By Travis Betts
While much remains unknown regarding the timetable on a new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, one thing is certain: If the NHL lockout persists, the American Hockey League will be more competitive than ever with its recent infusion of top-tier talent.
The Islanders assigned 24 players to their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, including defenseman Travis Hamonic and forward Nino Niederreiter. The moves allow top young players a chance to continue developing in the club’s system during the lockout. Most teams around the NHL made similar transactions, meaning AHL rosters will be bolstered with NHL-caliber players when camps open at the end of the month.
For the 21-year-old Hamonic, who has become a mainstay on the Islanders blue line, going to Sound Tigers Training Camp isn’t as ideal as an NHL camp, but is a situation he can benefit from.
“I expect to be a dominant player at the NHL level, so needless to say, I expect nothing less than to be a dominant player at the American League level for however long this thing lasts,” Hamonic said. “Hopefully it’s not long at all, and hopefully the NHL issues get resolved, but in the meantime, I’m going to go down, have fun, get to know the guys and make sure that I’m staying fresh.”
Hamonic made his professional debut in 2010-11 with the Sound Tigers, playing 19 games before moving on to the NHL full-time. But rather than viewing his assignment as a step back, he sees moving to Bridgeport as an opportunity to help the Islanders in the long run.
“I think at every level I’ve played at I’ve tried to be a leader and someone who leads by example, that people can come to if they need anything,” Hamonic said. “I just try to do things the right way, and I’m trying to establish myself as a leader at the NHL level. There’s some players in Bridgeport that are obviously going to be a big part of our team in New York for a very long time, so building a relationship on and off the ice with those players is important.”
The Islanders first-round (fifth overall) selection in the 2010 NHL Draft, Niederreiter enjoyed a short but successful junior career, posting 130 points (77 goals, 53 assists) in 120 games. In 2011-12, with nothing left to prove in the Western Hockey League and still too young for regular duty in the AHL, he played in 55 contests for the Islanders.
Niederreiter is working out this week in Oregon with his former junior team, the Portland Winterhawks. Now 20-years-old and still high on the organization’s prospect list, Niederreiter sees Bridgeport as a place to prove himself to the Islanders brass.
“I’m just excited to get the hockey season going finally,” Niederreiter said. “It’s not the training camp for the NHL, but I’m excited for a new opportunity. I’m going to go with the same mentality I would if I was at an NHL training camp. I’m just trying to develop into the best player I can.”
Goaltender Kevin Poulin was also among the group assigned to the Sound Tigers. The 22-year-old has a 36-23-4 record in two AHL seasons, helping the Sound Tigers win their division in 2011-12, and has also appeared in 16 games for the Islanders. Poulin has his sights set on cracking the NHL roster, but his plans will have to wait.
“I’ll just try to make the best of it, and show that I’m ready to step up,” Poulin said. “I think my first two years were great, but I’m ready to take over and dominate more. It’s disappointing that there’s not an NHL camp for now and everyone is waiting. I just have to go to Bridgeport and bring a good attitude and work hard. Even if it’s in Bridgeport, I just want to get better.”
If the NHL lockout postpones or eliminates regular season games, Hamonic, Niederreiter, Poulin and co. will still have the opportunity to compete against some of hockey’s best young talent on a regular basis, as many young stars from around the NHL were also assigned to the AHL last week. Carolina assigned Jeff Skinner to the Charlotte Checkers, while Philadelphia sent Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn to the Adirondack Phantoms. Adam Henrique, who made a big splash during his 2011-12 rookie season with New Jersey, will be playing for the Albany Devils. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead in 2011-12, along with 30-goal scorer Jordan Eberle, was assigned from Edmonton to the Oklahoma City Barons.
“The AHL is going to be a lot better with all the young guys from the NHL,” Niederreiter said. “Jordan Eberle and Jeff Skinner and all those guys are going to be in the AHL. So it’s definitely going to be more competitive and I’m very excited to play against those guys.”
Poulin says it’s difficult to get a gauge right now on which AHL teams will benefit the most from the injection of talent, because every team has improved its roster.
“You don’t really know until you play against them,” Poulin said. “After 10-20 games into the season, we’ll see where we’re at. We’ll have a really good team with Hamonic, Nino and the rest of the guys coming down. It gives us some players that can add scoring and more defensive ability. It just makes the game better.”