EAST MEADOW, N.Y. - When Jaroslav Halak was demoted by the New York Islanders to Bridgeport of the American Hockey League last season, he had a decision to make.
Halak was 31 and a proven NHL goaltender. He had already dealt with having to share his net with not one, but two goaltenders in New York (Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube). He could have packed his bags and gone home. But he still had another year on his contract, so it wasn't as though he could have become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
After clearing waivers, Halak decided to report to Bridgeport. He viewed it as an opportunity to not only work on his game (he won six of 20 starts with the Islanders prior to the demotion), but also give advice to teammates who were still fighting for their first chance to play in the NHL.
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In 27 AHL games, Halak went 17-7-1 with a 2.15 goals-against average, a .925 save percentage and two shutouts.
"I had a choice not to go, but that would probably hurt me more than anything," Halak said when the Islanders opened training camp last week. "I wanted to go down there, work on the little things and play the games.
"The guys were great. We have some really good young hockey players down in the minors. Fortunately and unfortunately, I got to see them and play with them. It was good. Moving forward, I just want to take it day by day. I'm not trying to think about stuff or trying to focus on what's going to happen a couple of months from now."
Halak's immediate focus will be on starting the Islanders' preseason game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, MSG).
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Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson remembers getting the call from Islanders general manager Garth Snow last December that Halak was on his way. Thompson immediately sat down with his new No. 1 goaltender to see if his head was in the right place.
"He knew where he was at and what he wanted to get out of it," Thompson told NHL.com. "You can take it one of two ways; you can either sit down here and pout, or you can just say, 'I'm going to go and do this,' and prove everybody wrong and help this team win down here, and that's exactly what he did. The guys rallied around him. He felt accepted and wanted, and the next thing you know he was by the far the best goalie in the league. It was a pleasure to get to coach him."
Halak's time in Bridgeport featured a string of 12 consecutive wins from Jan. 20-Feb. 19, and his attitude proved to be infectious.
"I don't think anyone's ever happy going down there," said Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield, who played 23 games with Bridgeport last season. "He was in a different position than me, but it's happened to me the past couple of years. You're not excited, but at the same time you can be a leader down there. You can take it two ways and when Jaro came down, it was pretty special the way he acted, the way he composed himself and the way he played. Everyone took notice of that."
Halak's play in the AHL forced Snow's hand late last season. Greiss showed signs of wearing down in the second half and Berube wasn't performing on the rare occasion he had to start. The Islanders were in a heated race for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
Halak returned to the Islanders and started on March 24 at the Pittsburgh Penguins, his first NHL start since Dec. 29, 2016. He made 37 saves in a 4-3 shootout win.
"I wasn't trying to focus on what happened," said Halak, who won his last five starts of the season to keep the Islanders in the playoff race until the finale. "I always say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Not sometimes, all the time, things happen for a reason. I wasn't trying to find bad things about it. Obviously, you don't want to go to the minors, but you just try to do your best and help the guys.
"When I got called up, I just waited for my chance. It worked out well for me, not so much for going to the playoffs, but we still had a chance the last game."
Snow was certainly pleased to see Halak respond the way he did.
"He played great," Snow said. "He went down with a good attitude and a solid work ethic. Every time we talked to Brent Thompson, it was nothing but praise for how he handled himself on and off the ice. That's a credit to him.
"It's a difficult situation to go into when you're a proven NHL player. It doesn't matter what position you play, it's a little bit of a slap to the ego. You need a wake-up call sometimes. He handled everything the right way. Obviously, the way he played at the end of the season showed he put the work in."
A lot has changed since Halak arrived for Islanders training camp last season. Doug Weight replaced Jack Capuano as coach on Jan. 17 after a 17-17-8 start and had his interim tag removed on April 12. Perhaps more importantly, Berube was claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft, so it's unlikely the Islanders will carry three goalies on the main roster again.
"Obviously, last season was kind of a strange season, not only for me but for a lot of guys," Halak said. "Now it's a fresh start for everybody. But ultimately, it's going to come down to our start too. Last season, we all know we had a bad start. We just need to make sure that we pick up points at the beginning of the season because that hurt us at the end."