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Islanders prospect Otto Koivula hopes to contend for center spot

Islanders forward Otto Koivula shoots at Northwell Health

Islanders forward Otto Koivula shoots at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow on June 25 Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Otto Koivula spent one summer training with countryman Kaapo Kakko, the Finnish sensation drafted second overall by the Rangers and expected to make an immediate impact on Broadway.

“I hope I will be here, too,” the Islanders’ forward said at last week’s prospect development camp when asked about Kakko’s presence in New York.

The Islanders were silent again on Wednesday after the free agent market opened on Monday with them re-signing captain Anders Lee to a seven-year, $49-million deal and importing free agent goalie Semyon Varlamov from the Avalanche on a four-year, $20-million deal.

Still, as president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said on a conference call on Monday, the Islanders need a fourth center behind Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson — re-signed to a six-year, $36-million deal last month — and Casey Cizikas.

Perhaps that’s where Koivula fits in.

“I think it was a good year for me,” said Koivula of his first season in North America as he compiled 21 goals and 25 assists in 69 AHL games with Bridgeport. “We had a good team down there. I changed to centerman and I feel great about that.”

The Islanders selected the 6-4, 236-pound Koivula in the fourth round in 2016 and he skated mainly on wing for Ilves Tampere in Finland’s SM-liiga.

Koivula, 20, returned to Finland after the Islanders’ summer camp ended on Saturday. In addition to his strength training, Koivula said he will resume working with a figure skating coach who has been helping him lengthen his stride.

“It was a little bit compact,” Koivula said. “The last couple of years, I feel like I’m so exhausted after a game. Last year, I wasn’t that exhausted. I’m feeling better. It’s just bigger strides.”

Koivula prefers the style of play in North America, more physical and on smaller rinks, than what he was used to in Finland.

“I like it a lot,” Koivula said. “I like it a lot for my body. I think I’m better here than in Europe.”

Koivula will have to have a strong training camp in September to prove to the Islanders’ brass he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL.

“I will be ready for training camp,” Koivula said. “I want to put the work in. I want to show the management I’m ready for this spot and ready for battle.”

Lamoriello may still bring in a veteran to compete for the spot left vacated when Valtteri Filppula signed a two-year, $6-million deal with the Red Wings after one season with the Islanders. Tom Kuhnhackl, re-signed to a one-year, $850,000 deal, has proven to be versatile, though he’s more of a wing. Tanner Fritz nearly had a chance to replace an injured Filppula to start the playoffs last season but he wound up requiring surgery to remove a blood clot from his hand.

Koivula’s fellow camp participant, Arnaud Durandeau, will likely be competing with first-rounders Oliver Wahlstrom and Kieffer Bellows among the other wing candidates.

Durandeau, a sixth-round pick in 2017, had 38 goals and 35 assists in his fourth season with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

He, too, knows there’s work to be done to compete for an NHL spot.

“I think I improved my defensive play,” the 5-11, 181-pound Durandeau said during last week’s prospect camp. “I’m a quick player, a lot of skill and a lot of grit. I like getting under players’ skin. I’ve just got to do that on the next level and I’ll be successful. I’d love to be in Bridgeport this year, that’s my main goal for sure. I’ve got to get stronger and quicker and gain a little bit of weight.”

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