Rookie Dufour rounding out his game in Bridgeport

📝 by Patrick Williams

William Dufour is figuring out this pro game.

And as the Bridgeport Islanders rookie forward has progressed, so has his team.

“I think game after game, I get better,” Dufour said. “I think that’s the main point of this year. I think this year is a developmental [one] to get used to playing pro.”

That sort of improvement is why National Hockey League clubs entrust their top prospects with the AHL. Taken as a fifth-rounder in the 2020 NHL Draft by the parent New York Islanders, Dufour’s stock has risen steadily since then. He came to Bridgeport last fall fresh off a storybook season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in which he scored 56 goals, earned league MVP honors and led Saint John to the Memorial Cup championship. For good measure, he went to the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship last August and won a gold medal with Canada.

“Obviously he’s got a gift,” Bridgeport head coach Brent Thompson said. “His goal-scoring, his touch around the net, and that shot is lethal. That’s a gift that a lot of people don’t have.”

A sturdy 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Dufour arrived with pro-ready size, too.

Now the 21-year-old Dufour is leaving an impression in the AHL as well. With 37 points (19 goals, 18 assists) in 51 games, Dufour is top 10 in AHL rookie scoring, just five points off the pace set by Iowa’s Sammy Walker. He also made his NHL debut with New York on Jan. 18 before heading back to Bridgeport.

“The first asset in my game, I think, is my offensive [play],” Dufour stated. “I think last year showed that in junior, and this year I want to do that, for sure.

“I knew that [it] wasn’t going to be 100 points. It’s pro. I feel in my zone when I have the puck, when I control the play, when I have a pretty good shot on the net. I think I’ve just tried to do the same thing this year.”

Before dropping a pair of games this weekend, the Islanders had put together four consecutive wins, their best stretch since opening the season at 13-3-4-0. But they won just once between Dec. 4 and Jan. 11, a 15-game slide that nearly short-circuited their season. Now Bridgeport is within one point of the Atlantic Division playoff line and only four points removed from fourth place, and Dufour has strung together 11 points (five goals, six assists) in his last eight games to help the team keep up with a race that increasingly looks like it will go deep into April.

The path will not get any easier, either, as Providence, Hartford and Springfield all visit Total Mortgage Arena this week. Bridgeport will need Dufour’s production going into March and April. But as with many young prospects, play off the puck is an area of significant focus for both Dufour and Islanders coaching staff. So is his skating, which has been a top priority for the past three or four seasons.

“To become a better player and to be a regular in the NHL,” Thompson said, “it’s his play away from the puck, it’s his intensity level in the defensive zone, it’s making the right decisions on the walls.

“He’s taking steps in the right direction, now it’s just being consistent night in and night out. But I’m very happy with this game. Hopefully, he can continue to build and learn how to play away from the puck.”

Dufour is heeding that message, too.

“I didn’t work a lot in junior on my defensive side,” Dufour acknowledges, “but I think this year so far I’m improving. I think when I’m full-speed I’m pretty fast for a big man like me.”

He has connected well with Thompson, whose blunt style meshes well with Dufour’s personality.

“Brent is a coach I love,” Dufour continued. “He’s going to tell you the truth every time whether it’s bad, it’s good. I think for me to get better [it’s necessary] to know the truth.”

Dufour’s first pro season has also included that first NHL game

“I think my mom and my dad were more excited than I was,” Dufour recalled. “It was just an amazing moment. My family was so proud of me, so happy for me.”

Those moments leading up to the first few laps of his rookie skate in warm-up at UBS Arena were another story, however.

“It was pretty stressful,” Dufour laughed. “You know that video is going to be everywhere. You don’t want to fall. I was pretty stressed.”

Fortunately for Dufour, he had teammates like Anthony Beauvillier and Jean-Gabriel Pageau there to settle his nerves before that walk to the UBS Arena ice.

“‘You have one first NHL game in your career,’” Dufour recalled them saying. “‘Enjoy it.’”