By stockpiling draft picks over the last three seasons -- they made 31 picks at the last three drafts, including 13 at the 2008 Entry Draft -- and eschewing the big names in free agency, the New York Islanders have showed they are making a commitment to building their team by establishing a pipeline of young talent.
The first fruits of that prospect group will be harvested at forward, and there are a number of NHL hopefuls on defense that are still a few years away. Regardless of who comes along first, though, the Isles are preaching patience.
"We're really patient with our prospects," said Ryan Jankowski, the club's assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting. "We're not going to rush them. Wherever we feel they're going to develop best is where they're going to be placed the next year. It's about patience."
Kyle Okposo -- Isles fans got a firsthand look at the club's most ballyhooed prospect in years when Okposo, taken No. 7 overall in 2006, made his NHL debut late last season, scoring twice and adding three assists in nine games.
Okposo is the prize of the Isles' development system, but the club wants to keep expectations within reason for the 20-year-old right wing, who turned pro midway through last season after leaving the University of Minnesota midway through his second season.
"I think he's going to have an opportunity to make the Islanders and continue to do what he has," Jankowski said. "He's tremendously talented. … He's going to be given the opportunity to develop his game to the next level. Remember that he's still going to be in his first year of pro hockey, but just develop and learn the pro game."
Robin Figren -- A broken wrist limited the 2006 third-round pick (No. 70) to just 35 games with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League, during which the 5-foot-11, 176-pound left wing had 18 goals and 31 points.
After two seasons in the WHL, the 20-year-old Figren will play next season with Djurgardens in the Swedish Elite League, a move the Isles are happy about.
"He brings as tremendous work ethic, and he's got tremendous skill," Jankowski said. "He just has to get bigger and stronger. He's going to play a full season in Sweden, which is good for both our side and his side. He's going to be in a good program where he can strengthen himself and play at an elite level. We have him signed to a contract and … he remains one of our top prospects. He's proven himself in North America in the last two years in the WHL. We know he has what it takes to be a good player."
Rhett Rakhshani -- Rakhshani, a 2006 fourth-round pick (No. 100 overall), is a fearless right wing who packs plenty of speed and offensive skill onto a 5-10, 180-pound frame.
Rakhshani had 14 goals, 28 points and 52 penalty minutes in 37 games in his second season at the University of Denver.
"We're excited about Rhett," Jankowski said. "We thought he had a solid year at Denver. He has to get bigger and stronger. He plays a robust, fearless type of game, but he does bring other skills. The style of game he plays, he has to get a little stronger, add some weight and beef to his frame."
Rakhshani will play at least one more season at Denver.
Trevor Smith -- An undrafted free agent signed in April 2007 after two solid years at the University of New Hampshire, Smith struggled early in his first taste of pro hockey, but rebounded to post a solid season.
He started 2007-08 in the American Hockey League with Bridgeport, but after going scoreless in his first five games, he was demoted to Utah of the ECHL. Smith responded with 25 points in 22 games, and the 6-1, 190-pound left wing was a changed player when he returned to the AHL after Christmas. Over his final 49 games, he had 20 goals and 37 points to finish as the Sound Tigers' fifth-leading scorer
"Trevor struggled out of the gate last year with his adaptation to pro hockey," Jankowski said. "He needed a little time in the ECHL and that did wonders for him. He came back to Bridgeport and might have been our top scorer in the second half of the year. He was one of our most consistent offensive players."
Ben Walter -- After his second straight strong minor-league season, Walter, a 6-foot, 185-pound center, will have a chance to earn a full-time NHL spot in 2008-09.
Originally a 2004 fifth-round pick (No. 160) by Boston, Walter, 24, came to the Islanders last September for Petteri Nokelainen. He led Bridgeport with 46 assists and was second with 20 goals and 66 points. He had one goal in eight games with the Islanders last season.
"He's going to be fighting for a spot and it's up to Ben to take the bull right off the get-go and prove that he belongs," Jankowski said. "He's a very versatile player, he's got tremendous hockey sense. He just has to prove it consistently at the next level. But we still have a lot of interest and hope that he can fill that role for us."
Sean Bentivoglio -- An undrafted free agent signed in May 2007, the 5-11, 185-pounder had 32 points in 68 games with Bridgeport in his first full professional season.
