In hockey circles, Long Island is known as an island of opportunity.
Colin McDonald, Thomas Hickey and Michael Grabner are just some of the most recent players who were given opportunities by the Islanders and translated them into everyday roles.
Free-agent signings Harry Zolnierczyk and Jack Skille will get their auditions when training camp opens on Sept. 18, as they look to parlay solid AHL careers into a steady gig.
“I am ready for a good opportunity and whatever that opportunity is, I am going to excel at it,” Skille said. “I am hoping when I come to camp that they give me a good look, a good honest look and really give me a shot. I am in the best physical condition I’ve ever been in and mentally, I have great confidence. I understand the pro game and everything that comes with it.”
Skille is coming off his first point-per-game season in the AHL, where he scored 24 points (13G, 11A) in 22 games for the Springfield Falcons – the Columbus Blue Jackets’ affiliate. The Madison, WI, native said it was initially disappointing to get sent down to the AHL, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the increased ice time and offensive success helped him rebuild his confidence. The Blue Jackets recalled him at the end of the season and found himself playing on the team’s top line during the Jackets’ playoff run.
Skille’s experience in Springfield rekindled his offensive instincts after playing the last three years largely on the fourth line with the Florida Panthers.
I want to find a team, get an opportunity, stick there and stay there. I’m ready for that. - Jack Skille
He’s not opposed to playing a fourth-line role in the NHL, which is a spot he may be competing for during camp in September, but for a player drafted seventh overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2005, confidence stems from putting the puck in the net. Skille felt that confidence come back during his time in Springfield, as well as some newfound patience at the NHL level.
“I feel the game out again,” he said. “I started believing in myself again like I used to back when I was drafted. That was huge for me. It really woke me up as a player and it was great to take that into the summer and use it.”
Zolnierczyk is in a similar position. Like Skille, he’s 27 years old, but has steadily improved since joining the league after four years of college and is coming off a career year in the AHL. The Toronto, ON, native finished third on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins with 18 goals and posted a career-high 36 points in 57 games, nearly doubling his point total from the previous AHL season.
“A lot of it comes from confidence,” Zolnierczyk said. “There’s a big jump coming from college into the pros and then taking a little bit of time to find your way and what works. Each summer you just try to get better and improve upon your skills, get bigger, stronger and that has allowed me to be more successful each year.”
Zolnierczyk plays with grit and energy and does the little things like block shots, kill penalties and clear the zone. He was a point-per-game player at Brown University in 2010-11 and was named the Ivy League player of the year that season, but is likely competing for a bottom-six role on Long Island.
“There’s a role that you have to take on and you have to become a bit of an agitator and get guys off their game,” said Zolnierczyk. “You have to bring that kind of energy to the ice and the room and that’ll be my plan come training camp.”
Zolnierczyk has trained with McDonald and has seen first-hand what kind of opportunity the Islanders provide. Both Zolnierczyk and Skille have worked hard and are ready for their chance to impress the coaching staff at training camp.
“I am looking for an organization that’s going to give me a chance to stick around and make a home,” Skille said. “I am not looking to jump around the league and to play for all 30 teams by the end of my career. I want to find a team, get an opportunity, stick there and stay there. I’m ready for that.”
They’ll get their chance starting on Sept. 18. Their opportunity awaits them.