The Bridgeport Sound Tigers look to be a force in the AHL this coming season, which starts on Friday. They currently have eight defensemen on their roster (looking to trim to six by puck drop), and they have players with NHL experience at all three positions.
Still, in a considerably weaker division — they were one of two teams to make the playoffs from the Northeast Division while the East had four of five in the playoffs — they may have their work cut out for them when it comes both to getting deeper into the postseason and breaking away from their strongest competition in the Northeast, the Connecticut Whale.
Here are some players to keep an eye on this season:
Nino Niederreiter, RW: This is a no-brainer. Niederreiter had a terrible year on the Island, with both his play and his confidence lagging. This year gives him the chance to rebound, and so far he’s found some chemistry with Brock Nelson and Kirill Kabanov. According to head coach Scott Pellerin, his work ethic is there, so it may just be a matter of getting ice time and finding the net once more. (Having teammates who can and will shoot is also a plus.)
Ty Wishart, D: Traded from the Lightning as part of the deal for Dwayne Roloson in 2010-11, Wishart probably won’t be much more than a depth defenseman on the Island; however, he’s managed to take control of Bridgeport’s blueline and provide stability and leadership. He scored 19 points in 71 games last year for the club, but that’s not his primary role; rather, he provides a more defensive complement to partner Calvin de Haan. He also has great size, which is a boost for any blueline.
Jon Landry, D: Another presumed depth defenseman for the Isles, this guy carries with him a bit of intrigue. He posted 20 points and a +11 in 34 games with the Sound Tigers last year. The big club gave him his first NHL contract this July at the ripe old age of 29, which is an interesting situation — though he has no NHL experience, he has played pretty much all over Europe, so he has a different experience to bring to an AHL team. He’s said to be a good offensive defenseman and excellent on the PP, so we’ll see.
David Ullstrom, C/RW: The Swedish forward looked really promising when he was called up to the Island in 2011-12, scoring eight points. He also suffered a concussion against Winnipeg, which curtailed his breakout, but lit up the AHL with a team-leading 24 goals. Last year also saw him transition to wing, where he had success. Wherever he plays this year, he’ll have to prove that he wasn’t the lucky victim of a fluke couple of seasons.
Mike Halmo, F: With Micheal Haley jumping to the other side of the NYC/LI border, this team needs a replacement in toughness. Halmo looks to provide just that — he’s not one to shy away from a fight. He dropped the gloves during the Sound Tigers’ preseason game against Manchester after Andy Andreoff took some liberties with Niederreiter. He also has a scoring touch, and played on the second line against Providence last Thursday. Would it be nice to have a Milan Lucic-type of player (without the whole taking-runs-at-goalies thing, of course)? Sure, it would. He just needs to make sure he stays on the right side of the line, as he comes to Bridgeport with a history of borderline hits.
Justin DiBenedetto, LW: DiBo’s development is coming along pretty nicely. He tallied 41 points in 55 games for the Sound Tigers last season and posted the best plus-minus of his BST career (+7). He also had two assists in three playoff games. His seems to have a mean side, coming out of 2011-12 with 73 PIM, and he still needs to get closer to the numbers he had in Sarnia during his junior career, but he’s still one of Bridgeport’s top-scoring forwards.
Honorable mention goes to the goalie tandem of Anders Nilsson and Kevin Poulin, who each would have had a shot at backing up Evgeni Nabokov during training camp had the season begun on time. Nilsson posted better numbers, but Poulin had the bulk of the minutes and more shutouts last season. Each of them had their ups and downs when called up to the Island. As long as they keep developing, it doesn’t matter who comes out on top this year, though it’ll still be fun to keep track of.
That’s all I’ve got for right now. Don’t forget, the Sound Tigers start their season at the Connecticut Whale on Friday at 7:30 PM ET. Until next time!