As the Islanders hit the playoffs (and while everyone is in a good mood after the Game 1 win), we took the time to check in with Michael Fornabaio, ace reporter for the Connecticut Post, who covers the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
The Islanders' AHL affiliate enters the final weekend of its season in last place in the Northeast Division at 27-38-8. The Sound Tigers endured injuries, call-ups of some of their best players and, at one point, lost 13 of 14 games. It was a difficult and disappointing season, but not one without some encouraging looks at a few future Islanders.
We rely on Fornabaio's great coverage all year and thank him for taking the time to answer some general questions. I also didn't intend to spoil all of his upcoming stories, I swear. But being on the same page is a testament to just how well-informed he keeps us every step of the season.
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1. In general, what went wrong with the Sound Tigers this year? Was it primarily from having Strome, Lee and Nelson up with the Islanders eating away at their depth or was it something else related to the roster?
Well, that's pretty much going to be my wrap story, so the answer will come next week...
This season really did begin with optimism, mostly because they'd brought in some legitimate veterans here, and because the Islanders' depth seemed poised to push some people down. It's easy to forget that Jack Skille was ticketed for here; didn't get here. But there was a decent core. They seemed to have a group that fit well into four lines: two quick and offensive, one gritty with the chance to pop one in now and again, a fourth line that would agitate and be used to kill penalties.
But it never seemed to quite fit together. Some of the injuries disrupted things, like Mike Halmo getting hurt every time he seemed to be hitting his stride. They didn't spend enough time in the offensive end at five-on-five, which put pressure on a young defense, and compensating for that sometimes seemed to get everyone running around. The goaltending then had the same pressures. As a whole, it didn't end well.
That said, their goal differential suggests they should've been something like nine points better; maybe some bad bounces. THAT said, nine points better puts them in a dogfight... for 11th in the conference. So there's that.
Obviously you miss a guy like Ryan Strome, but he didn't even play half a season here last year. (Matt Donovan may've been missed more.) Cory Conacher didn't work out like you'd hope an AHL MVP would work out. (Dustin Jeffrey has more than ably filled that spot.) When Lee went up, Colin McDonald came down and was fine. But then McDonald went up Feb. 8. The team didn't win again for a month.
Hey, more next week.
2. The defense featured a few notable Islanders draft picks, not the least of which were Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock. What were your overall impressions of both players? Did any other defensemen surprise you this year (for good or for ill)?
My favorite moment of the year was the late-season home game against Worcester. My dad was in the house for the first time in a few years. One of the few things I told him about the team was "just watch No. 6 shoot." In the first period, Pulock pretty much overpowered Troy Grosenick. Dad was sitting a few rows in front of the press box and just turned around wide-eyed.
I mean, yeah. It has been something else to watch Ryan Pulock fire.
The progress of the young defense is probably going to be my Friday story (get out of my head, Dan), but I've written a bit on Pulock and Reinhart recently: Pulock's defensive game is coming along; he seems a bit edgier, more aggressive late in the year. Reinhart seems to have done a nice job adapting his game as a young defenseman: seems quick to learn.
The other rookie that most stood out to me was Adam Pelech, who grabbed onto a role on the penalty kill and at even strength on Scott Mayfield's left. There's lots of growing left for all these kids, but they've worked.
3. Also on defense, what is your take on Kevin Czuczman and his - literally - up and down season? After being a highly sought-after NCAA signing and playing some okay games at the end of last season for the Islanders, he seemed to be in the mix for the big club. Were his ECHL demotions based on roster numbers or his play?
When guys like Pelech seized a job, with the likes of Aaron Ness and Mayfield and Reinhart and (first) Matt Lashoff and (then) Matt Carkner ensconced, there wasn't a lot of time for Czuczman.
4. Kevin Poulin seemed to have an okay year despite the team's record. How would you grade his season? Do you think the Islanders retain him or will C.J. Motte and/or Stephon Williams supplant him?
I was a little surprised he came back this year. He was probably the team's first-half MVP. The second half hasn't been as good. Part of that comes back to the team, no doubt, and David Leggio wasn't exactly pushing him, either. For next year, it's rare to go with two young guys in the AHL, not least because your AHL No. 1 is your NHL No. 3.
5. This was a tough season for Bridgeport, one that included an interminable losing streak and lots of heartbreaking losses. How would you describe the tenor of the locker room? Who are the team's leaders when times get difficult?
They were upset, angry, frustrated, as you'd expect, but -- at least when the doors were open -- they seemed to put on the determined face. Look, this is a coaching staff with strong personalities, and in Brent Thompson's first time around, he was good for a practice meltdown a week. Early on in the year I jokingly mentioned to someone that I was waiting for one of those. "How can he?" I was told. "They're working too hard for him." And they really were that kind of team. It just didn't happen.
Ness was the leader by example, and as we talked a little about for a story in Thursday's paper (ahem), he has found a voice as well after being the quiet guy who showed up four years ago. He had guys like McDonald, Kael Mouillierat, Harry Zolnierczyk, Halmo, Colton Gillies, and late in the year, Carkner and Jeffrey to back him up.
6. Who's ready for the next call up from the Islanders? And will it be next season or in these playoffs?
There'll surely be a bunch of callups Sunday night or Monday morning. How many, haven't heard anything yet. If I were betting on who might sneak in, Jeffrey has been a good all-around player and has playoff experience. But then they've already called up Reinhart as an extra body, so he's probably a heartbeat or two away. How that all goes down next year, I'm not sure. If they stayed in the AHL for a bit next year, I don't think it'd hurt them. But at least they have that luxury now.