Bentivoglio is regarded for having a good work ethic and solid puck skills, but pro hockey remains a big adjustment after he played his college hockey at lightly-regarded Niagara University.
"He's probably going to need a little bit more time, but he's got NHL skills, NHL ability and a talent level we're excited about," Jankowski said. "Hopefully he can come into training camp and dazzle us."
Jesse Joensuu -- The long-awaited North American arrival of the Isles' second-round pick (No. 60) in 2006 finally is here, as Joensuu has signed a contract with the club and likely will start the season in the AHL.
"We'd like him to have a strong year in Bridgeport," Jankowski said. "If he comes to camp and wows us and shows us he's NHL ready (he'll play there), but we think he'd really benefit from one year in (the AHL)."
"That size that he has is something we don't have a lot of at any forward positions with any of our prospects. A strong year in Bridgeport is going to help develop him and give him some confidence in North America."
-- Islanders Assitant GM, Ryan Jankowski on prospect Jesse Joensuu
"That size that he has is something we don't have a lot of at any forward positions with any of our prospects," Jankowski said. "A strong year in Bridgeport is going to help develop him and give him some confidence in North America."
Doug Rogers -- A 2006 fourth-round pick (No. 119), Rogers improved in his second season at Harvard, posting 13 goals and 32 points in 34 games. The 6-1, 195-pound center played on the Crimson's top line and tied for the club lead a plus-13 rating.
"Doug has had two really strong years at Harvard," Jankowski said. "He's a player that has to get a little bit better at everything. He plays like a pro. Like any young 20-year-old, he's still getting better at everything. There's not one thing he has to improve upon, it's just fine-tuning."
Tomas Marcinko -- Despite an injury-plagued season that limited him to just 48 games, the Slovakian-born center had 45 points for the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. He also had six points and a plus-3 rating in six games for Slovakia at the World Junior Championship.
Marcinko was named captain in Barrie last January, something else the Isles are happy about.
"We're thrilled with how he became a leader last year," Jankowski said. "He was a captain in the second half, and it's something we want him to build on. Learning the pro game is a big step for him He's 6-4 but he has to be able to put on weight (he's 187 now). We like a lot of his qualities to be a player at the next level."
Josh Bailey -- The Islanders traded down twice in the first round in 2008 -- from No. 5 to No. 9 -- knowing Bailey would be there for them.
"Josh was the player we targeted from the beginning," Islanders GM Garth Snow said. "He's a center who makes other people around him better, the type of center we need in our system. He has great offensive instincts, and he can make things happen with his superior vision, character and leadership."
Bailey had 29 goals and a team-high 96 points for the Windsor Spitfires last season, and his 67 assists were third in the Ontario Hockey League.
"Josh is a versatile player," Jankowski said. "He's got tremendous playmaking abilities. His vision, his ability to make plays, play any situation -- power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5 -- that's something we were really looking for. We see him as a top-six forward, a guy that is going to lead our offense and play with Kyle Okposo."
One of the reasons the Islanders targeted the 6-1, 188-pound center was a lack of organizational depth in the middle. Though the Isles later signed veteran Doug Weight, Bailey will have a chance to play on Long Island this season.
"We'll see how his summer is and how pro-ready he is in the fall," said Jankowski. "He'll probably get a pretty decent look."
Corey Trivino -- Taken with one of the Isles' three 2008 second-round picks (No. 36), Trivino had a sensational season with Stouffville of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League, totaling 50 assists and 69 points in 39 games. He also had four goals for the Canadian team at the Under-18 World Championships in April.
But the 6-1, 170-pound center will take a big step up the competitive ladder this fall when he plays for Boston University.
"We love Corey's skills and speed," Jankowski said. "It's going to be difficult for him going into Boston University next year. … The biggest thing for Corey is he has to get bigger and stronger. He, more than anyone else we drafted, has to add strength. He's got a good frame to grow into. The message we're going to give to Corey is to go there and be a sponge. Develop your game but bring the offense you have and be confident in your own abilities."
Kirill Petrov -- Petrov slipped to the Islanders in the 2008 third round (No. 73) mostly due to the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and IIHF, as well as the three years remaining on his deal with Russian club Kazan.
