New York Islanders’ minor-league affiliate highlighted by defense and depth

By Kyle West
Photo: Among the brightest spots for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers has to be the strong goaltending from first-year pro Kevin Poulin. (Photo courtesy of www.lanouvelle.net)

With the New York Islanders struggling, there has been a steady traffic of call-ups from their AHL affiliate. As a result, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have had to rely on their first year players to carry the load. Bridgeport currently sits in the middle of AHL Eastern Conference standings with a record of 18-15-1-2

AHL

Jesse Joensuu, LW, 23

A power-forward project that is starting to yield results, the 6’4 Finnish winger Joensuu has been making stronger impressions in NHL play and flashes of his potential in the AHL have the Islanders thinking he may be ready to make the jump fulltime. A raw project blessed with speed and size, Joensuu has developed his game to be an all-around force. The Sound Tigers second-leading scorer last year, Joensuu scored three goals in 16 games with the Islanders this year and was rewarded with a second call-up to the big leagues at the end of December. If he continues to drive to the net and use his speed and size to beat defenders, the Islanders may just have to keep him for a longer stint in 2011.

Rhett Rakhshani, RW, 22

The former Denver Pioneer standout has taken a leadership role in his AHL rookie season, his name appearing at the top of the Sound Tigers scoring chart. The quick and skillful winger originally from Huntington Beach, California has adapted well to the pro ranks and dismissed any suggestions that his smaller frame might not handle the more physical AHL play. His 10 goals and 21 assists in 35 games set the pace for the Tigers and he also leads the team in shots by a wide margin. Standing just 5’10 and weighing only 180 pounds, Rakhshani has shown quiet determination to succeed and his hard work at both ends of the ice has made him a consideration for a spot with the Islanders in the near future.

David Ullstrom, C, 21

Another rookie shining for the Sound Tigers, the lanky Ullstrom has been the top center for his team all season and won respect for his consistent effort and strong two-way play. Standing 6’3 and playing with a fair bit of jam to his game, the imposing Swede can only enhance his chances of winning a spot with the Islanders by continuing to add bulk to his frame and learning to take charge of games at the AHL level. Thus far, his 6 goals and 13 assists in 32 games are decent returns for a rookie on a poor team, yet the Islanders would like to see him take more of a leadership role with the Sound Tigers.

Robin Figren, RW, 22

Already having doubled his point production from last season, Figren is a second-year AHL pro looking to continue his adaptation to the North American game. An import from Sweden, the third round selection in 2006 had just seven points in 62 games last year, modest numbers for a winger who was once one of Sweden‘s top scorers at the junior level. Getting much more involved in the play this season and asserting himself more often as a physical force, Figren needs to sharpen the upward curve of his progression if he plans to contend for a spot on the Islanders in the near future.

Justin DiBenedetto, LW, 22

An explosive scorer in the OHL, the native of Toronto racked up consecutive 98 point seasons with the Sarnia Sting before turning pro. His rookie season in the AHL was a major setback for him however, as he scored just six times in 67 games. His three goals in the first 16 games of this season made for a more exciting pace, however he has recently been sidelined through injury and unable to build on the early momentum.

Tony Romano, C, 22

A combative center from Smithtown, NY, Romano is accustomed to fighting for space with much bigger players. The 5’11 Romano left Cornell University after his freshmen year and spent two years in the OHL, scoring 69 points in 65 games with the Peterborough Petes before turning pro. Initially overwhelmed by the AHL, Romano spent most of the last season in the ECHL, where he scored at a point per game pace, before winning a full time job with the Sound Tigers. That is where the story is likely to end for Romano however, as his return of five goals in 30 games is not going to get anyone’s attention at the big league level.

Tomas Marcinko, C, 22

The big Slovak winger Marcinko is in his third year with the Sound Tigers and although he has already exceeded his point totals from last season, the fact that he scored six points in 54 games last year illustrates the limited upside of the player. A grinder and checker who plays on the fourth line, Marcinko’s offensive production is considered a bonus, however never having scored more than four goals in an AHL season doesn’t bode well for his ability to make the next level.

Anton Klementyev, D, 20

A stay-at-home defenseman who plays a no-nonsense game, Klementyev came over to play in the AHL after just one appearance in the KHL. Drafted in the 5th round in 2009, Klementyev came over to Bridgeport right away and has added some much needed defensive solidity to the Sound Tigers back end. Not the largest of defenders, Klementyev uses strong positioning and hard work to keep attackers at bay and his first pass is usually a good one. Serving just 14 minutes in penalties in 32 games in his second AHL season, Klementyev has shown Islander’s brass he has the dedication and discipline to selflessly serve the team. Rewarded with a one-game call-up to the NHL last season, his solid game could certainly benefit the Islanders full-time in the near future.

Dustin Kohn, D, 23

Called up for 22 games with the Islanders last season, Kohn was sent down to start his fourth year in the AHL and then suffered an injury setback. A solid two-way player who can move the puck, Kohn has been among the Sound Tigers leading scoring blueliners for the past few seasons. A second round selection in 2005, Kohn produced at nearly a point-per-game his final year in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Soon to be turning 24, he has to come back strong from his injuries and make a strong case for inclusion in the Islanders prospect pool at defense.

Mark Katic, D, 21

A high-scoring defenseman in junior, Katic had a 54 point season in 63 games with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL as an overager. His 14 points in 48 games as an AHL rookie showed that the 5’11 blueliner found the adjustment to the pro leagues slightly overwhelming. A smooth-skater who has the puck skills to generate offense from the back, Katic has found the AHL tough going in terms of generating offense so far and needs to strengthen his all-around game to be considered a serious prospect for the Islanders. So far this season, he has nine assists through 31 games.

Kevin Poulin, G 20

One of the bright spots for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers has been the play of rookie netminder Kevin Poulin, who has turned in some stellar early-performances. Boasting a 2.13 GAA on a team that has given up a lot of chances is credit to the excellence of the young goalie from Montreal and his .931 save percentage is among the league’s best. A fifth round draft pick in 2008, Poulin has improved through every year of his QMJHL apprenticeship with the Victoriaville Tigres and the Islanders look to reap the results of a talented and hard-working goaltender. From a Tigre to a Sound Tiger, Kevin Poulin just keeps getting better no matter how good the team in front of him.

Mikko Koskinen, G, 22

The other rookie goaltender on the Sound Tigers, Koskinen has made the stellar work of Poulin shine even more by comparison. Standing at a lanky 6’6, the big Finn has struggled to keep the puck out this season and has found the workload in the Sound Tigers net to be a bit more hectic than tending goal for Finland‘s mighty Espoo Blues. Boasting a stellar 1.91 GAA coming into the 2009 draft, the Islanders nabbed the big goalie at 31st overall and brought him over to North America right away. Koskinen may yet settle into a winning groove with the Sound Tigers and wrest back the number one job from Poulin, however early results indicate that he has lost his place as the Islanders top goalie prospect. To date. Koskinen has a 5-8 record, a 3.33 goals against average, and a .886 save percentage.

CHL

Bobby Hughes, C, 23

Now suiting up for the Wichita Thunder, Bobby Hughes is recapturing some of the form that made him a scoring star in the OHL. The playmaker struggled with injuries throughout the early stages of his pro-career and bounced from the AHL to the ECHL before finding a home in Kansas. With 26 points in 30 games, and more importantly no time on the treatment table, Hughes is starting to enjoy his hockey again.