With the New York Islanders just past the midpoint of their lockout-shortened season, it’s as good a time as any to evaluate the three Bridgeport Sound Tigers that made the jump to the big club this season (four if you count Kevin Poulin) -- and to talk about some who might be ready for a quick look sooner than later.
Back when the lockout was just coming to a close, I wrote about which Bridgeport players I thought might crack the Isles’ lineup (http://my.hockeybuzz.com/...d=55451&post_id=14327
), having watched the AHL squad regularly while the NHL owners and players’ association squabbled like the U.S. Congress. Some of my observations have been supported by subsequent events. Some...not so much. So let’s dive in and look at how Casey Cizikas, Colin McDonald and David Ullstrom have fared so far this season.
What I said:
In my previous analysis, I said, “Casey Cizikas remains the most complete and NHL-ready forward among the [Bridgeport] group from what I’ve seen, despite five other forwards piling up more points.” I added, "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," and I praised his abilities and, even more so, his tenacity.
My only knock on him was his horrible plus-minus -- the worst on the team at the time. I qualified that with, “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.”
What’s happened up to now:
Cizikas has indeed admirably filled the bottom-six forward role Isles’ fans envisioned for him. He is one-third of a solid checking/shutdown line for the Islanders, and he’s chipped in three goals and nine points in 22 games as well. His relentless forechecking, simple approach to the game, and attention to detail on defense have all translated well at the next level so far. That poor plus-minus at Bridgeport? Indeed it remains a mystery, as he is currently even with the Isles, and one of just six players on the team not in minus territory.
What I said:
Nothing, because he wasn’t even on my radar. Despite him being among the point leaders for Bridgeport at the time the lockout ended (he’s still sixth on the team in points despite not playing there since the lockout), I honestly thought he benefitted from being a fixture on strong first lines -- initially with Cizikas and Nino Niederreiter, and later with Brock Nelson and Niederreiter. As it happens, perhaps those other players benefitted from playing with McDonald.
What's happened up to now:
I don’t think anyone will say the 28-year-old McDonald -- who was signed as a free agent this past offseason to play in Bridgeport -- possesses otherworldly hockey skills. But he is smart enough to know exactly what he has to do to get a regular shift in the NHL. He plays alongside Cizikas on that effective checking line, and has found success in a similar way: by treating every shift like it’s his last and playing a responsible, physical brand of hockey. He has also managed an admirable four goals and 10 points in 23 games played from the third and fourth lines.
McDonald has set an example that perhaps other Islanders’ forwards should follow: success can come from hard work and playing within oneself. I don’t think McDonald will be a mainstay on the team for years to come, and it is perhaps a roster spot the Isles will upgrade going forward, but it’s hard to complain about what he has provided in the role he’s been asked to fill.
In my previous analysis, of the “non-prospects” playing in Bridgeport, I thought Brandon DeFazio might get a look, rather than McDonald. DeFazio played a chippy brand of hockey and had 12 points in 29 games played at the time. In the 19 games he’s played since for Bridgeport, he’s managed five points and has been very ordinary. So, clearly I was wrong here, and a tip of the hat to McDonald and his hard work.
What I said:
When the lockout ended, I wrote in my analysis, “David Ullstrom may be the next player [after Cizikas] ready for the NHL. ...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.”
As for my knock on Ullstrom, I said in my analysis: “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.”
What’s happened up to now:
Well, that consistency issue seems to have continued. Although I don’t believe he has been necessarily bad on any night, he has definitely been better on some nights than others. Perhaps because of this, Ullstrom has found himself in and out of the lineup. I question if that’s the best way to develop him, or if he should just be allowed to find his game at the NHL level. He remains a responsible player, even when he is not standing out.
When I discussed potential in my analysis, I pegged Ullstrom 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.”
I still believe this is accurate. He shows flashes indicative of his ability to spend some limited time in the top six, but expecting that high-flying scoring winger game in and game out that will pile up points might not be realistic. Especially not now while he’s still adjusting to the NHL. I am not as high on Ullstrom as those who want to see him on the Islanders’ first line, but certainly not as down on him as those who want to see him scratched. Just as he was in Bridgeport, Ullstrom seems to be a somewhat streaky player that can fill a nice supporting role, while occasionally wowing us with a string of games where his size and speed allow him to play at a higher level than normal.
For the forwards, after Cizikas and Ullstrom, the order of Isles’ prospects in Bridgeport in my previous analysis, ranked by how close I thought they were to a callup, was: Niederreiter, Nelson, Johan Sundstrom and John Persson.
Since my writeup, Sundstrom
has been out long-term after taking a hit up high (he returned to the lineup just this weekend).
has struggled a bit after the whole “trade demand” flap, although he has now scored goals in his last two games. Still, when he’s on, it’s striking how much more complete of a player he is even since the lockout ended. In my writeup, I pointed to flaws that don’t seem to be as much of an issue anymore. He has a better feel for the game, his skating is vastly improved, and he may be ready for a quick look in the Isles’ top-six should they choose to trade an under-performing forward or if there is an injury. He’s fallen off his point-per-game pace though, and now has 24 goals and 42 points in 56 games played.
has really picked up his game since readjusting after his jaw injury -- suffered just as the NHL season began. While the phrase, “Niederreiter leads the Sound Tigers in both goals and points” has been a fixture virtually since the AHL season began, it’s definitely worth noting that Nelson is now just two points behind Niederreiter while playing in nine fewer games. While he was almost purely a shooting center before his injury, Nelson seems to see the ice better as the season progresses, and his assist totals have picked up. He does not stand out on every shift, but he is impressive on the forecheck when he’s feeling good out there. Sometimes it looks like there are two of him on the ice as he digs the puck out of one corner, dishes a pass, then digs the puck out of the other corner to keep the play going.
’s goal-scoring pace has slowed some since the lockout. He had 13 goals in 35 games at the time of my last writeup, and has added just three goals in 19 games played since. But I believe all the positives I mentioned still apply regarding his good instincts and ability to use his size to gain leverage on defenders. And my mention of his need to devote serious time to his skating in order to have a chance to crack the NHL lineup also applies.
As for the defense, I wasn’t very high on the Bridgeport D-men in my previous writeup. Now, I feel better about Matt Donovan
than I did. He has often been the best player on the ice for Bridgeport since the lockout, and on a weaker D core that struggles in its own zone, Donovan has been able to stay in plus territory -- currently at +9. He has nine goals and 31 points in 56 games played, but beyond the numbers, he’s been very noticeable, pinching at the right times, playing admirably enough on D, and even being just a touch more physical than he was earlier in the season.
Donovan’s been shuffled back on the depth chart since the Isles’ waiver-wire acquisitions of Brian Strait, Thomas Hickey and Joe Finley. And with prospects such as Griffin Reinhart, Scott Mayfield and others behind him, you get the sense that Donovan will get a look soon to see what he could offer, and that he’ll have to seize that opportunity immediately when it arises to be in the Isles’ long-term plans.
In goal, well, maybe that’s a blog for another day. Between Anders Nilsson being out with an illness, Rick DiPietro now in Bridgeport and Poulin currently backing up Evgeni Nabokov on the Isles, there’s quite a bit to talk about there.