We’re in the dog days of summer for the sport of hockey.
Training camp is not set to begin for another two months, the free agency frenzy has come and go, and talks of offer sheets and trades have gone silent. So what is one to focus on during this time? Prospects.
If you’re a fan or observer of the New York Islanders, you know the usual suspects — Noah Dobson, Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows and Bode Wilde.
One prospect, in particular though, that resides in that same class but could be a big factor to the Isles building on last year’s successful season is Otto Koivula.
Koivula, 20, was drafted 120th overall in the 2016 Draft. This past year was his first full season in North America after playing the last five years in his native Finland for Ilves in the Finnish Elite League, formerly known as SM-Liiga.
For Europeans making that transition to playing in North America, most of them have a hard time adjusting to the style. In Koivula’s case, it was the total opposite.
Taking on a new position as a center — he’s played wing his whole career — Koivula burst on to the scene with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Playing in 69 games, Koivula recorded 46 points, tying him for second-best on the team with d-man Sebastian Aho. Koivula’s ascent as one of Bridgeport’s most prominent forwards was a key factor in the Sound Tigers stellar campaign that ended with 95 points and a playoff appearance for the first time since 2015-16.
— Taylor Haase (@TaylorHaasePGH) November 4, 2018
The huge step taken forward, along with the point production, by Koivula is what really got people in the organization and the fans buzzing. It was refreshing to see after the year he experienced two years prior.
In his last season with Ilves in 2017-18, Koivula struggled to repeat his performance from a year earlier. Suiting up for 53 games, he recorded an underwhelming nine goals and 27 points.
Koivula had seemed to fall out of the top tier of the team’s prospects and had been passed by several others on the totem pole.
Fast forward to now, Koivula has become a vital part of the foundation that both g.m. Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz want to continue building upon.
Even with franchise center Mathew Barzal and number-two center Brock Nelson as mainstays — throw Casey Cizikas in there too if needed — for probably the next half decade, the Islanders still lack more firepower down the middle, Koivula’s presence changes that. A 19-year-old with his shot and offensive ability doesn’t come around in today’s game anymore.
Scoring 21 goals and notching 26 helpers last year, while not being intimidated by the speed and physicality of the pro game, shows Koivula can be a productive player on this stage.
Koivula evolving into an NHL regular is crucial for the Islanders because of his size. In a sense, he’s a bit of a throwback in the present NHL.
The average height of an NHL player last season was 6’1. And as the league continues to transition to the Johnny Gaudreau’s and the Jack Hughes of the world, Koivula would be considered obsolete. But at 6’4, he could really make an impact. The Islanders have never been known to be the biggest or most physical team in recent years; Koivula with his frame, hopefully becoming the team’s number-three center and major piece on the bottom-six, could provide a unique advantage.
Koivula’s imposing size can also be a factor on the power play.
Granted the Isles have had and will continue to have captain Anders Lee — he’s re-signed for the next seven years — standing in front doing the dirty work, Koivula could easily become the 1A in that role. Plus, for how bad the power play stunk last year despite some success in the postseason, having another tall and rangy forward who can tip pucks and drive goalies berserk is never a disadvantage.
One of the more glaring aspects for why Koivula has taken the top slot for Isles prospects is the organization’s lack of centers who are NHL-ready now.
Yes, the organization has done a fine job restocking at center the last year-plus with Ruslan Ishakov, Blade Jenkins, Mason Jobst, Felix Bibeau and Reese Newkirk, but they’re all far away from being in the NHL anytime soon. Bridgeport has Tanner Fritz, Travis St. Denis and Scott Eansor. In hindsight, they aren’t considered long-term solutions. Also, unless a trade is made, Koivula is the next best option. Does he need to work on his skating and strength? Sure. Then again, how do you fine-tune those attributes? Playing against players who are better and more experienced than you.
Replacing veteran Valtteri Filppula, — 17 goals and 31 points from a year ago — with Koivula would be a nice boost to an Isles team that struggled to find offense.
It’s already been assured that Koivula will get his chance to make the team in September when he attends training camp for the first time. He won’t be flying under the radar anymore; as can be said for several other prospects that both Trotz and Lamoriello will be looking at to fill some key roles.
A year ago, Otto Koivula was another kid making a huge transition leaving home to turn pro. Now he’s making critical one: trying to secure a roster spot and solidify the Islanders at the center for the next several years.
The rise of Koivula in just a year has been a thrill to watch, but he could be so much more soon. That’s why he’s the most important prospect for the Islanders right now and moving forward.
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