There’s something to be said about going deep into the AHL playoffs. It’s another level of development that the Islanders as an organization have not been able to do since the first year of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Why is this? Welcome to the reality of building through the draft and rushing players into the NHL. There was always this need to bring up the young players because free agency was never the Isles strong suit trying to lure stars to play in Nassau County. In years past, the idea was if you were selected to be an AHL Star, you were ready for the NHL. Indeed, close to 93 percent of the players who are selected as an AHL All-Star, go on to compete in the National Hockey League.
Here are a few of the recent, drafted Islanders players who have been selected to the AHL All-Star Game:
2017: Devon Toews
2016: Ryan Pulock
2015: Ryan Pulock
2014: Ryan Strome
2013: Nino Niederreitter, Matt Donovan
2012: Calvin De Haan
2011: Rhett Rakhshani
2010: Mark Katic
2009: Mike Iggulden, Andrew MacDonald
2008: Jeff Tambellini
As you can see just because you made it to the All-Star game as a Sound Tiger, doesn’t mean you have a longer career in the NHL. Yes, you can make it to the NHL like many of these players had, but staying there is another level entirely. Pulock and Toews have not seen significant time in the NHL just yet, so it will remain to be seen, but I would suggest that their playing careers will be longer with the Islanders than Matt Donovan’s or Mark Katic’s. Tambellini and Iggulden were not drafted by the Islanders as there wasn’t anyone from the previous drafts around after the trading of Robert Nilsson and Ryan O’Mara for Ryan Smyth back in 2007. Indeed, even when Nino Niederreitter was traded to the Minnesota Wild after the 2013 season, it took him some time to get going in the NHL before becoming a prominent power forward in the NHL. Even today, Ryan Strome’s game is questioned by coaches, fans and media alike having been sent down last year for a month and benched earlier on in the season. Since there was a recent coaching change, he’s a to-be-determined player. So why the lack of progress from this organization? I’ll give you three reasons. First, they simply did not fit into the Isles future. Second, they didn’t spend enough time in the minors. Third, and in my opinion the most important, They never made it past the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs while a member of the Sound Tigers.
I’ve talked to fans and everyone wants the Islanders to be more like the Penguins, Capitals, and in previous years the Red Wings. When you hear those teams in the beginning of September, you automatically associate them with the word “Playoffs.” That’s because they’re minor league teams, the Hershey Bears (Caps), Grand Rapids Griffin (Wings) and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, are regular Calder Cup playoff teams. Since 2006, at least one of those teams have made it beyond the first round of the playoffs and their NHL parent teams have benefitted from this kind of development. To further emphasize the importance of going deep into the Calder Cup playoffs, here is a list of the last 10 winners and what their parent team did the next two years:
2006: Hershey Bears: Capitals would miss the playoffs in 07, but win the Southeast Division in 2008
2007: Hamilton Bulldogs: Montreal wins the Northeast Division in 08, and clinch the playoffs in 09
2008: Baby Pens: Penguins are Stanley Cup Champs in 09 and clinch a playoff berth in 2010
2009: Hershey Bears: Capitals win the Presidents Trophy in 2010 and clinched the Conference in 2011
2010: Texas Stars: Dallas missed the playoffs in 2011, and 2012
2011: Binghamton Senators: Clinched a playoff berth in both 2012 and 2013
2012: Toronto Marlies: Maple Leafs would clinch a playoff berth in 2013 and miss in 2014
2013: Grand Rapids Griffin: Clinched a playoff berth in 2014, 2015
2014: St. Johns Ice Caps: The Winnipeg Jets clinch a playoff berth in 2015, but miss in 2016
2015: Utica Comets: The Vancouver Canucks miss the playoffs in 2016 but are in the race this year
2016: Lake Erie Monsters: The Columbus Blue Jackets are on pace to clinch a playoff berth this year.
So there are benefits to making a deep run into the Calder Cup playoffs, save for the Dallas Stars organization. Islanders fans saw the importance of having groomed AHL players like Shane Prince (Binghamton) and their own Alan Quine and Ryan Pulock make a positive contribution in last years playoffs against the Florida Panthers. This year has seen the emergence of Adam Pelech and to some degree, Scott Mayfield, as the two of them have stabilized the blue line during injuries to regular players. Last year, Islanders prospects like Michael Dal Colle and Parker Wotherspoon saw a first round matchup against Toronto’s top prospects Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander of the Marlies. It ended up with the Marlies getting the sweep of the Sound Tigers and Nylander making the move up to the Maple Leafs this year, but the experience was invaluable to Dal Colle. From the Islanders:
“It was good to get a little taste of pro before my first full season,” Dal Colle said at Islanders rookie camp. “You learn from it. Obviously it was cool. We played Toronto, who’s a great team and you really test yourself against guys like that at the AHL level, my family got to see me play, which was cool and it was a good first taste and I’ll definitely bring it into this year.”
Indeed most of the Islanders players have all had their share of playing for the Sound Tigers, but getting beyond the first round in the AHL hasn’t happened since Rick DiPietro and Trent Hunter wore those jerseys. It’s been too long. If the Islanders truly want to be like the Penguins, Capitals, Red Wings and in the top of the League for years to come, they need Bridgeport to be better. Enter this season.
With the Islanders on a playoff run themselves, they don’t need to bring up anyone from Bridgeport unless there’s an injury. You still have prospects Ryan Pulock, Michael Dal Colle and up-and-comer Tanner Fritz who experienced playoff hockey last year and now you can include 2017 AHL All-Star Devon Toews and Josh Ho-Sang to the mix. If the Islanders do not make the playoffs but Bridgeport does, sending Anthony Beauvillier down to play in the Calder Cup playoffs will not hurt his development at all and the experience will help him get motivated for next year as it did Dal Colle.
The key here is Islanders former number one goalie, Jaroslav Halak. I was going to write about the Islanders becoming buyers or sellers at this trade deadline and I held off on that because of the development potential of these young players. Trading away Halak would certainly help the Islanders in the cap department and short-term, but if Halak were to stay for the rest of this season, he could help his younger teammates get beyond the first round and possibly more this year which would be beneficial for the Islanders organization in the long-term. They’re riding a seven game winning streak and are 8-1-1-0 in their last 10 games. The Sound Tigers are in fourth place in a tight Atlantic Division just ahead of the Hershey Bears. To add to the drama, if the playoffs were to start today, the Sound Tigers first round opponent would be the Penguins. If you want to be the best, you have to beat them. With a big run in this years Calder Cup playoffs, this may cement the Islanders as a playoff team for the foreseeable future, not just a two-year span. There’s enough depth coming up and plenty of time for these players to experience winning at a pro level without the pressures of the NHL. It may also be that same experience the younger Sound Tigers need to help their older, Islanders teammates get further than just a second round appearance.