Defensive depth a boon in Bridgeport

Photo: Bridgeport Islanders

📝 by Cory Wright | AHL On The Beat

After such a topsy-turvy, unusual, and abbreviated 2020-21 season, stability was perhaps the most welcoming concept to the Bridgeport Islanders.

For the Islanders that meant icing an experienced team, with continuity on the back end. Five defensemen — Seth Helgeson, Samuel Bolduc, Mitchell Vande Sompel, Grant Hutton and Parker Wotherspoon — are returning from last season. Add in Thomas Hickey, who played the 2019-20 season with Bridgeport, and there are a lot of familiar faces on the Bridgeport blue line.

“It’s huge. When you’re playing with guys you’ve been with for multiple years you learn their tendencies and build chemistry,” Vande Sompel said. “[Wotherspoon], [Helgeson] and myself have been here for five years now, played together and that goes a long way just communicating and knowing where guys are on the ice. [Hutton’s] been here for four years, Bolduc for two. We’ve got some experience back there and guys that have been together and want to play together.”

The new guys in this instance are Paul LaDue, who brings 217 pro games at the AHL (148) and NHL (69) levels, and Robin Salo, playing his first season in North America, but with six years in the European pro leagues — four in Finland’s Liiga, two in the Swedish Hockey League. They may be new, but as pros, they certainly aren’t green.

“We have a very solid eight guys,” head coach Brent Thompson said. “Anyone can interchange in and out and we feel like no matter what six are in that night, we have a great group.”

That depth is seen as a strength for the Islanders heading into the season, as is experience. Last year’s group was one of the younger AHL squads, but an influx of veterans, especially up front, has made Bridgeport a mature group.

Helgeson’s 460 AHL games lead the D corps and he serves as the team’s north star, holding the captaincy for a second year. Wotherspoon (217 games) and Vande Sompel (156 games) have both been in the organization in full-time roles since the 2017-18 season and are stepping into leadership roles. Hickey brings 685 pro games — 454 in the NHL, 231 in the AHL — of experience and while injuries have limited his playing time, when he speaks in the locker room, the Islanders listen.

That’s both handy for the Islanders on a nightly basis, but also for the younger players in the organization like Salo and Bolduc, both second-round NHL draft picks (Salo in 2017 and Bolduc in 2019).

Salo has four points in eight games, including an overtime winner this season. The Finn had 30 points (six goals, 24 assists) in 51 games with Orebro HK last season and is adjusting well to the smaller rink and increased physicality in the AHL, though Thompson said the key for him will be consistency — offensively, defensively, and physically.

“He’s taking steps in the right direction,” Thompson said. “He sees the ice and moves the puck very well. He’s got good feet and he knows when to jump in offensively. Walks the line, gets his shot through to the net, so those are some of his assets. For me, it’s his consistency. The habits in practice and the game-to-game consistency. He’s got a great brain, thinks the game very well and competes, so it’s just being consistent night in and night out, which is a grind over here in the North American pro game.”

For all intents and purposes, the Islanders are treating this year like Bolduc’s first pro season, given last year was limited to 24 games against only two opponents: Hartford and Providence. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman showed promise in his first taste of the pros, recording 14 points (six goals, eight assists). Thompson said his size is one of his strengths and he seems to be quickly getting up to speed after an injury kept him out during training camp.

Samuel Bolduc was selected to the AHL’s Atlantic Division All-Star Team in 2020-21.

“He’s been great, making strides,” Helgeson said of Bolduc. “His biggest asset is his size and once he gets used to using that to his advantage he’s going to be an NHL player in my opinion. He has all the tools, and he just needs experience. Being down here in the American League, in Bridgeport, it can only do good things for his game.”

For Vande Sompel, getting back into a regular rhythm has been refreshing after losing the 2019-20 season to an injury and then two-thirds of another to the pandemic. He was able to use last year’s shortened campaign and plentiful practice time to get fully healthy and is champing at the bit to play a normal season.

Thompson said the 24-year-old is looking like his old self, when Vande Sompel had 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) and participated in the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic. The 2015 third-rounder should add some more offensive pop to a well-rounded group.

“I think he’s back at the level he was when he made the All-Star team,” Thompson said. “He was a dynamic defenseman, moved his feet, moved the puck very well and he’s defending physically right now. He’s had a really good training camp and has built off it. He’s very confident right now, and with his habits in practice he is becoming a leader, just strictly how by he approaches games and practices day to day.”

Bridgeport’s back end should have a good mix of size, speed and offensive ability this season. Helgeson and Bolduc both check in at 6-4 and 215 pounds, while Hutton (6-3, 209), LaDue (6-2, 197) and Wotherspoon (6-2, 190) all come in at 6-foot-2 or higher. Salo, Bolduc and Vande Sompel have offensive track records and the combination has the Islanders feeling confident in whoever is in the lineup on a given night.

“A lot of depth on the back end, guys that can do everything,” Vande Sompel said. “There’s speed, mobility and the ability to move the puck up the ice. Everyone can skate, especially on our back end and it’s an exciting group. We have guys that can move, guys that can play defense, guys that can kind of fill every role that we need and guys that can step in every night.”

Bridgeport is 3-3-0-2 in the first eight games of the season, averaging 2.88 goals-against per game, which is in the top half of the AHL. Nine points have been scored by defensemen. It’s a slower start than the veteran group would like, but they can feel their collective game building.

“As a team we’re working through the kinks right now, but as a D corps with the balance of veteran guys and some of the younger guys is working itself out,” Helgeson said. “It’s all positive, we just have to keep working, I think everyone is just getting back in the flow, coming off last year where we didn’t play too many games, but we’re making the right strides.”