Minor league system for New York Islanders flush with youth

By Kyle West
Photo: David Ullstrom was impressive in his first season of North American professional hockey. Expect him to compete for a spot in the NHL for the 2011-12 season. (Photo courtesy of www.eliteprospects.com)

Much like the parent club, the Sound Tigers ended the season bottom of the division with questions around their long-term future no closer to being answered. A victim of their own success at times, the Sound Tigers saw a steady flow of players called up to the NHL and were never able to ice a settled lineup. A low point came when the Sound Tigers blew a 4-1 lead with less than ten minutes left in the third to rivals Albany and lost 5-4 in regulation time. The Tigers were also on the receiving end of several blowout scores and only the belated arrival of several top college prospects gave the Sound Tigers fans some hope for a better season next year.

Forwards

Rhett Rakhshani, RW, 23

The top scorer on the Sound Tigers, Rakshani was the team’s most consistent offensive threat all year. His totals of 24 goals and 62 points in 66 games made the California kid with the quick hands one of the top rookie scorers in the league and earned him a place on the AHL All-Rookie squad. Playing with a rotating cast of linemates, the 5’10 winger made the most of his skills in close and fought through traffic to generate scoring chances. Rewarded with a two game NHL call-up that had to be cut short due to injury, "Rak" will look to isolate himself as the first name to be called up after training camp next year.

David Ullstrom, C, 22

The other rookie star of the Tigers, Ullstrom made a hot start to his AHL career before cooling off around the turn of the year due to a lingering hand injury. With a strong finish the rangy Swede was able to post strong offensive numbers of 17 goals and 41 points in 67 games. A hat trick in late February pulled the Sound Tigers out of a long losing streak and triggered a run of stronger offensive output for Ullstrom, who was consistently able to fight through checks despite being the center of attention from the opposition every night. Given his lean frame and young age, further seasoning in the AHL will be required for Ullstrom however he has proven his credentials as a strong two-way forward deserving of a shot at the NHL level.

Justin DiBenedetto, RW, 22

One of the hottest scorers on the Sound Tigers roster down the stretch, DiBo finished the season on a tear to reach the 19 goal mark, tripling the previous seasons output in 10 fewer games. Recalled for eight games with the Islanders in March, the Toronto native recorded his first NHL point with an assist on the game’s first goal in an OT home win against the Leafs. A former scoring star in the OHL, Di Benedetto scored 45 times for the Sarnia Sting in 2008-09 but then deflated his own balloon with a dismal rookie season in the AHL. The strong finish to the season and a brief taste of the NHL should set him up for a big finish to the final year of his entry-level deal.


Jesse Joensuu, LW, 23

In the final year of his entry-level deal, Joensuu will have to wait and see if he did enough to get another contract from the Islanders. A semi-regular with the Islanders, the big Finn scored six goals in 42 NHL games and appears to be on the verge of becoming a fixture on the Isles roster. Doubts about his foot speed remain, as Joensuu takes a few strides to get up to speed and all too often can be seen lagging behind the play. If he does return for another crack at the Islanders, he must hope he doesn’t find himself in direct competition with Nino Niederreiter or Kirill Petrov for a power-forward roster spot or else a return to the AHL could be on the cards for this long-term project that is getting close to an expiry date.

Robin Figren, RW, 23

Having played out his contract with the Islanders, Figren is another player who has to wait and see if he has done enough to earn a trip back to Islanders training camp. Having scored just three goals in his rookie AHL campaign, Figren got off to a slow start again this season before finding his range around the turn of the year. Finishing with 14 goals and 30 points in 76 games, the smallish Swede has proven his doubters wrong to an extent however it remains to be seen if another stint in the rough and tumble of the AHL is to his liking. The third round pick from 2006 may just make his way back to Sweden rather than endure another round of endless bus trips.

Thomas Marcinko, RW, 23

In what will likely be his last season with the Islanders organization, Marcinko provided the Bridgeport Sound Tigers with yeoman’s service and the exact same number of goals he scored in his two previous AHL seasons: four. The big Slovak gives a laudable effort and is conscientious about playing a strong two-way game but is clearly overmatched and has no offensive upside left to provide.

Brian Day, RW, 23

Signed to an amateur try-out by the Sound Tigers when his college season ended, Day laid up an assist in his second game in the AHL and went on to add two more plus two goals in 10 games. A hard-driving winger who took on a leadership role with Colgate University in his four years there, Day is not particularly large or fast, but does have the work ethic and smarts to make a go of a regular AHL spot if the Islanders do get him under contract.

Tyler McNeely, LW, 24

Another amateur try-out signing out of Northeastern University, the scrappy winger scored five goals and 11 points in his 10 games as a Sound Tiger. Standing only 5’10, McNeely showed great desire to get into scoring positions. A former top scorer in the BCHL, McNeely put up modest numbers with the Boston school notorious for a stifling defense but flourished in his few games with the Sound Tigers.


Defennsemen

Ty Wishart, D, 23

Up for an RFA qualifying offer, the former Sharks first rounder should have done enough to earn a regular spot with the Islanders. Acquired from Tampa Bay in the Dwayne Roloson trade, Wishart did his best to steady the Sound Tigers blue line before finishing the season with the Islanders. In his 20 NHL games down the stretch, Wishart showed some calm positional play and good decision making and sparked a marked improvement on the Isles penalty kill. He also scored his first NHL goal, on a power play no less, added four assists and finished with a plus-five rating. The success of his late season run should set him up for a big training camp and a regular spot in the NHL next year.

