As the NHL lockout mercifully comes to an end, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have hit another bump in the road, dropping their first three games of 2013. Furthermore, they stand to lose some key parts of their club to the parent New York Islanders as the NHL season gets underway.
Monday night, the Sound Tigers got a point, but let two separate leads slip away, losing 4-3 in overtime at home against the Hershey Bears. Over the weekend, the Sound Tigers lost a tight 2-1 game Saturday to the Portland Pirates and a wild 5-4 game Friday to the Springfield Falcons. Kevin Poulin took the losses Monday and Friday, surrendering nine goals total in those two games. Anders Nilsson took the loss on Saturday.
Rather than recap the games, with the NHL lockout now behind us, I figured I’d give some thoughts on how the Islanders’ prospects look based on what I’ve seen in the 35 games Bridgeport has played this season (yep, I watched ‘em all), and suggest who we might see in the NHL sooner rather than later. I’ve ordered them by how far along in their development they appear to be to me.
A few notes first: take this analysis for what it’s worth. I’ve never written anything like this up before, and obviously I’m not a scout -- just someone who has closely watched the team and players. When I note the potential, I’m not saying that’s what I think the player necessarily will become, or even that I believe the player will make it to the NHL. It’s just what the player could become if all the chips fall in his favor.
Casey Cizikas remains the most complete and NHL-ready forward among the group from what I’ve seen, despite five other forwards piling up more points. It might be worth noting that Cizikas has played fewer games than four of those forwards due to injury. And it’s not like he hasn’t put up any points -- Cizikas has nine goals and 20 points in 29 games played. With Cizikas, not only does he have all the tools to fill a bottom-six role on the Islanders, but he’s using them all well and consistently this season. He makes noticeable plays -- either on offense or defense -- on almost every shift. His stride and speed look good, his hockey sense looks good (he makes any line he is on better and is showing off some decent playmaking skills, most recently a nice behind-the-back pass to Colin McDonald for a goal Monday night that tied the game against the Bears up at two), and his tenacity -- relentless forechecking and backchecking -- is exactly what you want to see in a bottom-six NHL forward.
The big knock on him is his poor plus/minus this season. It’s a woeful -12 -- the worst on the team, and certainly not what you want to see in a defensive bottom-six forward. But watching the games, his defense stands out as a positive, rather than a negative, so that number is a bit of a mystery to me.
Potential: Cizikas could top out as a bottom-six center that kills penalties, holds late leads, chips in some points, and becomes a team leader.
David Ullstrom may be the next player ready for the NHL. Again, this is not based on point producion, but rather how Ullstrom looks out there. His skating is far beyond just about every other forward on the team -- good speed and a nice stride. He has good size, and he loves to use it -- not necessarily to throw big checks, but rather to challenge defensemen while he’s carrying the puck. It is the type of game that should translate well at the next level, and Ullstrom is physically developed enough to play that style effectively. I put Ullstrom behind Cizikas on this list because, while both have the tools, Ullstrom has not always used them as consistently as Cizikas this season; part of that may be due to lingering issues from two separate injuries that he has suffered. Ullstrom, who led Bridgeport with 24 goals last season in 40 games played, has scored only four goals so far this season, although he has managed a respectable 17 points in 24 games played. He seems to be trying to pick corners a bit too finely this year. He is tied for the team lead at +9, showing that he is not a liability out there when the play goes the other way.
Potential: Ullstrom may top out as a solid two-way, third-line winger who, depending on how his scoring comes along, can fill in on the top-two lines in the event of injuries.
We’ve all heard about the season Nino Niederreiter is having in the AHL this year. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear he leads the team in goals with 17. But it may surprise you to hear he is second on the team in assists. In total, Niederreiter has put up 34 points in as many games, tops on the team, and the good news doesn’t stop there. He’s harder to knock off the puck, he fights along the boards rather than forcing a pass when a defender engages him as he did in the NHL last season, and he’s thriving in front of the net, using his strength to gain position on defensemen and his quick hands to tap pucks past goaltenders during those chaotic scrambles in front. But as I watch the games, I still feel like his skating needs to improve before making another jump to the NHL. It’s not just his speed -- that has actually improved markedly, allowing him to catch some players from behind on the backcheck -- but his stride and his balance do not look NHL-ready at this point. Niederreiter can also add some more weight before banging shoulders with bigger NHL defensemen again. He has size, but still looks a bit thin out there, especially compared to power forwards on other AHL teams that have had some more time to develop. Another nitpick about his game might be that, despite his impressive assist total, he doesn't always see the ice and make the best passing play when he has the puck. Sometimes, particularly when under pressure, he'll put the puck to an area where maybe a teammate should be, but it'll end up on an opponent's stick for an easy turnover instead. Without the puck, though, Niederreiter's doing a better job than last season of putting himself into the right spots to score. He has even been breaking up ice at the right moments to take passes in full stride and get plays started in the offensive zone.
Potential: Remains to be seen. Definitely a top-six forward, but will he be strictly a front-of-the-net goal scorer or become the overall dominating power forward the team hopes he will be?
Brock Nelson may have been invited to camp, had he not broken his jaw, based on the merits of his play this season [UPDATE -- per Michael Fornabaio at the Connecticut Post, Nelson is taking contact at practice now and appears close to being ready for action again]. He has shown good speed, a willingness to play in the tough areas, and has 11 goals and 22 points in just 25 games played so far in his first AHL season. He could use some added muscle before being considered for a role in the NHL, and with the injury, he’ll likely need considerable time just to get back on track once he’s healthy, which should be soon. In the games he’s played in so far, Nelson liked to drive to the net, and was certainly a shoot-first center rather than a playmaker. Like Niederreiter, he seemed at home in the mad scrambles in front of the cage. He also shows ability on the defensive end of the game, killing penalties for Bridgeport and even picking up one of the team’s three shorthanded goals.
