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Bridgeport establishing pipeline to Islanders

Top-end talent, leadership among characteristics of successful formula

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

The New York Islanders roster is a testament to the commitment to development at the American Hockey League level.

Defensemen Calvin de Haan, Adam Pelech, and Ryan Pulock are graduates from Bridgeport. Forwards Casey Cizikas, Joshua Ho-Sang, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Alan Quine have also gone through Bridgeport.

Coach Brent Thompson, in his fifth AHL season with the Islanders organization, is charged of shaping the prospects into NHL-ready players.

Bridgeport, in a loaded AHL Atlantic Division is 11-7-1-0 and has won five of its past six games going into a busy December schedule.

Here is a look at five contributing factors to Bridgeport's strong start and its ability to develop NHL-caliber players:

 

Christopher Gibson

On nights when Bridgeport needs a boost, Gibson (6-foot-1, 188 pounds) has provided it.

An injury limited Gibson, 24, to seven games last season, but he has taken the No. 1 goaltending job and run with it this season.

He ranks No. 13 in the AHL in save percentage (.919) and is No. 7 in goals-against average (2.17).

Since a 6-3 home loss to Laval on Oct. 21, Gibson has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of his past eight starts.

"There have been games that we've won [or] taken points out of that we probably shouldn't have [because of goaltending]," captain Ben Holmstrom said.

 

A top-five pedigree

Hope remains high for forward Michael Dal Colle, 21, selected by the Islanders at No. 5 in the 2014 NHL Draft, even if his offensive production has slowed.

Dal Colle (6-2, 198) is in his second pro season. He had 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in his rookie season with Bridgeport but has eight points (two goals, six assists) in 18 games this season.

However, Thompson has been happy with Dal Colle on the power play and praised his improved puck control and decision-making. Bridgeport is trusting Dal Colle with time on the penalty kill as well.

"He has to continue to work on moving his feet, but I think what he's doing, the fact that he is working so hard, both on and off the ice to get better, is a sign that he is not satisfied being in the minors or where he is at," Thompson said.

 

Mobility

Three of the top six Bridgeport scorers are defensemen, including rookies Sebastian Aho and Mitchell Vande Sompel.

"Our whole team kind of starts with them," Holmstrom said. "They get the puck up the ice, and they allow us to make a lot of plays."

Vande Sompel (5-10, 190), 20, was a third-round pick (No. 82) in the 2015 NHL Draft and has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in his first 15 pro games.

Aho (5-10, 176) is 21, but had four seasons of Swedish Hockey League experience before the Islanders took him in the fifth round (No. 139) of the 2017 NHL Draft. He has 13 points (seven goals, six assists).

Devon Toews (6-1, 180), 24, is an explosive skater who played in the AHL All-Star Classic last season. He plays a heady game and his 13 points (four goals, nine assists) tie him with Aho for second in team scoring.

"It's the ability to move the puck," Thompson said of his defensemen. "They use their feet to defend. They can walk the line in the offensive zone. They've got great vision. They've got great hockey sense, good sticks, and move their feet really well."

 

Balanced scoring

Bridgeport has moved to 11th in AHL scoring with 3.26 goals per game and plays a pesky, attacking game.

"Energy," Thompson said in describing his forwards.

Tanner Fritz (5-11, 192), 25, has 19 points (four goals, 15 assists) to lead the team in scoring in his third season with the team.

Travis St. Denis (5-7, 170) is another one of the smaller, skilled forwards who are on the roster. In his second season with Bridgeport, the 25-year-old has 11 points (six goals, five assists).

Rookie Scott Eansor has cooled off some after scoring seven goals in his first six games, but he looks promising in his first pro season. He has eight goals and four assists in 19 games.

"I really like Eansor," Thompson said. "He is a kid that has a lot of energy. He plays with his heart."

 

Leadership

Thompson played 14 pro seasons as a tough, rugged defenseman and captained several AHL teams.

He knows what character looks like, and Bridgeport has a tradition of solid leadership groups under his watch. That starts with Holmstrom, a long-time respected AHL captain.

"I think our guys are buying into what it going to make our team successful," Thompson said. "We're not going to be a team that is going to run and gun. We're not an overly gifted offensive team."

"Not that our guys aren't gifted. I think we have a special skill set, and it's that work ethic that our guys have. Buying into the system. It's a function of our leadership, and the quality of guys that we have in the room."

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