Second half started right for new-look Islanders

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The 2018 portion of the QMJHL season is now a week in, and nobody could have predicted that the Charlottetown Islanders would be where they currently are at the start of the season.

Pegged by many experts to finish at the bottom of the league, the Islanders currently sit sixth in the league with 52 points, ahead of teams such as the Victoriaville Tigres, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, and the Sherbrooke Phoenix, all of which were predicted by The Hockey News to finish in the top-six of the standings. Charlottetown is just five points back of the Halifax Mooseheads for first in the Maritimes Division and the league, with two games in hand.

Led by captain Pierre-Olivier Joseph and goalie Matthew Welsh, the team has adopted an unparalleled work ethic and team-first mentality both on and off the ice. Head coach and general manager Jim Hulton deserves a ton of credit for taking this group of players and making them workhorses, as many in Charlottetown have begun calling the team “Hulton’s Hustlers”.

Throughout the trade period, many speculated as to what approach Hulton would take. With the Islanders sitting smack dab in the middle of the league, would he try to load up for another playoff run? Would he start selling assets with an eye to the future? Or would he stand pat and simply play out the season before making any changes?

As it turned out Hulton and the Islanders were not only buyers through the Christmas trading period, but also kept a keen eye on the future.

Hulton swung four very savvy trades to pack a scoring punch up front. First, the team acquired 18 year-old forward Derek Gentile and a 2018 third round pick from the Quebec Remparts in exchange for forwards Matthew Grouchy and Gregor MacLeod. Hulton then took that third round pick and sent it to Shawinigan in exchange for QMJHL veteran Cameron Askew.

Next, the team dealt forward Samuel Meisenheimer and a 2018 seventh-round pick to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in exchange for Gatineau’s 2018 fourth-round pick. That pick was packaged with a 2018 fifth-round pick and sent to the Saint John Sea Dogs in exchange for Daniel Hardie.

If that wasn’t enough, the team finally came to an agreement with top prospect Brett Budgell to join the team going forward and forego his NCAA eligibility.

At the sacrifice of Grouchy, MacLeod, a seventh-round pick, and a fifth-round pick, the Islanders managed to acquire four top-six scoring threats and completely overhaul their forward group. Similar to last year, fans across PEI were giddy as the hype surrounding the second-half of the season built. However, unlike last year, the team didn’t sacrifice prospects and picks to create this hype. All that was left was to see the new group in action.

Fast forward three games and the new players have lived up to the hype. Brett Budgell has recorded a point in all three games. Cameron Askew has a goal and an assist, and has completely changed the look of the Islanders’ powerplay. Derek Gentile played his first game last night against Baie-Comeau and netted a goal and two assists. Daniel Hardie leads all players with ten shots in the last two games.

While their on-ice play has been exemplary, it’s how they’ve assimilated with the team off-ice that’s been equally as impressive.

“It’s been awesome so far.” said Gentile. “All the players, the coaching staff, the training staff, everyone’s been so welcoming.”

“It’s not just me either. Askew and Budge said the exact same thing. Everyone’s been so kind and welcomed us to the family.”

Gentile was right; Budgell did say the same thing.

“All the guys were very welcoming to me” said Budgell.

All four players seemed to find immediate chemistry with their respective linemates, as evidenced by the stats. For Askew, who has played alongside Pascal Aquin and Keith Getson, chemistry seemed to come from familiarity.

“I’ve known from playing against them for three and four years that they’re very hard to play against.” said the 6’3 forward. “They’re talking to me on the bench, telling me what to do, and helping to make me feel welcome.”

“I think we had some really good chemistry and I’m definitely happy to be playing with those guys.”

Hardie played with Alexandrov and Budgell in his first game on Sunday against Moncton, but was moved onto a line with Sam King and Sullivan Sparkes for Monday’s game against Baie-Comeau. That didn’t stop him from being productive, though.

Despite not registering any points, Hardie’s generated plenty of shots; it’ll only be a matter of time before he cracks the scoresheet.

With plenty of hockey left to play, certainly anything can happen. Injuries are bound to occur, and players are apt to go cold at any time. This Islanders team though has the veteran experience and skill to weather any storm they may face as they work their way to contender status.

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