Ask around the Bridgeport Sound Tigers about Simon Holmstrom and his maturity is likely to be brought up.
That's a compliment for the 18 year old, who holds the distinction as the youngest player in Sound Tigers history, and a de facto requirement, given that he moved from Sweden to Bridgeport to further his hockey career.
Put yourself in Holmstrom's position for one second. Moving over 3,800 miles from home (Tranås, Sweden) to a foreign country, playing in a new league, living without parents and having to take care of all the life skills that come with that, while also living up to the billing of being a 23rd-overall pick. That's a lot at once for a kid who's barely out of high school, but Holmstrom seems to take it all in stride.
"I know he's a young kid but he's actually very mature," Head Coach Brent Thompson said. "He handles the day to day, general life skills very, very well."
Sound Tigers management wanted Holmstrom to have a support system in his first year to help ease his transition to North America. They figured he had enough to take care of without having to take care of things like cooking, bills, laundry, etc. on his own. Enter John Stevens and Parker Wotherspoon, who offered up one of the unused rooms in their five-bedroom house in Milford after Holmstrom was one of the last cuts from Islanders training camp.
"We figured it would be a lot for him," Stevens said. "Just moving from a foreign country and being so young. I've been impressed, he's just so mature for his age. We cook a lot together and he likes to cook on his own. He's been teaching us some stuff [with regards to] cooking and definitely handles himself very well. Very mature."
Stevens lived with Christopher Gibson and current captain Kyle Burroughs in his first AHL season and despite being 23 at the time - five years older than Holmstrom is now - he said it was beneficial to live with a couple of veterans.
"It helps to live with guys who have played in the league before, knowing the schedule and getting used to the preparation day to day and taking care of yourself," Stevens said. "Learning from those guys how to be a pro. Even though I was an older kid coming out of school, it helped me a lot."
Holmstrom pointed out that he's been living away from home since he was 15 when he joined HV71 U16 program, so he's used to doing some upkeep around the house. Still, Jönköping, where HV71 plays, is only about an hour away from his hometown of Tranås, as opposed to living across the Atlantic Ocean and having to speak a new language. He's appreciative of the guys welcoming him into the fold.
"A lot of the guys have done that. Especially Stevens, [Kieffer] Bellows, [Nick] Schilkey, those guys I've been hanging out a lot with," Holmstrom said. "All the guys have been awesome to me. I have a lot of things be thankful for."
He's leaned on fellow Europeans like Sebastian Aho and Otto Koivula as well because they can relate to the experience of moving stateside. But by all accounts, he's adjusting well to his new environment and living arrangement.
"Right now, he feels comfortable there," Thompson said. "Those are two great guys. They're both quiet, smart men who are mature. They're men I'd want my children to live with, if that says anything."
On the ice, Holmstrom is looking more comfortable as well. He's got four points (3G, 1A) in his last eight games, after accruing one assist in his first 10 games of the season.
"He's looking pretty good right now. He's learning the game," Koivula said. "Every game he gets better and he's going to be here soon."
Holmstrom is adjusting to the size, pace and structure of the AHL, as well as the smaller North American rinks. As aforementioned, he's the youngest player in team history, and alongside fellow rookies like Detroit prospect Moritz Seider, is one of the youngest players in the league.
"The physicality is the biggest part," Holmstrom said. "Everyone is a lot stronger here and plays a lot more physical. The structure is perfect all the time, so it's hard to get through if you don't have really good structure."
To compensate, Holmstrom is putting in extra work. He arrives at the rink early and regularly stays after to hone his skills. Injuries shortened his season with HV71's J20 team last year, so while his stats (20 points in 21 games) didn't jump off the page, the Isles have been impressed with his abilities - as well as straight-line, get-to-the-net mentality. His goal on Nov. 11 vs Providence was evidence of that, as he crashed the net and buried his own rebound, taking a little punishment along the way.
"Love his game," Thompson said. "It's a work in progress, but you see the huge upside with this kid. His hockey IQ is off the charts. He's got a great stick, his defensive reads are sound. Things happen a little quicker in the North American rink, so I think he's getting used to that adjustment as far as being able to make that offensive play. Time is taken away a little quicker, so you have to get used to that and protecting the puck a little better, but overall, that's just a function of getting used to the speed of a smaller rink."
Thompson said the young Swede is getting good advice from longtime veterans like Colin McDonald, who he sees giving advice to Holmstrom on the ice. As for what Holmstrom is trying to work on?
"Everything," Holmstrom said. "Trying to shoot a lot more, take the puck to the net a lot more and create more offense. I try to work on my defense."
Holmstrom was sent to Bridgeport on Oct. 3 and he's happy with the decision to stay stateside - and the Islanders are too. For Holmstrom, it's a chance to be indoctrinated into Islanders hockey, as the Sound Tigers play a similar system, and get used to being in North America. For the team, it's an easy way to follow his development, driving up I-95 as opposed to flying overseas.
"It's huge for him," Trotz said back in October. "North American style, playing and growing with young guys like [Oliver] Wahlstrom and that. They are going to be core components, the sort of foundational element going forward. For those guys to come up together, there's nothing greater than having a bond and hopefully winning in Bridgeport and making the jump to the NHL. There's nothing that's going to hurt him. He's going to play on smaller ice surfaces, he's going to get used to the grind of the AHL schedule, playing against bigger men for the most part and growing in our system and our culture."
It's all been a learning experience for Holmstrom, both on and off the ice. There's plenty more to learn as the year goes on.
"It's going better and better. I'm learning more every day," Holmstrom said. "I'm just trying to take it all in."