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Wednesday, November 8, 2000
Isles entrust future to 18-year-old goalie

CALGARY, Alberta -- He's either a genius or a nut. He's a visionary or he's out of his mind. He's either flat-out loony or he sees something that few others see. He's either taking the biggest gamble this side of Las Vegas or he's about to hit the jackpot.

Say what you want about Mike Milbury, but don't ever say he lacks guts.

The New York Islanders' general manager pulled off a dizzying array of deals at the National Hockey League draft Saturday, but the biggest bombshell of the day was when he selected goaltender Rick DiPietro to lead his franchise to the promised land -- or at least the playoffs, which the Islanders have missed for the past six years.

Rick DiPietro
All the Islanders' eggs might be in DiPietro's basket.
The club has new ownership, which wants some return on their investment, and they've committed roughly double the team's budget from last year in order to field a competitor.

Enter DiPietro. When the Islanders won the draft lottery, moving them up to the No. 1 pick overall, the plotting began. By Friday night, Milbury had shipped goalie Kevin Weekes, defenseman Kristian Kudroc and the team's second-round pick next year to Tampa Bay for the Lightning's first pick (No. 5 overall in this year's draft, which turned out to be big left wing Raffi Torres) and two previously acquired picks. By early Saturday, Milbury had swung a deal with Florida to trade former goalie of the future Roberto Luongo and disgruntled center Olli Jokinen for some immediate offensive help in left wing Oleg Kvasha and right wing Mark Parrish.

In moving Luongo, whom the Islanders had taken with the No. 4 pick overall in 1997, the stage was set for Milbury to pull the trigger on selecting DiPietro, who, though supremely confident, has but one year of college hockey under his belt.

With Wade Flaherty the likely backup, it thrusts DiPietro into a role that Milbury staunchly resisted giving to Luongo -- throwing him from the frying pan into the NHL fire.

"I have never been to an NHL training camp so I don't know the level of play I'll be dealing with," admitted the 18-year-old DiPietro, who was born in Lewiston, Maine and grew up in Chicago for a few years before his family moved back to Winthrop, Mass., where his mother is from. "But I feel pretty confident that with some work -- and I need to work on some things -- that I'll be successful at the next level."

Milbury and the Islanders sure hope he's right. DiPietro is being touted as one of the finest puckhandlers in the game today -- at any level. Not only are they banking on his skills there but they are taking the chance that he will be a better fit as a franchise goalie than Luongo.

"We're rolling the dice here a little bit," said Milbury, in a giant understatement. "Roberto Luongo is going to be an excellent goaltender. He is a class act and a kid that we would have been happy to ride with. But as the draft progressed, it was clear that the value of Luongo was greater than the value of the first overall pick.

"But in our minds, if we could get to DiPietro, he possesses an element that Roberto perhaps doesn't possess. We could make an argument for either one of these goaltenders. We think his unusually strong puck-handling skills weighed out in his favor. And trading Roberto and Olli, who by our sights didn't want to be on Long Island, felt he was not wanted on Long Island rightly or wrongly, we exchanged for those guys (in order) to fill a significant need -- two significant needs -- a center to complement Tim Connolly and scoring off the wing."

It's very difficult for an 18-year-old to make the jump from junior or college hockey to the NHL. One could argue it's even tougher for blueliners and goalies, who are the last lines of defense against the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Paul Kariya and Pavel Bure.

Milbury said you need only to point to Tom Barrasso's first-year statistics with the Buffalo Sabres. Barrasso left Acton-Boxborough High School in Massachusetts right for the NHL and went 26-12-3 with a 2.84 goals-against average.

"We have every intention of giving Rick a chance to play for the New York Islanders in the fall," said Milbury, who likely will add a goalie coach to the mix to maximize his new investment's chances for success. "Since the ball dropped in our favor (at the draft lottery) it has been pretty much around the clock for us. We gathered the information, we beat each other up as a staff and philosophically, what came of it was 'Let's fill as many needs as we can, and let's get this process a little closer to where we want it to be.' Because we have not made the playoffs in far too long and we need to get there. It's a danger spot, obviously, going with the youthful goaltender. If we need to give him support, we will."

Along with the move for Roman Hamrlik, which was yet another move made by the club Saturday, Milbury plans to add another veteran defenseman to shore up the the team's own end and reduce the pressure on DiPietro. In one fell swoop, the Islanders' roster was made completely different with the youngster being the focal point. Milbury and the club have made their choice, putting their fortunes on the glove, stick and blocker of an 18-year-old.

Genius or crazy. Time will tell.

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of the Boston Globe writes a weekly national NHL column that appears on Fridays.
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