After a 103-point regular season and a first-round playoff sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring, there’s a lot of excitement around the Islanders heading into the 2019-20 season.
A lot of the focus around the club guided by General Manager Lou Lamoriello and NHL Coach of the Year Barry Trotz will be on players like Captain Anders Lee who signed a long term extension during the off-season, blossoming star Mat Barzal, other forwards including Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle and Casey Cizikas, a blue-line led by the likes of Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuck and Ryan Pullock, and new goalie Semyon Varlamov to form a new tandem between the pipes with Thomas Greiss.
But Islanders fans should also be spending some time this pre-season on some of the young prospects that will likely start the season at Bridgeport, but could also be summed to Long Island at some point in the season. One of those players is forward Otto Koivula, a fourth-round pick of the Islanders in 2016, who enjoyed a successful first season in the AHL last season with 21 goals and 25 assists for 46 points playing for the Sound Tigers.
The native of Nokia, Finland is pumped up to be at Islanders training camp and to show the organization what he can do this pre-season.
Just how pumped up is he?
“I would say (on a scale) of one to ten, a ten,” Koivula told me last week after the Islanders’ first practice of training camp. “Obviously, it’s a big chance for me and I’m so excited to be here and excited for camp.”
The Islanders pre-season schedule begins on Monday night in Philadelphia and continues Tuesday night against the Flyers at Nassau Coliseum. Koivula is a gifted forward with a big frame at 6-5 and 232 pounds. He figures to see plenty of action during the Islanders’ seven game exhibition schedule and will have a big opportunity to open some eyes.
“Yeah for sure,” said Koivula who represented Finland at the 2017 and 2018 World Junior Championships. “It’s a chance for me and I think I’m going to get a fair chance from the coaching staff, and I want to show my best every day. I want to work hard and show I have a good chance for the Islanders.”
Following a standout career in Finland, Koivula joined the Sound Tigers last season for his first taste of hockey in North America. He was accustomed to the bigger sheet of ice that is used in Europe so there was a big of an adjustment period for him. But that transition to the North American style of play came quick for Koivula as he led all Bridgeport rookies in scoring.
“It took me like ten games to get used to it,” said Koivula who finished the season with the fourth-most goals among AHL rookies. “It’s a little bit smaller rink. The offensive zone is bigger here than in Europe. I felt really good right away and I feel like this is my rink.”
Given his size, Koivula could eventually turn out to be a big addition to the Islanders, especially if he continues to get used to physical nature of the North American game. That’s something that some players have some difficulty with coming over from Europe, but Koivula did a good job last year of adapting to it and acknowledging the difference.
“That was the biggest key to get used to because of the smaller rink and stuff happens a little big quicker,” said Koivula.
Given the makeup of the Islanders roster, the likelihood is that Koivula starts the 2019-20 season in Bridgeport getting plenty of ice time for the Sound Tigers. But things could certainly change at some point during the season like an injury that could give Koivula a chance to make his NHL debut.
These are good times in Islanders Country and there’s a great deal of optimism as the organization continues to build a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup. That optimism is shared throughout the organization, especially at Bridgeport where players are waiting to get that call for a seat on the “Isle”.
“The atmosphere is really good right now and everyone is excited about this year,” said Koivula. “The Islanders have a good team here and it’s going to be an exciting year for Islanders fans and for us.”
The Islanders have a ton of prospects in the minors and in juniors to keep an eye on this year like Oliver Wahlstrom, Bode Wilde, Simon Holmstrom, Noah Dobson, Sebastian Aho and Josh Ho-Sang. But the short trip to Bridgeport to see a Sound Tigers game should also come with the excitement of seeing Otto Koivula, an exciting young forward who just might make a jump to the NHL at some point this season if things go his way.