tavares, but you never know.

Owner Charles Wang‘s club needs an A-1 defenseman which, considering the prospect field, is a good thing.

By most scouting reports, the top-three prizes are all forwards, including the Russian pair, Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, with Sweden’s Filip Forsberg sandwiched in between.

Since Edmonton, Columbus and Montreal have the top three picks in that order, there’s every likelihood that a promising defenseman will be there for general manager Garth Snow to say “aye-aye” when Commissioner Gary Bettman comes calling.

By far the best bet — based on both The Hockey News and International Scouting Service ratings — is Ryan Murray, an 18-year-old backliner out of White City, Saskatchewan.

Pegged by several birddogs as likely to go fourth overall, Murray weighs in at 6-1, 201 pounds after three full seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips.

“Scouts unanimously believe he’ll play in the NHL for a long time,” opines The Hockey News Draft Preview.

Right behind Murray — and eminently available — are two more Canadian-reared defensemen — Matt Dumba from the WHL Red Deer Rebels and Morgan Reilly, a West Vancouver product who made a name for himself with the WHL’s Moose Jaw club.

Dumba, who unabashedly proclaims that he plays a Dion Phaneuf-style defense, loves offense as much as the physical aspect that gained Phaneuf notoriety. Rielly has been described as “dynamic’ by one scout. If there’s a debit to be found in his immediate past, it was a torn ACL injury . Nevertheless, his passion and drive will overcome that obstacle. He is, another birddog proclaimed, a “fearless playmaker.”

One of my scouts insists that the youngster “flying under the radar” is 6-4, 207 pound Griffin Reinhart, son of ex-NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart. The new edition Reinhart is a solid two-way defender who excelled with the Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL playoff champs who were knocked off in Memorial Cup competition. Griffin’s cannon point shot is his best weapon along with overall hockey smarts.

The Maven’s personal choice is not mentioned in the Murray-Dumba-Reinhart-Rielly. I’ve seen Derrick Pouliot play for the excellent Winterhawks, in-person, when I was visiting Portland, Oregon. At 5-11, 186, the Weyburn, Saskatchewan native is not physically imposing, but the kid is still growing. He helped the Winterhawks to a Conference title and has been described by The Hockey News as a “difference-maker with a good first-pass to start the play.” THN lists him at 13 whileInternational Scouting Service slots him 19th. One WHL birddog tells me, “Derrick could be better than any defenseman available.”

Speaking of defense prospects, Calvin de Haan impressed me when I interviewed him at the 2009 Draft. He was a tall, gangly prospect at the time — picked 12th overall, the year Tavares went first — who has since enjoyed the benefits of pro experience. Don’t be surprised if he makes The Show next Autumn. Calvin will be challenged by prospects Aaron Ness and Matt Donovan among others.

With number four picks in the first three rounds, Snow has the luxury of feasting on forwards as well; especially since there’s no guarantee that attractive free agent P.A. Parenteau will return to Uniondale. A best-case scenario — call it miraculous — would have Edmonton, Columbus and Montreal somehow passing on right wing Filip Forsberg. The 6-2, 181 pound, no-relation-to-Peter Forsberg is the brand of two-way forward who conceivably could wind up on Jack Capuano‘s second or third line, the Swede is so highly-rated. (Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

Ryan Strome, a 2011 winner, will get an opportunity to make the varsity. Nino Niederreiter, top Isles choice in 2010, hopefully will escape the training camp injury that — for all intents and purposes — scuttled his offense last season. With a good training camp, the large power forward could very well wind up on the top unit with Tavares and Matt Moulson.

Truth be told, Snow could reverse his choices and go for more scoring and it’s still possible that Grigorenko or Forsberg will be bypassed by the Oilers, Blue Jackets and Canadiens. But The Maven is betting that Snow would like to snare another defenseman from the Travis Hamonic mold. Selected 53rd overall in 2008, Hamonic ranks one-two with veteran Mark Streit among the club’s best defenders.

Hamonic’s blue-line partner, Andy MacDonald, is proof positive that long-shots can be rewarding. Andy Mac, who brings a solid two-way game to the ice, was ‘way down in 160th position when he was drafted in 2006.

In terms of the defense, it’s likely that Snow will not offer contracts to at least two of the four free agent D-men who skated for the club last year. That includes Mark Eaton, 35, Milan Jurcina, 29,Dylan Reese, 27, and Steve Staios, 38. My guess is that Reese will be back but I can assure you that g.m. Garth has told me nothing. (I prefer guesswork in this case.) Reese appeals to me because he’s quick, can move the puck and is not a liability in his own zone.

I call Reese — a Harvard man, no less — an improved version of ex-Isles Jack Hillen and Freddy Meyer neither of whom embarrassed themselves at the Coliseum. A training camp walk-on last September, Staios could very well request another such shot. Based on smarts and physicality, Steve just might get another viewing but the odds against Staios are understandably long.

As for the last line of defense, goaltending, Snow has provided security by re-signing capable, likable Evgeni Nabokov. If Rick DiPietro is unavailable — as he has been for too many years — either youngsters Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson are ready, willing and able.

Personally, I’m so sold on Poulin, I believe that he could eventually turn into Nassau’s answer toMartin Brodeur.

So, there!