The Bridgeport Islanders were a major focus of the New York Islanders faithful in 2021-22 as not only did they qualify for the Calder Playoffs but advanced to the second round for the first time since 2003.
Despite the New York Islanders prospect pool not being highly regarded as nothing special by the media, the New York Islanders have a handful of players for the fans to watch this upcoming season, and it’s the job of Bridgeport Islanders head coach Brent Thompson and his staff to help those players improve their game and become reliable pieces for Islanders head coach Lane Lambert.
Thompson has been ridiculed for his lack of development of certain New York Islanders draftees over his nine-year tenure. You had players, most recently the likes of fifth overall pick in 2014, Michael Dal Colle, who fail to become anything more than an AHL player, as well as the 28th overall pick in that draft, Josh Ho-Sang.
Both are no longer with the organization.
Kieffer Bellows, who was drafted 19th overall in 2016, is finally showing NHL potential after two full Bridgeport seasons and three NHL seasons under his belt. Oliver Wahlstrom, an 11th overall pick in 2018, is for sure an NHL-caliber player but has yet to truly break out as the goal scorer the team needs.
Aside from Wahlstrom, who showcased his potential early, Kieffer Bellows did not become a better player during his time in Bridgeport. He played the game that got him there, but that’s far from the game that gets you regular NHL minutes. It’s the same issue we saw with Dal Colle and Ho-Sang.
When the prospect pool is rather slim, it’s imperative that a few prospects that go through Bridgeport pan out. And that just has not been the case, for whatever reason, in a long time.
But Thompson, in year 10, has some weapons to work with, players whose development is critical for the future of the franchise.
First, you have the 52nd overall pick in 2020, Aatu Räty. The 19-year-old has shown after a season with Jukurit, a small sample size in the AHL, and a dominant showing at the IIHF World Juniors for Finland (silver medal) that he very well could be the steal of his draft year.
Räty played on the top line for Finland, finishing the tournament fourth in points with three goals and seven assists in seven games.
Last season, Räty played two games for the Bridgeport Islanders to close out their regular season before scoring an overtime winner in Game 2 of their opening round series against the Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins AHL affiliate) to send Bridgeport to the second round.
He is likely to get some time in Bridgeport to start the 2022-23 season and, given his ability to play various offensive positions, is one or two on the pecking order.
The second player (not a ranking, just the order I went) is 2020 fifth-round pick William Dufour, fresh off a legendary season with the St. John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL.
In his age 20 season, Dufour was named MVP of the QMJHL, as he notched 56 goals with 60 assists in 66 games. He was named MVP of the Calder Cup, leading the scoring with one goal and seven assists in four games. He recently won a Gold Medal with Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships, playing meaningful minutes on the top line throughout the elimination rounds.
Dufour, whose shot is lethal, showcased a defensive mindset as that tournament went on and may be less of a one-dimensional player than many experts and fans thought. The Islanders, a team whose general focus is on the defensive side of the puck, could use a player like Dufour to bolster not only the system but also provide that offensive spark.
The talented scorer does have things to work on, like his skating, and the fact that he has not played against adults is something that he needs to adjust to. Given the New York Islanders roster, it’s rather likely that Dufour starts his season in Bridgeport, but based on how he transitions from juniors to the AHL, he could be at the top of the call-up list this season.
New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello spoke about Räty and Dufour during his latest press conference (Aug. 23):
“I watched every one of the Finish, Canadian games…Räty simply was driving the top line of the Finnish League, and I think he ended up as one of the top scorer, was put on the ice in all situations,” Lamoriello said. “And then William Dufour… a late addition to the World Juniors and playing in a top defensive role, which I was really excited about because you know he was a 50 plus goal scorer, and yet his instincts defensively complement any offense.”
Aatu Räty and William Dufour represent the two most exciting players in the organization, but there are others that we cannot leave off this list, like 21-year-old Simon Holmstrom.
It was a breakout 2021-22 season for Simon Holmström, who netted 12 goals with 31 assists in 68 games. His 12 goals were second-most on the club, and his 31 assists also ranked second. Holmström recorded three goals and an assist in six Calder Cup Playoff games.
“I think Simon has continued to grow as a person off the ice. He’s in a position where I think his confidence right now is high,” Bridgeport Islanders general manager Chris Lamoriello said following the end of their season. “I think that the education that he’s been given with the playing experience, and certainly how the coaches have worked with him, has put him in a very good position right now to take another jump.”
Depending on who makes the New York Islanders out of training camp, especially on the backend, there’s the potential opportunity for Thompson to continue working with 23-year-old Robin Salo, who the Islanders desperately need to see become a legitimate NHL defenseman with a glaring hole on the left side.
If Salo makes the club out of camp, we could see recent signee, 24-year-old Dennis Cholowski, start in Bridgeport as the former first-round pick (20th overall in 2016 by Detroit) is running out of time to have an NHL career.
Also, keep an eye on 21-year-old Samuel Bolduc after a rough AHL season as well as 23-year-old forward Arnaud Durandeau, who is coming off his best AHL season.
For the New York Islanders, a team getting up there in age, young, developed legs will need to be on standby this upcoming season. And Brent Thompson and Co. are responsible for getting those players to that next level, as the long-term success of the franchise depends on it.