In the eyes of many, the New York Islanders prospect pool doesn’t project to be anything special. Corey Pronman of The Athletic ranked the organization’s prospect depth 27th of the 32 NHL teams after an in-depth look at every team’s future. That being said, after an odd two seasons of hockey due to COVID complications, the Islanders’ prospect pool could be considered deep. With a few names who project to be near NHL ready, here’s a look at which up-and-comers might make their NHL debut in 2021-22.
Robin Salo is the closest to NHL ready among the prospects who might make their NHL debut, despite having no experience on North American ice. He signed a two-year entry-level contract back in February with a $925,000 average annual value (AAV).
“Salo had a good season in Sweden, scoring 30 points in 51 SHL games and being solid for Finland’s senior team. You like Salo because of the plays he can make with the puck. He has great instincts at the offensive blue line to make plays, he makes a very good first pass and he has a decent point shot. The concerns come as his OK mobility hinders him defensively. He’s not soft, but whether he can defend NHL size and speed will be questionable. He has a strong enough puck game to play NHL games, and potentially help a power play, but might need to be used in a specific way,” (from, ‘NHL Pipeline Rankings: No. 27 New York Islanders have promise for the future at top of system,’ The Athletic, 08/30/21).
Despite receiving a below-average grade from Pronman on his skating, others will tell you that it’s a strength of his. “He’s continued to develop in a good way,” said Salo’s SHL Örebro coach Niklas Eriksson. “He’s a creative player with the puck, very skilled, and he’s a smooth skater. That’s his strength,” (from, ‘Is Islanders defenseman prospect Robin Salo ready for the NHL?,’ The Athletic, 03/05/21).
It's been an eventful last little while for Robin Salo (@NYIslanders).— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) February 17, 2021
He's signed an entry-level deal with the #Isles. He's represented Finland internationally.
And he returned to Örebro HK's lineup yesterday and deposited three assists.https://t.co/JTf7y77q8K pic.twitter.com/3Et2wTkhiM
Salo has been skating against NHL-sized opponents for a while now, including some former NHLers who have transitioned to the game overseas. His 30 points in 51 games last season broke the top-10 in Swedish Hockey League (SHL) scoring among defensemen, and he was the number one defenseman for Örebro.
The 2020-21 season was a head-turning one for Salo. Expect him to start the 2021-22 campaign in the American Hockey League (AHL) for the Bridgeport Islanders, but don’t be surprised if he’s the first one called up. Described as “Nick Leddy-lite,” Salo could be ready to make his NHL debut with the Islanders, even he believes so:
“I feel like I’m getting better at my overall game, not just the offense,” Salo said. “Skating is going to be very important for me when I get to the Islanders, supporting breakouts, things like that. I think my offensive game has improved, too. I’m creating more chances and getting more responsibility on the power play this year.”
“I was maybe not ready until this year,” he continued. “Now I think I am. I want to take a chance and see how far I can go.”
True to the Islanders’ underrated prospect pipeline, Samuel Bolduc is another player who doesn’t get enough credit.
Bolduc’s junior coaches Joel Bouchard and J-F Fortin helped run pick-up games in Montreal before the start of the 2020-21 season to keep players fresh and where top prospects and NHLers participated in scrimmages. Bolduc was popular among the players there. “When an established NHL player thinks you’re good, it’s always a good sign,” said Fortin, who coached Bolduc for three years at Blainville-Boisbriand in the Quebec League. “Same thing with (No. 1 pick) Alexis Lafrenière, he always wants Sammy on his team. When good players think you’re good, it’s always a good sign,” (from, ‘‘He’s built for today’s game’: Samuel Bolduc makes case for Islanders roster,’ The Athletic, 02/05/21).
At 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, Bolduc has a size advantage. He’s not overly physical and skates well for a defender of his size. In training camp before last season, Bolduc caught the eye of Islanders head coach, Barry Trotz. “He’s worked every day, his confidence is growing,” Trotz said of Bolduc. “We needed to get to eight D and he was the most deserving. That’s good on him.”
“He’s built for today’s game,” said Fortin, who was a 1997 second-round pick by the Washington Capitals and played 71 games for the team from 2001-04, also as a defenseman. “When I played, not that long ago but long enough, if you were as big as Sammy, you had to make sure toughness was your best skill. Now, with someone like him who can skate, makes good decisions and has real skill with the puck, you don’t need to be so physical.”
Bolduc has said he’s drawn comparisons to Victor Hedman. For a second-round draft pick, that could be aiming a bit high, but he showed his offensive potential with 43 points in 61 games in the 2019-20 season between Blainville-Boisbriand and Sherbrooke after he was traded. He followed that up with 14 points in 24 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (now Bridgeport Islanders) and was named to the AHL Atlantic Division All-Star team.
“It took him maybe a period to get adjusted to the American League,” said Bridgeport captain Seth Helgeson. “Fans can be very excited for the future with him,” (from, ‘‘What we learned about Islanders prospects from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ 24-game AHL season,’ The Athletic, 05/07/21).
Arthur Staple takes a more realistic approach toward Bolduc. “Bolduc’s path to the NHL will be more as a two-way defenseman, perhaps more similar to Adam Pelech than Hedman,” he said. “While Bolduc does have strong skating and passing skills, he may not be a Norris Trophy type.”
However, having another Pelech in the pipeline bodes well for the Islanders. The thing about Bolduc is he’s known to bring offense, which New York could use. Not too far behind Salo, Bolduc could see NHL ice at some point in the 2021-22 season.
