Both the AHL schedule and its teams’ travel will be vastly limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic, much like its NHL big brother.
For instance, the Islanders’ Bridgeport affiliate, which opens its season on Friday, will play just 24 games through May 8, solely against Atlantic Division opponents Harford (Rangers) and Providence (Bruins). That will allow for plenty of practice time and one-on-one development work with the prospects.
And the Sound Tigers’ training camp roster is prospect-heavy.
But what of players such as Andrew Ladd and Tom Kuhnhackl, both Stanley Cup winners before joining the Islanders’ organization? What do veterans get out of this unique season?
"Great question," Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson said. "I think that’s a challenge for our staff. But I also know the kind of character that we have as far as leadership.
"It’s their opportunity to grab the bull by the horns and establish themselves as a leader of the group," Thompson added. "That, hey, ‘I belong here, I’m a dominant American League player. I’m pushing on the bubble. I’m a depth guy for the NHL. I want two more years.’"
Ladd, 35, still has three seasons remaining on his seven-year, $38.5 million deal and though his contract is buried in the AHL, it only saves the Islanders $1.075 million of his $5.5 million average annual value against the $81.5 million salary cap.
Ladd had 11 goals and three assists in 34 games for Bridgeport last season after injuring both knees in 2018-19 with the Islanders.
"Last year, it was fantastic," Thompson said. "Andrew came down with a great attitude. He’s an extension of the coaching staff. He understands what we’re trying to say and teach and he’s out in the room when we may not be in that room. He’s there to support what we’re saying."
Kuhnhackl, 29, had three goals and three assists in 28 games for the Islanders last season.
Bridgeport’s training camp roster also includes Tanner Fritz, 29, who has played 42 games for the Islanders, Cole Bardreau, 27, who made his NHL debut in a 10-game stint with the Islanders last season, and defenseman Seth Helgeson, 30, who has played 50 NHL games for the Devils.
Any day now, the remaining inventory of season-tickets for the upper bowl at the new UBS Arena at Belmont Park will be sold out.
"I would say in the next week or two," said Mike Cosentino, the Islanders senior vice president of ticketing. "It’s an exciting moment for us. We’ve always had in our projections we would sell out all season-ticket inventory and premium seats. To achieve success, you have to expect success."
The team’s state-of-the-art, $1 billion home is targeted to open in November. Cosentino added most of the center sections in the lower bowl as well as a significant portion of the lower-bowl corner sections are almost sold out as well.
The Islanders are playing one final season at Nassau Coliseum. No fans are currently permitted because of the pandemic and Cosentino does not know if that will change.
"I wish I knew," Cosentino said. "I would defer to what the government says. What the NHL says. We know we would have the ability to have options [for fan attendance] but we have to wait until we know what’s allowed."
As a result, season-ticket payments for this season can either be paused, refunded or allocated toward the new arena. Cosentino said the retention rate is, "exceeding our expectations."
"As an organization, we see UBS Arena as a beacon of hope, something to look forward to," he added. "We’ve got this wonderful arena to sell. Our customers are feeling that excitement as well."
Rookie Oliver Wahlstrom scored his first NHL goal in his season’s debut, a 6-3 loss at Washington on Thursday night. Wahlstrom’s first-period shot from the left circle deflected in off Capitals defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Fellow rookie Kieffer Bellows wound up collecting the puck as a keepsake for Wahlstrom.
"I didn’t see it go in the back of the net until I skated around and Belly jumped on me," Wahlstrom said. "It was a pretty surreal feeling. I sat on the bench and I was like, ‘Did that really just happen right now?’ and everyone’s giving me high fives. It was really humbling to get that experience."
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