The AHL, like the NHL, paused its season on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the NHL continues to move toward a resumption of play, its top minor league affiliate cancelled the rest of its season on May 11.
“Every player you talk to is disappointed,” Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson told Newsday in a recent telephone conversation. “Those players wanted to continue to show what they could do to help the organization. We understand it’s a terrible time. Safety first.”
The Islanders’ affiliate finished last in the eight-team Atlantic Division at 23-33-5-2, though they won their last two games before the season was halted.
Thompson called the inconsistent, injury-plagued season a “huge disappointment” but there were some positives individually.
And some of Thompson’s Sound Tigers may have the chance to join the seventh-seeded Islanders’ roster for their best-of-five qualifying series against the 10th-seeded Florida Panthers if the NHL can resume play.
Forwards Oliver Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, Kieffer Bellows, the 19th overall pick in 2016, and Otto Koivula, a fourth-round pick in 2016, all saw time with the Islanders this season. And Thompson noted progress in each of their games.
Wahlstrom, with a sniper’s wrist shot, went without a point in nine NHL games and was returned to Bridgeport to work on his defensive game. He finished with 10 goals and 12 assists in 45 AHL games.
“When he went up, you saw some of the defensive liability,” Thompson said. “I really thought that was his biggest improvement with us. He didn’t put up outstanding numbers. He had to learn through the course of the season to make the right play on the wall. If it’s a one-on-three, not to try and beat three guys but chip into an area.”
Bellows had two goals and an assist in eight games for the Islanders and had just one goal in his first 19 games for the Sound Tigers. But he finished with 22 goals and nine assists in 52 AHL games.“I think he was frustrated early in the year,” Thompson said. “He started cheating a little bit. He simplified his game because he has the skill set. Bang, he had 20 goals. He’s a responsible, 200-foot player. I thought Kieffer took a huge step in development this year.”
The 6-4, 225-pound Koivula did not have a point in 12 games with the Islanders and notched nine goals and 13 assists in 36 games with Bridgeport after having 21 goals and 25 assists in 69 games with the Sound Tigers in 2018-19, his first season in North America.
“I think last year he surprised a lot of people with how quickly he adapted to the North American game,” said Thompson, noting Koivula needed to work on his overall conditioning to be quicker on the ice. “He’ll continue to improve and fight for an NHL spot as a regular.”
Thompson was also bullish on slick-skating Simon Holmstrom making an impact in the NHL.
The 23rd overall pick in 2019 had eight goals and seven assists in 46 games for Bridgeport in his first North American season.
“Islanders’ fans are going to wind up loving the kid,” Thompson said. “He didn’t put a lot of points up. But we saw flashes of his incredible offensive instinct. He’s just finding his confidence. The first couple of months, he played a safe game.”
Defenseman Sebastian Aho had his second NHL call-up after Islanders’ top-pair defenseman Adam Pelech injured his Achilles’ tendon on Jan. 2. But the fifth-round pick in 2017 did not dress for a game. Thompson is optimistic the 5-11, 177-pound Aho, who had three goals and 27 assists in 49 games for the Sound Tigers, will push for an NHL roster spot next season.
Noah Dobson, the 12th overall pick in 2018, will become eligible for the AHL next season after the Islanders opted to keep him on the NHL roster rather than return him to his junior hockey team.
“Sebby was outstanding,” Thompson said. “He moves the puck. He’s got that offensive instincts. He’s a typical undersized guy in that he has to use his hockey sense. He’s ready to go.”
Thompson, though, said Parker Wotherspoon, 22, must play more consistently.
“At times he was arguably our best defenseman,” Thompson said.
Mitch Vande Sompel, 23, missed the season after suffering an arm injury during training camp but Thompson said he is ready to return.
“He’s got a [Nick] Leddy-like ability to go up the ice,” Thompson said. “It was a huge void for us. He came back and was starting to do rehab with us at the end of the season.”
Czech goalie Jakub Skarek, a third-round pick in 2018, split his first season in North America between the ECHL and 16 games with Bridgeport (3-10-1, 3.27 goals-against average, .888 save percentage). Thompson noted his “lightning quick” speed going post to post.
“We saw a snapshot of what he could be in some games,” Thompson said. “He’s got a definite upside.”