MONTREAL - If all goes as planned, the New York Islanders will ride first-overall draft pick John Tavares to the top just as the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins did with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin after their lean years.
The Islanders used the 2009 draft held Friday and Saturday at the Bell Centre to begin the long climb back to being an NHL contender after finishing last overall in the 30-team league this season.
They had two first-round picks and one in the second, taking the high-scoring Tavares first, then trading up to grab defenceman Calvin de Haan with the 12th overall pick. They took Finnish goalie Mikko Koskinen with the first pick in the second round.
Now they have to hope, in the case of Tavares and de Haan in particular, that they develop the way the young stars have in Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago, which all had bad teams a few years in a row but used the resulting high selections to build exciting and contending squads.
"We did our job," said Islanders general manager Garth Snow. "We were focused on getting the best available player.
"John was obviously the guy we identified early on in the process."
Tavares scored a record 215 goals in his four years in the Ontario Hockey League. He broke Wayne Gretzky's mark for goals in one season by a 16-year-old with 72 in 2007 and led the league with 58 goals in 56 games this season.
With forwards Josh Bailey, taken ninth overall last year, and Kyle Okposo, the seventh overall pick of 2006, already playing, the Islanders hope Tavares will be the centrepiece that lifts them into the playoffs and beyond.
The team that won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983 has missed the playoffs 10 times in the last 15 seasons and hasn't made it past the first round since losing the Eastern Conference final to Montreal in 1993.
They traded away a lot of first round picks in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or traded the players they got with top-five picks like Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer and J.P. Dumont.
But the Penguins, Capitals and Blackhawks in particular have shown in recent years how elite players drafted high can turn a team around, especially since the salary cap was introduced after the 2004-'05 lockout season.
"You have to get lucky, too," said Penguins G.M. Ray Shero, whose team missed the playoffs from 2002 to 2006 and used those failures to add Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
"Even when Pittsburgh was bad, if you have the first or second overall pick, how many times does a Malkin go No. 2 or is there a Crosby in the draft. And with the lottery now, you really have to be lucky."
Malkin happened to be available in 2004 because Washington used the first overall pick to take superstar Alex Ovechkin. The Caps also got defencemen Jeff Schultz at No. 27 and Mike Green two picks later that year, and in 2006, they added star centre Nicklas Backstrom fourth overall and goalie Simeon Varlamov at No. 23.
"There are different ways to build teams," said Capitals G.M. George McPhee. "Some teams have brought in free agents.
"Anaheim brought in (Scott) Neidermayer and then traded for (Chris) Pronger and that made a huge impact. They also had drafted really well. (Ryan) Getzlaf and (Corey) Perry had played well. But it seems more important than ever in this cap world to have young players coming in every year that aren't a big hit on the cap and play well for you."
McPhee is heartened that not all his best young players came from top-five picks because now the Capitals are likely to be near the top of the conference for years to come.
That means drafting late in the first round, a situation that has done nothing to keep the Detroit Red Wings from being a consistent Cup contender. The Red Wings have not had a top-10 pick since they took Martin Lapointe 10th overall in 1991, but they have won four Stanley Cups in the past 12 years.
They did it by signing free agents, but also by hitting home runs at the draft table - Pavel Datsyuk 171st overall in 1998, Henrik Zetterberg 210th in 1999, or Johan Franzen 97th in 2004.
"It's frustrating when you've got teams picking at the top and they say 'this is our chance to get ahead,' and then you look at the bottom and some teams are drafting just as well," said McPhee. "So we're going to try to become one of those clubs that drafts well whether we're at the top or the bottom of the first round.
"It's hard, but it's what teams want. You want to be competitive. Detroit's done it for years and so has New Jersey and I'd like to think we've drafted really well the last four or five years. We've kept the same staff but we changed the way we do things and we're getting some terrific results."
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs nine out of 10 seasons from 1998 to 2008, but got Patrick Kane first in 2007, Jonathan Toews third in 2006 and Cam Barker third in 2004, as well as some smart second-rounders like Duncan Keith in 2002 and Dave Bolland in 2004. Now they are on the rise.
Another team that hopes to follow that route is Tampa Bay, which added a likely star centre in Steven Stamkos with the top pick last year and got six-foot-six defenceman Victor Hedman with the second overall pick in this year's draft.
The Atlanta Thrashers can only hope. They have made the playoffs only once in their nine NHL seasons, thanks to weak drafts (Patrik Stefan first overall in 1999) or trading away young talent like Dany Heatley and Braydon Coburn.
But they got a promising young defenceman, Zach Bogosian, third overall last season and potential power winger Evander Kane fourth overall on Friday night to go with their long-time scoring star Ilya Kovalchuk, the first overall pick in 2001. Their time to shine may also come.