by Bloomberg 1130's Chris King
One of the biggest positives in the 2005-06 season for the New York Islanders has been the large role played by their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, in developing and preparing players for the big club. Consider that with two weeks still remaining, there are already 15 players who have skated for both the Islanders and the Tigers this season. It is a credit to Sound Tigers rookie head coach Dave Baseggio and his staff that the players promoted have never seemed out of place or in over their heads, and many have actually thrived following the call-up to the Isles.
The best example of what the Sound Tigers can do for a player has got to be Sean Bergenheim. After being one of the final cuts by the Islanders in training camp, he struggled early on after being sent down to the Bridge. He felt he was an NHL caliber player that was now out of place at the AHL level. It took quite a while for him to get his game and his mind straightened out with the Sound Tigers, but once he did, he began to set franchise records for Bridgeport. There was a four-goal game against the Tigers' biggest rival, the Hartford Wolf Pack. Along the way he notched four shorthanded goals and seven power play goals, and by the time the Islanders came calling, he led the team with 25 goals in just 55 games. He returned to the Isles initially as a third and fourth line player, but when he was finally given time on the top two lines, he posted seven points in a seven-game span, including four goals. The Islanders' top line is now Å“The Captain & The Kids,Â? with 22-year old Bergenheim and 21-year old Robert Nilsson riding shotgun for Alexei Yashin, the team's leading scorer.
Although Nilsson's time at Bridgeport will largely be remembered for his highlight reel goal in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he returned to the Isles a much-improved all around player as well. Once Joel Bouchard was completely healthy at Bridgeport, he immediately came to Long Island and has been the Islanders' best defenseman in many games since. Wyatt Smith has quietly but effectively filled his role as a defensive center that can also win key faceoffs. Bruno Gervais was playing almost half the game every night for the Sound Tigers, getting crucial minutes at even strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill. He now feels much more at home in an Islanders uniform.
These are just some examples from the current group of Islanders that have spent time in Connecticut this season as well. Let's not forget about Sound Tigers alumni Rick DiPietro, Trent Hunter, Chris Campoli and Eric Godard. DiPietro played over 100 regular season and playoff games with Bridgeport over two seasons before becoming the Isles top stopper. Hunter put together back-to-back 30-goal seasons in the AHL before scoring 25 for the Isles in 2003-04 and becoming a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Campoli put up 49 points a year ago as a Tigers rookie, and his 28 points already this season are the most by an Islanders rookie defenseman since Bryan Berard won the Calder in 1996-97. Godard had a career-high 7-11=18 to go along with his 295 PIMS in 2004-05 with Bridgeport before becoming a full-time Islander for the first time this year.
When the current season ends for the New York Islanders, it seems only fitting that they will finally be able to return the favor to the Sound Tigers. Bridgeport recently submitted its playoff roster for the upcoming AHL post-season, and on that list are Jeff Tambellini and Denis Grebeshkov, along with Bergenheim, Nilsson, and Gervais. Tigers leading scorer Rob Collins will also head back along with Steve Regier. Bridgeport will face a tough opening round playoff series against either the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins or the Hershey Bears, but with a roster now bolstered by the return of NHL-experienced youngsters, who's to say how far they can or can't go? It's the kind of playoff experience that can only help the entire group when they make their inevitable return to Islander country sometime in the near future. I know there will be lots of fans on both sides of the Long Island Sound that will be closely watching and monitoring their every move, and I'll certainly be among them.