Islanders AHL affiliate in Bridgeport set for home opener

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It takes roughly an hour and a half, depending on traffic, to drive from Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport to UBS Arena in Elmont. But while the 58-mile drive is not necessarily that daunting, the journey from playing for the Bridgeport Islanders of the American Hockey League to getting the call-up to the National Hockey League to play for the New York Islanders can be a bit more challenging.

With their 2023-24 regular season underway, the Bridgeport Islanders have a number of prospects who may not have to wait much longer to get the call to Long Island and those players will be on display Saturday night when the B-Isles play their home opener against the Utica Comets.

This year’s squad, off to a 1-2-0 start to the season, is a talented mix of prospects and veterans as the Islanders’ AHL affiliate looks to contend for the Calder Cup.

“You’re going to see some familiar faces whether it’s returning players or drafted players,” said Bridgeport General Manager Chris Lamoriello.  “You’re also going to see some fresh faces through free agency, college, pro and certainly the players who were in junior or college last year that are now with us full-time pro.”

Some of those “familiar faces” include returning B-Isles like Chris Terry, Arnaud Durandeau, Robin Salo, Cole Bardreau and Grant Hutton

Islanders’ fans will also want to pay close attention because there are a number of prospects who could very well get the call to the big club this season if the need arises.

Ruslan Ishakov enjoyed a terrific 2022-23 season finishing fourth on the team in scoring with 17 goals and 34 assists for 51 points in 69 regular season games. The Russian-born Ishakov, the Islanders’ second-round pick in 2018 played two seasons of college hockey at UConn.

“Ishakov was in position for a recall and had a pretty good season in the American League [last year],” said Lamoriello. “It’s a lot better to be too ready than too soon. We’ll certainly have patience to make sure that when any of these players get their opportunities, they’re 100% ready as they can be.”

So far this season, Ishakov is off to a good start with two goals and three assists for 5 points in 3 games.

Forward William Dufour burst onto the scene during his final junior season in 21-22 as well as international competition for Team Canada. During his rookie AHL season, Dufour tallied 21 goals to go along with 27 assists for 48 points in 69 games placing him 5th on the team in scoring. He even had a small cup of coffee in the NHL playing one game for the Islanders.

This past offseason, The Islanders’ fifth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft took a big step forward improving his skating and his conditioning.

“If you look back on his last few summers, he didn’t have much time off,” said Lamoriello. Going into this past summer, his season or his schedule was probably as appropriate as it could be going into a pro season. I think he modified some things but he also had time to modify some of his training.”

An intriguing addition to the Bridgeport roster this season will be forward Matthew Maggio who joined the B-isles late last season after wrapping up his junior hockey career. The Islanders’ fifth-round pick in 2022 was the captain of his junior team the Windsor Spitfires and has the organization excited about what could lie ahead for him.

Maggio is a tremendous leader and his small taste of pro hockey last season should have him ready to be a big contributor this season.

“That experience helped him prepare going into the summer for the expectations as a pro,” said Lamoriello. “I don’t think there’s any question with his talents and certainly the type of person he is that anytime a player with that type of leadership background comes in whether he’s a rookie or an older player it certainly cane have impact.”

Maggio has one assist in three games early on this season.

As far as other players on the team, center Kyle Maclean, who was in training camp with the Islanders, has two goals so far this season. Goalie Jakub Skarek is 1-1 with a 3.02 goals against average.

While the roster will have some new faces, there will be a significant change behind the bench. With long-time Head Coach Brent Thompson leaving the organization to be an assistant coach with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, assistant Rick Kowalski was elevated to be the new head coach of the Bridgeport Islanders.

Kowalski brings a lot to the table including experience as a head coach and familiarity with many of the current Bridgeport players.

“Rick came in a couple of years ago and worked side by side with Brent the last two seasons,” said Lamoriello. “Just knowing philosophically how we felt and he felt I think it was an easy place to go right away. I think he’s got an energy to him. I think he’s got a great relationship with the players. I think from a systematic standpoint, he knows what he wants.”

The Islanders have made a long-term commitment to keeping their AHL team in Bridgeport and that includes a series of renovations to Total Mortgage Arena to improve the hockey operations as well as the fan experience.

As best they can, the Islanders are trying to mirror in Bridgeport what the NHL players have at UBS Arena. This past offseason the Islanders unveiled a new locker room and other improvements for the players.

“We’ve been very fortunate with our ownership that they’ve supported the playing environment as greatly as they have,” said Lamoriello, who is also the Assistant General Manager under his father Lou with the NHL club.

“There were a couple of different modifications in the locker room but we were able to do there was put a program together that established every category that we needed in a player environment.”

From a fan’s perspective, changes started to take place last season with an upgraded concourse. In the not-too-distant future, there will be more upgrades done to the more than 20-year-old building that was in need of some TLC after more than two decades of pro hockey and other events in the building.

“Every day, we’re trying to do more and more to make the amenities and the facilities as good as they can be,” said Lamoriello. “I certainly think there’s going to be some things that the fans will start to see in the next 12 to 24 months as we work with the city to engage in some capital improvement projects.”

Face-off for Saturday’s home opener against Utica will be at 7pm.  Opening night festivities get underway with a pre-game fan fest in the plaza including food and giveaways. There is an opening-night ticket package that includes two tickets to the home opener, four flex tickets that can be used for any remaining Bridgeport regular season home game, two Bridgeport Islanders hats and a $10 gift card to Vazzy’s, a restaurant in Stratford, Connecticut.

For New York Islanders fans, making the trip to Bridgeport this season will certainly be worth it with some top-level prospects and other players who could very well get a look by the big club at some point.  Total Mortgage Arena is a great place to see a game and going to a Bridgeport Islanders game is a chance to see the New York Islanders of the future.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Greg Vasil/Bridgeport Islanders