The Bridgeport Sound Tigers are looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2006-07 season which saw them fall just a point short of earning a playoff spot. A good number of roster changes have taken place since the start of last season, too. In fact, some of the Islanders’ top prospects are now gone, most notably young forwards Robert Nilsson and Ryan O’Marra, but also including former first rounder Petteri Nokelainen as well as Masi Marjamaki and Sergei Ogorodnikov.
Despite what may appear to be significant losses to a team that was so close to making it to the postseason last year, the Sound Tigers are, in fact, much stronger this season. They have veteran experience in the crease, a younger, faster defensive core and a much more explosive offense.
One of the most significant changes from last season is the difference in age. The team as a whole is significantly younger. It will take time in developing chemistry, but once the players have settled into their roles, the Sound Tigers stand to be one of the more surprisingly complete teams this upcoming year.
With goalie Wade Dubielewicz making the Islanders roster this season, the Sound Tigers will go with some newly-acquired veteran experience in between the pipes, beginning with journeyman Joey MacDonald, who has recently seen time in the OHL, ECHL, AHL and NHL, ending last season with the Boston Bruins.
Mike Morrison is the other goalie and he has spent a good deal of time traveling between teams as well, having spent time in the ECHL, AHL, and NHL, finishing last season with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL.
Both players are under 30. When compared stat for stat, MacDonald looks likely to earn the starter role. The Sound Tigers hope that the two can stabilize the goaltending situation for the team, something that’s been a bit unreliable in recent seasons past.
The defense improved significantly from last year by becoming both younger and faster. Top prospects Andrew MacDonald, 21, and Dustin Kohn, 20, will join the team for their first full season of play. Both bring a tremendous amount of offensive talent to the blue line, something Bridgeport sorely lacked last season. Kohn has proven to be a strong presence deep in the defensive zone with a special knack for breaking up oncoming plays and transitioning them into offensive rushes going the other way. MacDonald’s season, however, is a bit more up in the air, as he needs to work a good deal on his defensive positioning. But do expect MacDonald to make some big offensive plays and if he makes the defensive adjustments needed in order to stay in the AHL, these two should be very good.
Returning for another season of play is Drew Fata, 24, who came close to making the Islanders squad out of training camp. Fata will be the one defenseman that the Sound Tigers’ opponents fear the most when coming into the zone. He has a tremendous physical presence and throws the body around without any reservations. His defensive positioning has gotten much better and his speed has also improved as well.
Jamie Fraser has the speed as well as sound defensive positioning, however, he’s not that great at breaking up plays. Having offensive-minded players like MacDonald and Kohn on the team should help the soon to be 22-year-old Fraser develop upon his game more.
The biggest surprise this season out of Islanders training camp is that Jeff Tambellini was not included on the team’s regular season roster. It was noted by coach Ted Nolan when Tambellini was officially sent to play for Bridgeport that the reason he was being sent down is in order for him to be on the Islanders roster, he needs to be a top-nine forward. Tambellini’s not a fourth line player and he needs his ice time. If he performs consistently, he’ll not only earn the call-up, but he’ll in all likelihood be asked to stay. But for now, the Islanders loss is the Sound Tigers gain as the 23-year-old Tambellini is poised to have another career year in the AHL.
Coming down with him is fellow top prospect Blake Comeau who, like Tambellini, is all but NHL-ready, but has seen a potential roster spot taken up by one of the veteran NHL forwards the Islanders signed this offseason. The 21-year-old will look to improve upon his impressive numbers from last year by developing upon his speed, particularly deep in the offensive zone when setting up and/or finishing off plays. Having a player like Comeau on the first or second line will give the Sound Tigers some nice physical depth up front.
Frans Nielsen was another forward who saw a decent amount of time with the Islanders last season. He’s a terrific playmaker who reads the ice well and is dangerous with the puck. The 23-year-old needs to improve his physical strength before making it full time to the NHL, but as far as offensive ability, having him paired up with Tambellini for another season should provide many highlight-reel goals for the Sound Tigers.
Rounding out the Sound Tigers "Big Four" on offense, Ben Walter, the Providence Bruins reigning MVP from last season, will be a terrific boost to the Sound Tigers offense from last season. Walter plays a strong two-way game and goes after the puck hard. The 23-year-old will be sure to set up many plays and should see significant time alongside the likes of Tambellini, Nielsen and/or Comeau on the power play.
While it’s going to be difficult to fill the enormous void left behind following the Robert Nilsson/Ryan O’Marra trade from last season, Sean Bentivoglio and Trevor Smith should help add some additional fire power to the Sound Tigers roster this upcoming season. Both players, despite going undrafted, have enjoyed considerable successes at the collegiate level. Bentivoglio, who will be 22 this month, was named CHA Player of the Year and team MVP last season while playing for the University of Niagara. Smith, 22, meanwhile, played with the University of New Hampshire, where he recorded more than a point per game. They’re both young, hungry and have a lot to prove to those who’ve doubted them in the past. If there are two players to watch this season, Bentivoglio and Smith are it.
One of the key roster moves made by the Islanders was the acquisition of young stud Olivier Labelle who, at 22, stands 6’0 and weighs close to 200 lbs. Two seasons ago, he registered 100 points and 185 penalty minutes in only 67 games in the QMJHL. Last season, he played for the first time in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch, scoring 11 goals, 20 assists for 31 points and totaled 153 penalty minutes in 74 games. He’s got a developing scorer’s touch and enormous chips on both his shoulders. Labelle has the opportunity to turn himself into a strong power forward and gives the Sound Tigers a reliable, middle-of-the-pack presence to their roster.
Sound Tigers prospects Jeremy Colliton, 22, and Steve Regier, 23, will look to improve on their mediocre season from last year. Colliton, in particular has a lot to prove as last season’s playing time and the offseason training were limited due to injury. Regier, on the other hand, established a career high in points last season and must top those numbers this year if he wants to continue to register on the Islanders radar. Both players need to become more physical, faster at getting to the puck and quicker at reading plays.
The Sound Tigers have improved a great deal from last season. They’re younger and hungrier to prove to the league that they’re a team to reckon with. And while that is all well and good, there’s no guarantee that such passion for victory will translate to immediate on-ice success. Expect the team to struggle at times throughout the season as players adjust to new playing partners. They are a much deeper team and any call-ups to the Islanders shouldn’t affect the team’s play in any significant way.
Young, enthusiastic players coupled with veteran goaltending should translate to the Sound Tigers earning a playoff bid this season.
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