By Travis Betts
Coming off a “prove it” year in the Western Hockey League, forward John Persson is primed to be an impact rookie for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2012-13.
The Ostersund, SWE native tallied 61 points in 2010-11 with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League leading into his draft year. While some may have seen his numbers as a product of playing with 2011 No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Persson slipped to the fifth round, where the Islanders took him 125th overall – the winger put any doubts to rest with a team-leading 58 points (23 goals, 35 assists) in 2011-12 sans Nugent-Hopkins.
“I was a grinder, trying to get pucks to him,” Persson said of playing with Nugent-Hopkins. “Last year, when he was gone, I was relied on more for points. I was on the power play and on the half-boards instead of in front of the net. That was really good for my development.”
At the end of his junior season, Persson tested his 6’2, 210-pound frame in the American Hockey League with the Sound Tigers, making an impact right away with eight points (four goals, four assists) and a plus-5 rating in 12 games. Sound Tigers Assistant Coach Eric Boguniecki was among those most impressed with Persson’s immediate contributions at the AHL level.
“He came last season and made a statement,” Boguniecki said. “It’s fun to see and fun to work with guys who have such a strong foundation. He’s got a big body, great shot and he knows how to utilize his size. This year, we’re expecting big things from him. I think getting a taste of the AHL last season definitely helped him.”
At age 17, Persson opted to move from Sweden to Canada, leaving behind the European wide-open, pass-first style of play in favor of the North America’s smaller rinks. His transition to the AHL was made easier with those three years of WHL hockey.
“We did the same stuff in practice with Red Deer as we do here,” Persson said. “Playing there helped me a lot. We had a great coach in Jesse Wallin. When you’re skating, it’s a lot more stops and starts, physical play and crashing the net in North America, so the adjustment was fairly easy.”
While the left wing certainly turned heads in his short time last spring with the Sound Tigers, he knows he has to keep up the pace for an extended period before he can be considered a success at that level and someday earn a trip to the National Hockey League. In the meantime, he wants nothing less than to be part of a winning team.
“I just want to be as good as I can every day, and hopefully we’ll win the division again like we did last year,” Persson said. “It’s much faster in the AHL. You have to elevate all aspects of your game.”
Boguniecki thinks that Persson will be a key part of the winning equation in Bridgeport.
“The biggest thing about John is his work ethic,” Boguniecki said. “He’ll stay out here all day and night shooting pucks and working hard. He’s willing to get better and that’s a great thing.”
Persson’s impressive 12-game tryout has changed the Sound Tigers coaching staff’s expectations for him. Rookie or not, Persson is expected to be a key contributor when the season starts on Oct. 12.
“We’re obviously relying on him to score goals even though he’s young,” Boguniecki said. “We’re expecting him to continue to build on what he does and that’s using his body, finishing checks and being a force out there.”
The challenge for Persson now will be maintaining his production over the course of a full season of professional hockey. If he does, he may be asked to “prove it” again someday with the Islanders.