After trading their first-round picks each of the last three years, the New York Islanders prospect pool is understandably shallow, with much of the excitement reserved for two players that, after early setbacks, have seen their values skyrocket over the last 12 months: William Dufour and Aatu Räty.
Who is the better NY Islanders prospect? William Dufour or Aatu Räty?
Which one is better is a trivial argument, but weeks after both showcased their skill at the World Junior Championships, a debate over which prospect is better recently emerged following prospect rankings that had the sharp-shooting Dufour ahead of the play-making Räty.
Corey Pronman in The Athletic recently had Dufour as the No. 2 in his Islanders pipeline rankings (players 22 or younger as of 9/15/22 qualified for the list), while Räty came in at No. 5. On Monday, he released a list of the top prospects under 23 with Dufour at 77 and Räty listed at 126.
It's a great problem to have, especially for two players that had lukewarm expectations when they were drafted. Räty was a prospective No. 1 overall pick that struggled so much in 2021 that he failed to make the World Juniors roster and slid all the way to the second round (52nd overall, 2021 Draft).
After a strong training camp on Long Island, there was cautious optimism that the Islanders had something in the Finnish center, but when he returned to Liiga, his struggles to find a role with Karpat continued, and playing time remained sparse. Things changed almost immediately after being traded to Jukurit, where he was coached by former Isles forward Olli Jokinen and rediscovered his game, scoring 13 goals and 27 assists in 41 games. He finished his season in North America playing with the Bridgeport Islanders for two regular season games and the playoffs.
"He had a very good training camp, said Bridgeport GM Chris Lamoriello. "And I think that start of, you know, getting to know him and feeling good about where he was at as far as the young player, and I think his experience this year in Finland really Jukurit in what they did with that team, getting into the playoffs. He was another one who was in position of playing playoff hockey before the regular season ended."
Meanwhile, Dufour, who was drafted sixth overall in the 2018 QMJHL entry draft, struggled with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies when he first skated in the league as a 16-year-old. His tepid start to his QMJHL career led him to drop in the draft, and the Islanders selected the 6'3 winger with the 152nd pick of the 5th round in 2020. After spending time with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens and Drummondville Voltigeurs, Dufour's trajectory took off when he was acquired by the Saint John Sea Dogs in June of 2021.
“William will bring size, skill, grit, and a scoring touch to our lineup,” said Sea Dogs President & General Manager Trevor Georgie. “He’s the exact type of player we were looking to add this off-season, and we expect him to make an immediate impact.” Dufour went on to have a record-smashing season, winning the Michel-Brière Trophy as QMJHL's MVP after scoring 116 points (56 goals and 60 assists) in 66 games.
So, who's better?
For most of the summer, the consensus was that Räty, coming off his successful Liiga season and getting a taste of AHL hockey in Bridgeport, was the organization's best prospect and the one most likely to play in the NHL this season. But Dufour's notoriety surpassed his in North America after winning the Memorial Cup and gold with Canada at the World Juniors. The staggering numbers he put up in juniors are impossible to ignore. Dufour leaping Räty in rankings has everything to do with his magical season and is not a reflection of Räty stumbling a bit.
Dufour has an NHL frame, an NHL shot, and a goal scorer's swagger. While he has the ability to play the middle, his game is best suited on the wing, where he can follow the play, find space and unleash his accurate shot. Playing as a 19-year-old, he showcased more of a physical game that will be tested along with his skating at the AHL level this season.
There will still be a bit of caution when forecasting Räty's potential after his drop from top prospect status in 2021, but most scouts believe he possesses enough play-making and hockey sense to be a second-line center in the NHL. His game has enough size, skating, and puck-handling that, if put all together, could make him a well-rounded two-way player.
So who's better? I'm not making a prediction. I'll watch training camp with the rest of you and start to form an opinion. They're two different players with different styles but similar, unconventional paths that now have each vying for the status of an organization's top prospect, a title they both might be worthy of holding.