For the New York Islanders, the 2002-2003 season was one that many will want to
forget. It was a series of shakeups and breakdowns, recalls and returns, and
overall frustration. Among the few who will remember it fondly is Trent
Hunter, who made his NHL regular season debut.
As a new season approaches, there are many questions that need to be addressed
in Islander Country:
Has the team’s locker room problem been taken care of and is everyone on good
terms? Can the goaltending hold steady throughout the season? Will an
inexperienced coach from AHL affiliate Bridgeport provide a lift and an identity
that this team needs?
The one question for newly appointed head coach, Steve Stirling, is which of his
former Sound Tigers will shine in camp enough to earn a spot on the roster when
the season kicks off for the Islanders on October 9th in Washington.
Flash back to one year ago. Expectations were higher than they had ever been on
the Island. Everyone was expecting Trent Hunter, who had a standout performance
as a call-up in the 2002 playoffs, to make the team with ease. Problems arose
though, as Hunter struggled throughout camp, reporting out of shape and earning
criticism from GM Mike Milbury in the media. Meanwhile, a kid by the name of
Mattias Weinhandl was making waves with his tremendous stickwork and his ability
to handle the puck, despite only having 20 percent vision in his left eye.
Bridgeport standouts Justin Mapletoft and Raffi Torres both made respectable
runs for roster spots, culminating for Torres with a hat trick performance in
their final preseason game against New Jersey. As the preseason ended, only
Hunter eventually made the squad, causing many to question then coach Peter
Laviolette. Hunter was eventually sent back to Bridgeport after two games for
his lethargic play in favor for a deserving Torres and Mapletoft and Weinhandl
became a somewhat regular with the Isles, posting six goals and 17 assists in 47
games (and graduating from prospect status).
As we look towards to the future and to a new training camp, the situation is a
bit different from last year’s training camp. There are many prospects that
are equally deserving of a regular roster spot. With the Isles under the
tutelage of coach Steve Stirling, expect him to show a lot of faith in his young
guns, a rare thing for former coach Peter Laviolette.
Here are the prospects who are top candidates to see time with the Islanders:
1. Justin Mapletoft
With the departure of longtime Islander Claude Lapointe, a excellent fourth-line
center and a critical cog in the Isles penalty-killing unit was lost. Justin
Mapletoft is a perfect fit to fill the void. Mapletoft is an excellent two-way
center, sometimes compared to current Islanders captain, Michael Peca. Mapletoft
made a name for himself in the 2000-2001 season with the WHL’s Red Deer,
putting on an MVP performance with 43 goals, 77 assists, and 120 points. He
spent the next season with Bridgeport, and saw NHL action during the 2002-2003
season, where he accumulated 2 goals and 2 assists in 11 games. Expect him to
have a major role on the Isles penalty-killing unit this season and be a solid
faceoff man on the fourth line.
2. Trent Hunter
Since being traded to the Isles from Anaheim in May 2000, Hunter has been a
solid mainstay in the Islanders minor league system. In the 2001-2002 season,
Bridgeport’s first season in the AHL, Hunter had a breakthrough year with 30
goals and 35 assists in 80 games. He then topped that performance during the
2002-2003 season with 30 goals and 41 assists in only 70 games. He received his
first taste of NHL action in the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs where he showed a
flash of brilliance in an otherwise brutal series, contributing a goal and an
assist in four games. His play was lethargic in the beginning of the 2002-2003
season, but a second call-up in late December saw him amass four assists in
eight games, as he played a smarter game.
3. Eric Godard
When another longtime Islander, Steve Webb, was not given a qualifying offer
sheet, it became obvious that GM Mike Milbury, has put his faith in young
enforcer Eric Godard. Godard was acquired in the 2002 Entry Draft from the
Florida Panthers in exchange for the Islanders third round pick in that draft.
Already making his name as one of the premier fighters in hockey, Godard tied
the Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL) franchise record with 310 PIM in only 60 games
in the 1999-2000 season. Last season, Godard was called upon many times by the
Isles, most notably on December 6th against their 2002 playoff rivals, the
Toronto Maple Leafs, where he tangled with Tie Domi in his first NHL fight.
Expect Godard to play a fourth line role this season, much like Steve Webb was
used last season. Don’t be surprised to see him in the press box for a few
games when his toughness will not be needed, but expect to see Godard in a good
50-60 games in an Islanders sweater this year.
4. Justin Papineau
Justin Papineau has always been a favorite of GM Mike Milbury. Some might
remember hearing Papineau’s name being mentioned way back in 1999 when Mike
Milbury was trying to deal Zigmund Palffy to the Los Angeles Kings. Papineau and
a 2002 second round draft pick were acquired at the 2002 trade deadline from St.
Louis in exchange for struggling goaltender Chris Osgood and a 2003 third round
draft pick. After arriving on the Island, Papineau was immediately assigned to
Bridgeport. That visit ended up being a short one. Papineau amassed seven goals
and one assist in only five games, and that earned himself a call-up to the
Island. On his first game with the Islanders, he tallied a goal and an assist,
letting the Islander fans know that he could possibly be the real deal in the
years to come. His soft hands and skillful stick handling are one of his strong
points, but his defensive game still needs to be worked on. With new coach Steve
Stirling implementing a “defensive system” this year, Papineau might have to
hone his defensive game with the Sound Tigers in the AHL under new coach Greg
A guy you won’t see: Sean Bergenheim
In late July, the Islanders brought their 2002 first round draft pick into their
system by signing Sean Bergenheim to a rookie contract. Many have compared the
young Finnish center to current Islander and all-around NHL pest Jason Blake.
Bergenheim had a standout performance in the 2002 World Junior Championship in
Halifax, amassing seven points in six games. Don’t expect to see Bergenheim
anytime soon on the Island. Bergenheim needs a little time to adjust
to the more physical North American style of hockey. A year or two in Bridgeport
will be what he needs to get prepped for the NHL.
No longer a prospect: Rick DiPietro
Having played 30 games in the NHL, DiPietro is no longer considered a
prospect, but he is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for the
2003-2004 Islanders. Drafted first overall in the 2000 Entry Draft, DiPietro is
often described as an up-and-coming superstar in the NHL. If you don’t believe
it, just ask him that, and he’ll tell you the exact same thing. DiPietro is
very confident, whether it comes to his future, or just going out to play the
puck. Known as one of the best stickhandling goalies, DiPietro is known to
wander around a lot. But his wandering gets him into trouble, as he is
susceptible to giving up soft goals. DiPietro was hastily thrown into NHL action
in the 2000-2001 season, going 3-15-1 with a 3.49 GAA. He was then sent to
minor-league affiliate, Bridgeport, to work on and develop his game. During the
2001-2002 season with Bridgeport, he led the AHL with 30 wins and helped lead
the Sound Tigers to the Calder cup Finals in their inaugural year. During the
2002-2003 season, DiPietro was called up to the NHL in a somewhat shocking move.
This was only a sign of things to come, where he recorded 15 saves for a 4-2 win
against Minnesota. When Chris Osgood was eventually traded to St. Louis, it
became obvious that General Manager, Mike Milbury, had put his faith in DiPietro.
The 2003-2004 season will be a critical one for him. The number one position in
net will be his job to lose. Expect him to put up a fairly mediocre season, but
this is only the beginning for the young DiPietro.