“He will be able to defend at the NHL level with his size and ability to skate,” Bridgeport head coach Brent Thompson said. “The offensive production definitely surprised me, getting his shot to the net. For that kind of production in a first-year with a big man that has the ability to be a shutdown defenseman, it’s good to see. And he took steps to improve. I think he learned that you have to keep the same energy and engagement up after each pass. You can’t just sit back after you make a play because the game moves faster than it does in junior. He did a really nice job as the season progressed cleaning up that part of his game.”
According to Pronman, “Wilde has an NHL toolkit given his size, mobility, good skill, and big shot. He needs to be sharper defensively and a little more consistent overall.” Wilde was selected 41st overall in the second round of the NHL Draft in 2018 and has had a difficult road to the NHL. The same year he was drafted, he scored 70 points in 62 games in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) for the Saginaw Spirit and was destined to take the next step, making the Sound Tigers roster for the 2019-20 season.
“Bode Wilde’s roller coaster of a season in 2019-20 went like this: Turned pro, high ankle sprain before camp, missed all of camp and several weeks of the season, played sparingly for Bridgeport (20 games, 0-2-2), went back to Saginaw of the OHL, played 11 games before the pandemic hit,” said Staple.
The 20-game stint was a learning experience for him, and after an inconsistent 2019-20, Wilde came into the 2020-21 Islanders camp ready to make a name for himself. “I just tried to focus on the stuff that Tommer was drilling last year because everything we did was stuff that helped me a lot,” said Wilde. “I worked on puck retrievals and on the blue line to being quick under handling the puck being sharp knowing what I want to do without the puck. It’s just a matter of being mentally prepared to come in and execute all of that stuff and carry it over into a game.”
Trotz noticed, and Wilde made it difficult for the coach to return him to the AHL. “We have two young defensemen — one’s ultra-skilled, one’s ultra-physical,” Trotz said of Wilde and Bolduc. “They’re both learning the fundamentals of being good defensemen.”
Wilde is the “ultra-skilled” defenseman. Some have referred to him as a first-round talent who fell to the Islanders in the second round. He skated in 22 of 24 regular-season games for Bridgeport last season, chipping in six points. The good news is that this time, he didn’t look out of place skating among men.
“The biggest thing that stands out is that it looks like he’s more put together,” said Thompson. “He’s a little bit bigger. He’s got better balance. He’s still got some work (to do) with his feet and he’s still got some things that he needs to improve on but he’s ahead of the curve. It’s good to see that he came in with a good attitude. He’s doing the things he has to do right now.”
Wilde, like Bolduc and Salo, will likely get the opportunity to attend the Islanders training camp. He used last year as a learning experience to his benefit. “It was awesome,” Wilde said of his time with the Islanders. “They do a great job of teaching. They showed video and they taught it really well. Playing with those guys was a pretty awesome experience. Those guys are just elite and they’re all such good dudes. They get along so well. I think it’s a pretty neat NHL environment. I haven’t seen too many teams that get along as well as all those guys do so that was cool.”
Like many New York prospects, Wilde is learning how to become a more complete player. He’s still behind Salo and Bolduc in the pipeline, but a strong season could propel him to the top of the prospect pool and into the NHL lineup. He’s probably better off playing a full season in the AHL, but there’s no doubt he’s skilled enough to make a name for himself and get the call sooner rather than later.
Grant Hutton is a product of the NCAA Miami University of Ohio hockey club. He signed with the Islanders in March of 2019 and has been a mainstay on Bridgeport’s blue line. He joined fellow rookie defensemen Bolduc, Wilde, and Parker Wotherspoon at the Islanders’ 2020-21 training camp, his second camp in as many years.
Hutton had a good first professional season in 2019-20, scoring 21 points in 55 games for Bridgeport. He had an off-year in the shortened 2020-21 season; however, Staple argued that “the 25-year-old still holds a high place on the organizational defense depth chart for one big reason: He’s the closest right-hand defenseman to the NHL among the prospects.”
At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, the Islanders want Hutton to use his size more, so he gets a pass on an unproductive season offensively, as coach Thompson was pleased with his development using his big body.
“To skate, go through a full camp, be around the staff, play some normal hockey, it was huge,” Hutton said. “The scrimmages we did in July was great to be a part of it. That kind of allowed us to hit the ground running when we got to Bridgeport.”
The Islanders prospect pool is deep with defensive prospects. Wotherspoon and Mitch Vande Sompel are also young talents in the system but have less of a chance to break the NHL roster.
The forwards in the pipeline are not nearly as ready as the players mentioned here. Simon Holmstrom’s development is coming along slowly. The important thing to remember with him is that he’s only 20 years old, so his development pace is just fine. As for Aatu Räty, he’ll finish out his contract at the end of this season in the Liiga and is likely to report to Bridgeport immediately following the conclusion of Kärpät’s season. He’s also likely to take the slow and steady approach, so he could spend at least two full seasons in the AHL before we see him make his NHL debut.
After that, the forwards in the pipeline still need seasoning. For now, the Islanders’ defenders are keeping the pipeline’s reputation somewhat afloat. It’s a big year for the organizations’ prospects; however, as it’s the first time in two seasons most leagues are returning to normalcy, we could see some breakout performances. Salo, Bolduc, Wilde, or Hutton aren’t likely to fill the hole left by Nick Leddy, but there’s a decent chance at least one gets their feet wet in the NHL this season. Look out for one of them to try and take advantage of a roster spot in a long, 82-game season.
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