"The plan is to almost recruit him," Jankowski said. "He's tied to Kazan and that's great because he's going to be play at a high level of hockey and develop his game. When he feels he can come to the NHL, we'll be ready for him.
"We're going to read and react. It's a sticky situation with the Russians, but I think we're going to play off what happens over there. I'm not sure what's going to happen."
If the Islanders can ever get Petrov to North America, any extra work likely will have been worth it. NHL Central Scouting's second-rated European skater heading into the draft, Petrov is a 6-3, 198-pound power forward who skates well. He had 10 points in 47 games last season with Kazan in the Russian Super League and was voted the top forward after scoring five goals in six games for Russia at the Under-18 World Championships.
Blake Kessel -- The sixth-round pick (No. 166) in 2007 and younger brother of Boston's Phil Kessel had another sensational season with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League, scoring 19 goals and finishing with 57 points in 59 games.
The 6-2, 204-pounder will play next season at the University of New Hampshire.
"He couldn't have had a better year," Jankowski said. "The biggest thing for him is how quickly he adapts to school and how quickly he gets into playing an impact role at UNH. The quicker he develops at the college level, the sooner he's going to develop, period."
Mark Katic -- A 2007 third-round pick (No. 62), Katic sustained injuries to both shoulders last season, limiting him to just 31 points in 45 games with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL. Still, the Islanders remain high on the 5-11, 185-pounder.
"He's built for the new NHL," Jankowski said. "He's a tremendous skater; he moves the puck very well. He had a tough year with both shoulders being injured, it slowed down his development last year, but he's built for the new game. His skating, his puck skills, his ability to move the puck and run the power play … he's bringing an offensive threat."
Aaron Ness -- With the second of three second-round picks in 2008 (No. 40), the Isles picked the Minnesota high school star. Ness won Minnesota's Mr. Hockey award after finishing with 28 goals and 72 points in just 31 games for Roseau.
"When you draft a kid out of Minnesota high schools, you're unsure how he'll be at the next level," Jankowski said. "With his skating and skills, it's been easy for him. He's had to prove himself and the Under-18 level, which he has, but now it's learning to play against bigger, stronger, players."
The 5-10, 157-pounder will do that next season at the University of Minnesota.
Travis Hamonic -- The third of three 2008 second-round picks (No. 53), the Islanders added the defensive-minded 6-foot, 192-pounder from the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors.
Hamonic had 22 points in 61 games, was a plus-5 and had 101 penalty minutes last season.
"He plays an energetic game and has a long legged-type skating style to go along with the willingness to play physical," NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire said.
The hope is that with another year in the WHL, Hamonic will continue to develop the offensive side of his game.
Jyri Niemi -- With their second third-round pick in 2008 (No. 72), the Isles selected the Finnish-born, 6-2, 192-pounder who played last season with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades.
Niemi led all first-year WHL defensemen with 14 goals and was third with 34 points. He also won the hardest shot competition at the CHL Top Prospects Game. Another season in the WHL should see him play more minutes and get an opportunity to improve the defensive side of his game.
"We don't have a ton of size on our back end," Jankowski said, "and the one thing Travis and Jyri bring is some size."
Jase Weslosky -- A 2006 fourth-round pick (No. 108), Weslosky emerged as the starter last season, his second at St. Cloud State University. The 6-2, 185-pounder went 16-13-2 with a 2.11 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and three shutouts in 34 games.
While Rick DiPietro is entrenched as the Islanders' starting goalie until 2021, the Isles would like to develop a young backup.
"Last year he split duties in the first half and really took over the in second half," Jankowski said. "Now he's going to have to prove to us he can do that over a full year and prove he can be a solid No. 1 goalie for his club next year."
Stefan Ridderwall -- A 2006 sixth-round pick (No. 173), Ridderwall played only 23 games last season between the Swedish Elite League and the Swedish junior league. In 11 games with Djurgardens in the Elite League, he had a 2.68 GAA and .907 save percentage. He also served as the backup for Sweden at the World Junior Championship, playing just one game.
"Stefan didn't play a lot last year, but that's the way it is for a 19-year-old kid in Sweden," Jankowski said. "He needs to play games. Practice at the elite-league level is nice, but it's not the same as playing games. He really needs to play games, develop technique and work on game situations."
The hope is Ridderwall, 20, will get more playing time this season.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.