The New York Islanders ended the 2002-03 on a very bitter and sour note. They ended the season winning seven out of their last 23 regular season games and seemed very unenthusiastic and lethargic in their five-game playoff embarrassment to the Ottawa Senators. But this fall, there’s a new coach, a new system, and a new outlook. There’s a positive vibe in the locker room now and that seems to be translating onto the ice. Not only is this new positive vibe having an effect on the veterans, such as Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca, and Adrian Aucoin, but it is also rubbing off on some of the Isles’ top young prospects. Now under the tutelage of former Bridgeport Sound Tigers coach Steve Stirling, guys like Justin Papineau, Trent Hunter and Justin Mapletoft now have the backing and faith from their former AHL coach, something that was seriously lacking while the Isles were under the guidance of Peter Laviolette last year.
Coach Stirling has openly said that only one or two forward spots were open for taking this year on the big club. With graduated prospect Mattias Weinhandl sidelined as he recovers from ankle surgery, many of the Islanders young guns have made sure to step it up one notch to make Stirling’s life just a little bit tougher in choosing his starting roster. Here are some of the most notable standout prospects for the Islanders during training camp.
Justin Papineau: This talented young center erupted onto the Island in late 2003, coming over from St. Louis in a deadline deal for Chris Osgood. Immediately he burst onto the scene, tallying seven goals in five games in Bridgeport. He then got the call to big club immediately afterwards, and made a splash on a line with Michael Peca and Mark Parrish, with that line tallying six points in a 9-2 win. Unlike many of the prospects fighting for a spot, Papineau doesn’t know Coach Stirling as much as the other minor leaguers fighting for a spot, so Papineau has to prove to Stirling that he has the goods to be in the NHL.
With Coach Stirling implementing a defensive system, with defensive abilities being one of Papineau’s weaknesses, one would have thought that an assignment to Bridgeport would have been a sure thing for him. But knowing that there is a job on the line, Papineau made sure to stand out above everyone else, and he has done just that. In the Isles opening preseason contest, Papineau tallied the winning goal in a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Later on in the week at Bridgeport, Papineau notched his second goal of the preseason, pulling off a nifty backhander over the shoulder of Bruins goalie, Felix Potvin with two defensemen back. Not to be outdone, Stirling reunited Papineau with Peca and Parrish forming what was dubbed as “The Killer P’s.” As a possible line combination for the regular season, Peca, Parrish, and Papineau combined to help score the winning goal, with Papineau adding his third goal of the preseason to the stat sheet.
Sean Bergenheim: Bergenheim was drafted in the first round (22nd overall) by the New York Islanders in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He’s a pesky little center whose style of play has been compared to the likes of current Islander, Jason Blake. During the 2002-03 season, Bergenheim spent his time in Finland, playing for Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League. Jokerit is mainly a veteran team, and with limited playing time, Bergenheim tallied 3 goals, 3 assists and 6 points in 38 games played. What really stood out though was his impressive performance in the 2003 World Junior Championships, pulling in a 2 goals and 5 assists performance in only six games.
Due to his strong performance in the 2003 WJC, Bergenheim was signed to a three-year contract this past summer. There’s only one catch to it: if Bergenheim doesn’t start out with the Islanders this year, he will be sent back to Jokerit, as per agreement by Mike Milbury and the Jokerit franchise. So far during his time on the Island, Bergenheim has taken advantage of that opportunity and has been one of the standouts in training camp. Right off from the start, Coach Stirling placed Bergenheim on a line with Shawn Bates and Eric Godard. During scrimmages he has shined, making some outstanding passes. He has two assists in the preseason and recently tallied two goals in the Islanders annual Blue/White Intrasquad game. Following an Islander 6-2 victory against Boston at Bridgeport, Coach Stirling said about Sean Bergenheim, “He skates, he competes, he kills penalties. He’s really caught our eye. He keeps getting better and better every day.”
Bruno Gervais: If you want to talk about surprises in training camp, there’s no one better to talk about than Bruno Gervais. Gervais was the Isles sixth round draft pick (182nd overall) in the 2002 Entry Draft. Gervais is an outstanding offensive defenseman, something that the Isles surely don’t lack much of. During the 2002-03 season with Acadie-Brathurst of the QMJHL, Gervais tallied 22 goals, 28 assists, in 72 games played. Another defining characteristic of Gervais is his character. At age 18, Gervais was the captain of his team, which was mainly a veteran club.
Coming into the Isles rookie camp, Gervais only packed five days worth of clothes. Little did he know that he should’ve done a little more packing than that. He has impressed the Islanders coaching staff so much, that Stirling has kept him on the team so far. Gervais always likes to make the first pass out of the zone and plays some heads up hockey. Gervais’ stock has risen so much, that Stirling has sent defenseman Mattias Timander down to Bridgeport. With Timander’s assignment to the Bridge, Gervais’ chance of making the team is becoming greater and greater.
Trent Hunter: A star in the Islanders minor league system for the past two years, Hunter has had career years with consecutive 30 goal seasons. He made his NHL debut as a call-up in the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the brutal seven-game Toronto series. He turned some heads with some impressive stick handling and scoring, tallying a goal and an assist in four games. He made the starting roster last year, but due to his lethargic play, he was immediately sent down to Bridgeport.
Hunter wants to learn from his mistakes from last year. Although having a slow start to training camp this year. Hunter has been pretty successful during the preseason so far. In the Isles 4-1 victory against Pittsburgh, he potted an empty netter to help cement a victory. Last on in the week, Hunter found himself back in Bridgeport, only this time as an Islander, as the Isles played Boston at the Arena at Harbor Yard. Hunter found himself inside “his spot”, which is right to the side of the crease right by the net, as he pounded in a rebound off a 2-on-1 with Michael Peca. After the game, Hunter replied whether if he sees himself on the Island this year, “It’s not my decision, but I gotta make on tough on them (the coaching staff) as I can with being noticed and go to the bitter end.”