by Corey Hersch || AHL On The Beat Archive
Back on Oct. 6, when Bridgeport Sound Tigers head coach Scott Pellerin filled out his lineup for the second game of the season, Mike Halmo was a healthy scratch.
In the Sound Tigers’ next 50 games, however, Halmo made sure that as long as he was able, he’d be out on the ice.
“I just came in here and started working hard,” Halmo said. “I was playing with a good group of guys and just really had my confidence up. I’m confident in myself and having a good team around me has really helped this year.”
Halmo was recalled by the New York Islanders on Feb. 24, along with fellow Sound Tigers standouts Ryan Strome and Anders Lee. Prior to his recall, Halmo was one of the most improved players on the Sound Tigers roster. After a 14-point (five goals, nine assists) season last year, Halmo has exploded offensively this season with 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists) in 54 AHL games.
“Looking at last season, with the lockout and the numbers that we had here, he probably didn’t play the role that he needed to play to have success,” Pellerin said. “I thought early this year he was still trying to find that identity. I think that once he started to play more physical and being engaged the whole shift, you could see the impact that he had on our team.”
Halmo, 22, was among the Sound Tigers’ top goal-scorers all season long as part of a top line that also included Strome and Lee. Now, those three have all become fixtures in the Islanders’ lineup.
“We’re very positive with each other,” Halmo said. “We’re good friends off the ice, which helps. We all want each other to succeed. So working together and being positive has probably been the biggest thing towards our success.”
As Pellerin recalls, however, the trio had to work hard for that success.
“If you look at the start of the season, statistically, they didn’t play their best,” Pellerin said. “We brought them in and talked. My coaching staff showed them some teaching clips on video in regards to what their assets are in regards to what they bring to their team. I think that once they started playing harder in the corners, being more physical and getting that pace to play at a higher level, that’s really made the difference. They were trying to be too cute at the beginning of the year and we tried to help get them back to the basics of what their foundations are as players.”
The teaching Halmo received from the coaching staff helped the Kitchener, Ont., native learn what he needs to do to compete night in and night out, something that he wasn’t always able to last season. With NHL players on two-way contracts spending last year’s work stoppage with the Sound Tigers, it was tough for Halmo to crack the lineup.
“At the start of last year, I didn’t really start playing until about halfway in because there were so many guys down here,” Halmo said. “To be able to start fresh this year and get an opportunity so early was really helpful. When I’m playing well, I’m getting in on the forecheck and finishing all my checks. So when that’s going, the rest of my game is going as well.”
The success that Halmo has had this year led to increased ice time with the Sound Tigers. Not only was he on the top line and primary power-play unit, but Halmo and Lee were also two of the team’s top penalty killers.
“You’re always in the game that way,” Halmo said. “Last year, I barely played special teams at all, so there’d be times where I’d sit on the bench for 10 minutes or I’d be cold going off. This year, I’m always ready to go and ready to win.”
Halmo’s style of play is something that caught Pellerin’s eye, which is why he’s confident in playing the 5-foot-11 forward in nearly every situation.
“He’s hard to play against,” Pellerin said. “He’s a guy that gets under people’s skin, too. He probably took too many penalties for my liking, but we tried to keep him on an even keel and find that balance. But I think that he plays that way because he’s always in other guy’s faces. He plays hockey the right way and plays it hard. He just has to stay focused and have that composure in order to what he needs to do on a daily basis.”
Halmo’s physical presence is a big part of his game, as he showed in his final junior season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2011-12 when he amassed 162 penalty minutes for Owen Sound. But the Islanders knew they were getting someone with offensive ability as well, as Halmo also put up 85 points (40 goals, 45 assists) that season.
“It’s just come along with the rest of my game,” Halmo said. “I was playing with guys who have the ability to get me the puck, so I had a lot of opportunities during the game. I was able to capitalize on some, so that’s a big help.”
That well-rounded game is something that his suited Halmo well in making the jump to the NHL. Though he was a top-six forward with the Sound Tigers this season, he has taken on more of an energy role since his recall by the Islanders. In his very first NHL shift, he laid a big hit on Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel and announced his presence to both Islanders coaches and fans alike.
“Of course, we’re very happy for him,” Pellerin said. “He worked hard all season and proved he has the ability to play at the highest level.”