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2018 NHL MOCK DRAFT: Islanders Take forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi with first of back-to-back picks

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As the pending free agency of John Tavares looms large over the Islanders, bringing in a high-upside center is an attractive option for a team that needs depth down the middle.

The course of the New York Islanders offseason will likely be determined by one player: John Tavares. The Islanders will try to bring back the player that is both their captain and one of their top scorers, but it seems unlikely their moves will end with either bringing him back or saying goodbye. If they bring him back, the Islanders are a team that likely just gave out a mega-deal to this year’s free agent jewel but are also a team that missed the playoffs this past season by 17 points. They can only justify that type of deal by bringing in other impact players in an attempt to get back to the postseason. If they do not bring him back, then they are a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points and are losing their best player. In that scenario, GM Garth Snow needs to, at the very least, consider a partial rebuild. What makes this more difficult for the Islanders is the obvious fact that the draft occurs well before free agency begins. Therefore, the Islanders need to take the player that can be the right choice regardless of where Tavares ends up.

With that in mind, the New York Islanders select Jesperi Kotkaniemi from Assat in Finland’s Liiga with the eleventh overall pick in the Hockey Wilderness Mock Draft.

In the Pipeline

Like plenty of other teams, the Islanders are lacking when it comes to depth down the middle. What depth they did have was primarily Mathew Barzal, who led the team in scoring at 85 points in his first full NHL season. Barzal served as the second-line center, and will be called upon to play for the top line should Tavares sign elsewhere. After Barzal, the Islanders have restricted free agent Brock Nelson on the third line and Casey Cizikas on the fourth. After that, the system is pretty bare. The undrafted Travis St. Denis logged 44 points in 74 games for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but he does not project as anything more than a bottom six forward at best. He is also the beginning and the end of the Islanders’ center depth outside of the NHL level.

While not at the center position, they do have some strong scoring depth at forward, led by 19 year old Edina-native Kieffer Bellows at left wing. He posted 74 points in 56 games playing in the WHL and figures to be in the NHL soon, if not this upcoming season.

The Scouting Report

Kotkaniemi is just 17 years old and will not turn 18 until two weeks after he hears his name called at the draft in Dallas this summer. His young age did not stop him, however, from being third on his team in scoring, behind two players both at least ten years older than him. He was essentially a child against men, but that did not stop him from scoring 29 points in 57 games.

Evaluators praise his good hands and his decision making ability. As shown in the video below, he is excellent with the puck. He shows an ability to slow things down and make quick decisions to keep plays alive. His speed and skating ability are both considered to be fine, but his ability to be a play maker, especially on the power play, is what sets him apart. He does not take too many shots himself, but when he does, his shooting ability is very good. He projects as a solid second line center, but most agree that he has the potential to become even more.

Defensively, he has been graded everywhere from “needs improvement” to “NHL ready”. Encouragingly, though, even those that said his defensive game needs improvement are confident he will make the adjustments that he needs to make. After all, most forwards his age need to make improvements to their defensive game.

How He Fits the Wild

In his ranking of draft prospects, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman described Kotkaniemi as having “the best shot of any prospect in this draft class to be a No. 1 center.” Given that evaluation, how he could fit with the Wild is self explanatory. The Wild’s system lacks anyone at center with that level of upside. Joel Eriksson-Ek and Luke Kunin both have plenty of potential, but neither look like a 1C in the making. Kotkaniemi, on the other hand, has a chance of being the true top center that this team has been trying to find for years.

How the Wild Get Him

While there has been some inconsistency with where he has been put in pre-draft prospect rankings, it seems unlikely Kotkaniemi would still be available when the Wild pick at 24. If GM Paul Fenton buys into the upside and decides he wants Kotkaniemi, he will have to trade up to get him. Given that the Islanders have multiple first round picks, they could be willing to move one of them. What might really determine what New York wants to do with its draft picks, though, could be how they feel about their chances of resigning John Tavares. If the Islanders fear he is about to depart in free agency, they might choose to rebuild, move guys a year away from free agency like Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee, and bring in draft picks and prospects rather than dealing picks away. If, on the other hand, they are confident Tavares will remain, then they need to enter win-now mode and add to their roster. In that scenario, they could be willing to move the 11th pick as part of a package to land an impact player.