Wahlstrom Highlights Sound Tigers Late-Season ATOsApr 18, 2019
By Justin Cait / Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Making the midseason jump from college hockey to the professional ranks is nothing short of a whirlwind. But you wouldn’t necessarily notice the transition among those who recently signed amatuer tryouts (ATOs) with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Oliver Wahlstrom, Bobo Carpenter and Grant Hutton have only played 16 combined AHL games since the conclusion of their respective collegiate careers in March, but have all made their presence felt in that short span.
At just 18 years old, Wahlstrom – the New York Islanders’ 11th overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft – is the youngest of the trio and the second-youngest Sound Tiger to ever suit up in a game.
And while his pro career began quicker than some may have initially thought, Wahlstrom is using his early moments in Bridgeport to patiently advance his game.
"I've developed into a strong power forward and use my body to get a lot of shots off,” Wahlstrom said. “My skill and creativity are also big aspects of my game. I still have a lot of areas I can improve on, but I'm excited for that process."
In just his second pro appearance, Wahlstrom showcased his raw talent and high upside.
He whistled home his first career goal against Wilkes/Barre-Scranton with a one-timer April 2, becoming the youngest Sound Tigers player to ever find the back of the net at just 18 years 42 weeks and three days. Three games later, he registered his first multi-point game with a goal and an assist at Providence.
“Yeah, it's a dream,” Wahlstrom said. “I'm living the dream. It’s pro life. I play hockey every day, work out, skate and learn, so it's a dream come true.”
Although Wahlstrom has arrived in the surreal reality of becoming a professional hockey player, there is still a long road ahead for the highly-skilled winger out of Boston College and the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
His already fully-fledged 6-foot-2, 209-pound frame fits in with the majority of skaters, but it requires time to adjust to a more intelligent pace of play when taking an instant jump from college hockey to the AHL. Especially at the sprite age of 18.
“The hockey is fun here,” Wahlstrom added. “It's a little different compared to college, being that there's more hitting and guys kind of run around there. Out here, guys are playing their positions a little more and it took me a couple of shifts to get the pace of play, but I'm getting into it.”
Parker Wotherspoon remembers that same shift he had to make as an 18-year-old, after a full season with the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans in the 2015-16 campaign. After signing an ATO, Wotherspoon became – and still holds the record for – the youngest Sound Tiger to suit up for a contest and quickly noticed the physical differences at the pro level.
“It was pretty crazy,” Wotherspoon candidly said. “You go from playing the oldest guy in your league being around 20 years old, to my defense partner being (current Sound Tigers assistant coach) Matt Carkner, and he was like 35. These are grown men.”
Both Carpenter, 22, and Hutton, 23, come into Bridgeport with a slight advantage in maturation, but have also been keen on understanding how to properly play at the next level.
Still enrolled in his last senior course online at Boston University, Carpenter – who scored a his first professional goal in his first game as a Sound Tiger, just two weeks after his last game as the captain of the Terriers – notes that the biggest adjustments begin off the ice.
“It's totally different being a pro hockey player than being in college,” Carpenter said. “Just worrying about classes and being a student-athlete – now, it's just hockey. Every day it's getting used to the change of being on your own, cooking on your own and being away from the family, but it's a dream come true and it's a lot of fun."
While the professional way of living is brand new for Carpenter, he has never been too far removed from the deft lifestyle.
In addition to older sister Alex’s outstanding career at all levels of women’s hockey, his father Bobby was selected third overall in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, a Stanley Cup champion, and veteran of more than 1,000 games played. The luxury of having NHL experience in in the family has helped Bobo ease into the early stages of his professional career.
"One of the biggest things that my dad taught me,” Carpenter said, “was to be a sponge and take everything in that you can. You don't need to use all of it, but it can't hurt to take it all in and have it in your arsenal.”
And with 12 veterans aged 27 or older on the Sound Tigers roster, there is a lot of experience worth absorbing, particularly moving into the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Hutton, who has been the he busiest of the ATOs on the roster with nine professional games under his belt since his departure from Miami University at Ohio, is looking forward to playoff action after an impressive regular season start in Bridgeport.
"I feel prepared, and I feel like I'm just trying to contribute and listen to the people around me,” he said. “We're lucky enough to have a group of guys in there that – it's not their first rodeo. Those guys have played postseason hockey, they know what it's all about and what it takes. So for us younger guys, you listen to what they have to say, and take it to heart and take anything for granted.”
On the ice, Hutton certainly looks like he belongs.
Through his early AHL goings, the smooth skating right-shot defenseman has mustered an impressive six points (one goal, five assists) and has been able to stick with tougher opponents defensively, while skating along Mitch Vande Sompel’s right side.
“I think first and foremost, my teammates have been unbelievable at helping me get comfortable and the communication here has been great,” Hutton said. “You come in and you feel very welcomed. You get the chance to sit down and learn what we’re trying to accomplish here as a unit of five on the ice and what our goals our moving forward.”
The short-term goal, like every AHL team, is to win a Calder Cup championship. Playoff hockey at Webster Bank Arena starts Friday and the experience will be patently invaluable for those initially partaking in the tournament.
“It's going to be tough,” Hutton added, “there’s no secret to that. That's how postseason hockey works no matter what league you're in. So for us young guys, we're just going to take the advice those older guys give us and try to run with it."
With so much on the line, opponents are set to play even bigger, stronger and faster. And in their first playoff series since 2016, the Sound Tigers carry home-ice advantage for the first time since 2012.
An even-younger Wotherspoon was one of the 18 skaters on the ice the last time Bridgeport took part in a postseason contest, and knows what the newest Sound Tigers are in store for when the puck drops in Game 1.
"The first time I played in the playoffs here, I was 18 years old,” Wotherspoon added in retrospect. “It's good to get back. They're going to be intense and hopefully we can go for a nice run."