Potential: As a center, maybe a third-line, two-way player. On the wing, if he keeps up the scoring touch, maybe a second liner that can create some havoc along the boards and get plays going to the net.
Johan Sundstrom has had a good first year in North America. He has 10 goals and 24 points in 35 games played, but beyond the numbers, he is just a smart center who is effective in all three zones. He can finish a play, or find the open man with equal effectiveness. His +8 is tied for second on the team. He takes key faceoffs and plays in all situations. Flash and dazzle are not a part of his game. Despite his importance to the team and the ice time he gets, he’s an easy player to overlook during the games until you see the stat sheet and realize he managed multiple points and held opponents scoreless. There’s no real weakness to his game, but he will need more seasoning before being considered for a role with the Islanders, at least as I see it.
Potential: Two-way, third-line center that contributes on special teams.
John Persson is a player I never really read much about in discussions on Isles’ prospects, but he has demanded attention in Bridgeport this year by simply filling the net with pucks in his first full season. He has 13 goals in 35 games, good for second on the team behind Niederreiter. There’s no part of his game that will leave your jaw on the floor; he simply has very good instincts around the net and knows where to be to finish off a play. Like Ullstrom, he knows how to use his size to gain leverage on defenders. He’s a responsible forward as well, evidenced by his +8, tied with Sundstrom for second-best on the team in that category. To have a shot at making it to the NHL, Persson will need to devote serious time to his skating.
Potential: If his skating improves by leaps and bounds and he continues with his goal-scoring touch, maybe he can surprise everyone and become an effective scoring winger in the NHL. Islanders’ coach Jack Capuano said in a recent interview on the Bridgeport broadcast that he sees some of Matt Moulson in Persson. That’s actually not a bad comparison, but should not at all be confused with anyone saying Persson could be a 30-goal scorer in the NHL tomorrow.
The rest: If the Islanders are looking for some extra grit in their lineup for a game or two, but also a player that can take close to a regular shift on a fourth line, maybe they give Brandon DeFazio a look. DeFazio drops the gloves occasionally, protects his teammates, and has chipped in seven goals and 12 points in 29 games for Bridgeport this season.
If the Isles are looking for a little wolverine (relatively speaking...he’s 6’, which is tall by my standards, but short compared to everyone he fights) who will take on all comers and win, maybe Brett Gallant gets an occasional callup. Gallant has racked up 155 penalty minutes in 30 games.
Not mentioned up to this point is Kirill Kabanov. As most know, he was injured after playing just four games. He is skating again at last, but I have not seen enough of him to give any kind of analysis.
With Calvin deHaan hurt for the season, the Islanders’ options in Bridgeport for D are severely limited.
Matt Donovan is the obvious frontrunner to see time in the NHL. He has five goals and 17 points in 34 games this season. He’s not as fast as I thought he would be, and doesn’t have a rocket of a shot. But he is smart, mobile enough, and good enough defensively, if not at all physical. He is a +9 this season, tied with Ullstrom for tops on the team. Donovan is the only regular defenseman on the team in plus territory, which is either a testament to his defensive ability, or an indictment of how thin the team is on D.
Potential: Perhaps a borderline second-pair defenseman, from what I see at this point. I have a harder time judging defensemen than forwards.
Ty Wishart is probably next on the callup list. We’ve all seen Wishart, so we know what he brings. He has some size, but is not physical, has decent wheels, but does not use them enough, and has a fair amount of hockey sense. With Wishart, it seems to be more about his level of commitment than his natural ability. He will probably see some time in the NHL this year as injuries occur. This season, he has one goal and five points in 29 games and is -1.
Potential: At this point, a 7th d-man.
I’m not as low as some are on Aaron Ness. I see considerable barriers in his way to becoming a regular NHL defenseman, most notably his size, but I believe he still has a chance. Ness has great mobility and is clearly an asset when the team is on offense. But he is small, and can get victimized in his own zone. Furthermore, his chances of using his intelligence to carve out a role as a power-play specialist are hurt by his lack of a hard shot, evidenced by his zero goals so far this season (although his 13 assists show his intelligence). It’s worth noting that his defensive play has improved of late, and it seemed to happen when coach Scott Pellerin broke up the pair of Ness and fellow offensive defenseman Jon Landry. He is currently a -1.
Potential: Ness is missing an ingredient. If he develops a shot, he can probably be a power-play specialist. If he improves his positioning, he could probably carve out a regular spot in a top six. It would be a shame to see his slick passing and high hockey IQ go to waste if he does not add one of those two elements to his game.
The rest: Of the other Bridgeport defensemen, I can only see 30-year-old Landry maybe getting an emergency callup based on his strong offensive showing so far (six goals, 18 points to lead all defensemen). But like Ness, Landry can get victimized in his own zone.
It’s been an up-and-down season for both Nilsson and Poulin. I’d say neither is playing with the confidence to warrant NHL time at the moment, but if one is called on to back up Nabokov, it should probably be Poulin. Nilsson relies more on his rebound control, positioning and outguessing shooters, while Poulin relies more on his reflexes and speed. For weaknesses, Poulin has a tendency to leave too many juicy rebounds, while Nilsson can find himself way out of position and unable to recover when he relies too much on anticipation rather than following the play. Currently, Nilsson has a 2.91 GAA and a .903 save percentage. Poulin sits at 3.03 and .908.