Mark Katic, D, 22

Like his former Sarnia Sting teammate Justin DiBenedetto, Katic had a much improved sophomore season with the Sound Tigers. The smooth skating blueliner doubled his production and earned himself an 11 game stint with the Islanders, where he recorded an assist, a stay that was cut short due to injury. Not blessed with ideal size, questions remain about Katic’s ability to avoid being crushed by bigger bodies at the next level, although his mobility has kept him safe at the AHL level thus far. Entering the third year of his entry-level deal, Katic will need to be at his best to stay ahead of similarly skilled blueliners Aaron Ness and Matt Donovan on the depth chart.

Dustin Kohn, D, 24

A second rounder from the 2005 draft, when Mike Milbury was still in charge, Kohn saw the depth chart cleared out by injuries and suspensions and was able to get 22 games in the NHL this year. Up for an RFA qualifying offer, it’s not exactly now or never for Kohn as an Islander prospect, but the former Brandon Wheat King is at the decisive age of 24 and in the limited minutes he played in the NHL this year did not do anything to suggest he is ready to make the move full time. His stats at the AHL level were almost identical to the previous season, two goals and 15 points in 45 games, except for rating of -19.

Anton Klementyev, D, 21

A broken fibula ended Klementyev’s season early and put a damper on the enthusiasm for the combative Russian rearguard’s promising sophomore season. One of the steadier blueliners in the first half of the season, the 21-year-old Russian import was able to continue his solid work in his own end and was only a minus-three, the highest rating amongst Bridgeport’s regular defenders. Signed and delivered right after the 2009 draft, where the Islanders nabbed him in the fifth round, the Russian was given a one game cameo in the NHL and did not look out of place. Never going to be a point producer, Klementyev projects as a valuable shot blocker and shut down pairing.

Matt Donovan, D, 21

The University of Denver standout signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Islanders after the Pioneers season ended with a defeat in the WCHA final. The skilled puck-mover adapted easily to the AHL game, using his speed to good effect to generate much-needed offense for the Sound Tigers, chipping in five points in six games. A former teammate of AHL All-Rookie star Rhett Rakshani, Donovan picked up where he left off with the Pioneers, carrying the puck with confidence and showing some creativity on the power play. A standout for the gold-medal winning USA World Junior squad in 2009, Donovan hails from Oklahoma originally and will look to bring a bit of his cowboy style to the Islanders blue line squad as early as next season.

Aaron Ness, D, 21

The Isles second round selection in 2008 also left his scholastic program to sign a three-year entry-level deal. After three years of disappointing performances with the University of Minnesota, Ness was clearly in need of a change of scenery. A smooth skating defender who loves to carry the puck and be implicated in offensive movement, Ness was playing under coaching restraints while with the Golden Gophers. One of a few prospects to leave the Gophers program early, Ness clearly enjoyed the freedom given him in his 13 AHL games and scored his first professional goal as well as chipping in three assists. A smallish defender at 5’10, Ness will need to continue to prove his superior skating will keep him out of traffic and allow him to get solid positioning in his own end.

Shane Sims, D, 23

Signed to an amateur tryout contract on an emergency basis, the Ohio State standout was airlifted into Long Island and played nine shifts against the Flyers after his Buckeyes senior season ended. The Islanders fifth rounder in 2006 calls East Amherst, NY home and is a solid two-way player. The Buckeyes leader in blocked shots last season, Sims is an accomplished penalty killer and also uses his big shot on the power play. Although he didn’t get a game in with the Sound Tigers this year, Sims will look to be a regular feature in Bridgeport next year as he adapts to the pro game.


Goaltending

Kevin Poulin, G, 20

The best thing to come out of Bridgeport in a long time, Poulin was a revelation as a rookie goalie for the Sound Tigers and, until sidelined by injury, had won the Islanders starting job. A QMJHL product, the Montreal native was a fifth rounder in 2008 and steadily improved during his time with the Victoriaville Tigres. Standing at 6’2 and technically refined, Poulin dazzled AHL shooters with his patience and quick reflexes, posting a stingy 2.19 goals against average in his 15 starts as a professional. Called up to the NHL, Poulin was stellar throughout his 10 starts, winning 4 and making the highlight reels with spectacular consistency. Clearly the goalie of the future on Long Island, Poulin will get every chance to earn the starter’s spot out of training camp next year.

Mikko Koskinen, G, 23

Playing behind a makeshift defense for most of the season, Koskinen was overwhelmed at times in the Sound Tigers cage. Taking the lion’s share of punishment, Koskinen played in 36 games for Bridgeport and was regularly shelled. As the season wore on, especially after returning from a four game Islanders callup where he won twice despite giving up 15 goals, Koskinen grew in stature and rounded up his season goals against average to a fairly respectable 3.49 to end the AHL season. Looking like a sure thing when drafted, the 2009 second rounder was the hyped prospect amongst netminders for his 6’6 size and assured style when starring for the mighty Espoo Blues of Finland. Now looking more like a long-term project, Islanders brass can only trust that their star goalie prospect gets better protection from his defense next season.