Out of necessity, the New York Islanders have had to recall a handful of players from the Bridgeport Islanders over the last month and a half.
These new waves of prospects have burst onto the scene at the NHL level, and there’s been one common theme.
These players have come up not just with some offensive flair but a clear understanding of the defensive part of the game but with defense being a clear skill of theirs.
And through their responsible game, the game that earned them the call-ups in the first place, they have shined for New York and head coach Lane Lambert.
It started with the call-up of 21-year-old forward Simon Holmstrom. His numbers in the AHL before being recalled were nothing that caught your eye, with just three goals and two assists in 15 games.
Over his four-year Bridgeport career, the offense wasn’t there despite showing glimpses.
Upon arriving in New York on Nov. 23, right before a 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers, Holmstrom was tasked with playing on the Islanders’ top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Oliver Wahlstrom.
Immediately upon being recalled, Bridgeport Islanders broadcaster Alan Fuehring took to Twitter to congratulate Holmstrom on the accomplishment.
“This is so well deserved. Numbers don’t tell the full story over his 15 games in the AHL this season,” Fuehring said. “His proverbial “200-foot game” has been solid. Congrats Simon!”
Most of Holmstrom’s minutes throughout his 14 NHL games have come alongside Zach Parise and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a better fit, given his defensive prowess.
Holmstrom was not just one of the Islanders’ best defensive players, which had helped counteract the loss of Adam Pelech, but he was one of the best shutdown forwards in the NHL over that span.
Unfortunately for Holmstrom and the Islanders, a lower-body injury forced him to leave Friday night’s 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers as he is considered day-to-day and has not skated.
Then came the call-ups of Hudson Fasching and Cole Bardreau, and while the 29-year-old Bardreau struggled to play solid defensively in limited minutes, the 27-year-old Fasching flourished in the Islanders system.
Not only has Hudson Fasching brought the offense with two goals and one assist in nine games for New York, but he has bought a plethora of defensive skill that has made him a reliable option up and down the lineup for Lambert.
“He was on pucks. He was strong, and he was [a] net front [presence]. He made some good plays,” Lambert said following Fasching’s first two showings with New York.
Fasching has been impressive along the boards, winning board battles at a relatively high rate. He has no issues going to the front of the net and has brought energy to whatever line Lambert has placed him on.
Tuesday night in the Islanders 5-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fasching found himself on Barzal’s wing after Wahlstrom’s injury.
Then came the call-up of top prospect Aatu Räty on Friday as Casey Cizikas was day-to-day.
Despite showing off his offensive skills in his NHL debut with a beauty of a goal, his defensive game was a major standout.
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“I think you do forget his age a little bit. He definitely has a maturity to his game that not every 20 or 21-year-old has,” Schneider said.
“He’s got a good toolkit and skill set, but I think maybe what separates him at this stage of his career is his awareness defensively. And, like you said, in this league, that’s a bit of a lost art.”
Before Räty’s first NHL game, Islanders head coach Lane Lambert had this to say:
“He’s played really well in Bridgeport. He’s a 200-foot player, plays both sides of the puck, and he’s played in all situations down there. For me, what I’ve seen is his compete level is very, very high. He’s having success, and it’ll translate.”
He’s played that responsible game over his first two NHL games.
In a total of 281 minutes between the three, they have combined for 11 takeaways and five giveaways. Although plus/- does not come close to depicting a player’s value, the three are a plus-six.
“I mean, they’ve come up and played solid hockey, made really heads-up plays and seeing the ice well,” Anders Lee told NYI Hockey Now. “It’s not an easy position to jump into, but they’re coming in with poise and a lot of control in their game.”
This defensive mindset and defensive prowess is something we haven’t seen from call-ups in years past.
Starting with former fifth-overall pick in 2014, Michael Dal Colle was a player the organization expected to be a legitimate scoring threat at the NHL level. But he never became that kind of player and had to rely on defensive play to garner minutes, which wasn’t his game.
He has since left the organization, and after a professional tryout with the Ottawa Senators, he is currently playing overseas in the KHL.
Kieffer Bellows was another top pick for the Islanders, 19th overall in 2016, who was supposed to be a legit NHL sniper. But over his four years on Long Island, 68 total NHL games, he just never showcased a consistent scoring touch with just 11 total goals.
Towards the end of his Islanders tenure, he started to play more responsibly defensively, but it was a sure weakness over his first three seasons.
And lastly former 11th overall pick in 2018, Oliver Wahlstrom, who, in year four, has shown an understanding of the Islanders system and the importance of a two-way game.
He’s been a revelation defensively and is now just trying to figure out how to bring consistent offense alongside Mathew Barzal.
So, we are seeing a new theme, a needed theme with these prospects coming up and that has benefited the New York Islanders immensely.