Earlier this month, the NHL held the lottery for the 2014 draft, with the Florida Panthers jumping the Buffalo Sabres to earn the top pick. But we’re not concerned about either of those teams just yet (well, the Sabres, in an indirect way).
We’re focused on the New York Islanders, who drew the No. 5 selection, but have to decide by June 1 whether to keep that pick or send it to Buffalo as part of their trade during the 2013-14 season for Thomas Vanek; it’s either give up this first-rounder or their first-rounder in 2015, a draft class that features potential franchise players Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.
To help solve the dilemma, we’ve reached out to ESPN Insider Frank Provenzano -- a former NHL assistant GM with 17 years of experience with three different teams -- and ESPN Insider Corey Pronman, our resident expert on NHL prospects, to assess the issue from all angles.
The Vanek trade was always a puzzling one
This was a misguided move to begin with, as the Isles used their primary UFA poker chip (Matt Moulson) to acquire essentially the same asset in Vanek, and failed to upgrade either their defense group or, more critically, their goaltending (Evgeni Nabokov's below-average .905 save percentage was the only Islander goaltender’s to break the .900 barrier).
In essence, they gave up the rights to their first-round pick in either the 2014 or 2015 draft for what amounted to six extra goals; Vanek scored 17 times in 47 games in an Islanders uniform, while Moulson scored 11 in his 44 games with the Sabres. After they ended up unable to re-sign Vanek, they were able to recoup only a mid-level prospect in Sebastian Collberg (whom Pronman characterizes as “pretty good, but not great”) and move up about 100 spots in the draft by swapping a fifth-round pick for a second-rounder.
To add insult to injury, Buffalo was even able to beat the Islanders’ trade deadline return on Vanek, as they hauled in two second-round picks for Moulson. -- Provenzano
Where will the Islanders finish next season?
The Islanders finished 27th overall this season, but were 21st in team possession rank. The major reason the Islanders finished below that possession mark in the standings is due to their goaltending. At even strength, the Islanders had a poor .906 save percentage, while the league average is around .919.
To see how comparable teams did after these kinds of campaigns, I took data from the past five seasons and looked for all teams who had even-strength shot differentials within a 2 percent range of the Islanders’ this season, and had an even-strength save percentage under.910.
Of this group -- with the Islanders’ shot differential and comparable goaltending -- the average finish was 25th that season and 21st in the following season. If the Isles follow suit, this gives them a 2.1 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL draft lottery (as seen in the chart at right).
However, even if the Isles have a terrible season, finishing last in the league, there’s only a 25 percent chance they land the No. 1 pick (though by rule, they can only move down one spot, so they’d land either McDavid or Eichel). -- Pronman
Value of their 2014 pick
The industry sees the top tier of the 2014 NHL draft as five players deep: Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl and Michael Dal Colle. I do not necessarily share that exact view, but I do think it is very likely the Islanders will be in a position to draft a top-tier prospect in this class. While it’s been said that this class is not that strong overall, it's a pretty standard draft, talent-wise, where the Isles will be picking.
In other words, a player like Dal Colle or Draisaitl would be on a similar level to other players taken fourth or fifth overall in average draft years.