A lot has happened since Jim Hulton and the Charlottetown Islanders loaded up in 2016-2017 for what seemed like a sure run at a President Cup. On paper the Islanders had a championship caliber team. Unfortunately, they lost in disappointing fashion.
Hulton and the Islanders’ brain trust went back to work confronted with the downward trend of junior hockey’s dreaded cycle. The organization drafted and developed following their championship blueprint to the letter. When it came time to make extremely difficult hockey decisions they didn’t hesitate. The Islanders find themselves in a phenomenal position primed for another chance at a long playoff run after another disappointing exit in the semifinals to the eventual President Cup Champions the Victoriaville Tigres.
Culture, identity and character are definitely three foundational pillars that continues to solidify the organizations rise to the upper echelon of the CHL. The obvious question remains how does this Islanders team stack up to the Daniel Sprong Islanders and last years team?
“I think compared to last year, the age factor alone, we are a little older this year and I think that caught up to us last year,” said Islanders Head Coach and General Manager Jim Hulton.
“The Sprong team probably featured more of high-profile offence, but I think this team this year is deeper defensively and equally as good in net.”
Hulton pulled the trigger on massive trade with the Drummondville Voltigeurs sending Jacob Goobie and Sam Oliver to the Volts for veteran netminder Francesco Lapenna on December 19, 2021. The trade caught a lot in the QMJHL hockey world off guard, but it’s extremely rare to see a pure hockey trade in this day and age with junior hockey. Lapenna has been rock solid for the Islanders posting a 12-6 recored with a 2.40 GAA and a .902 save percentage since being acquired. The Laval, Quebec product also posted four shutouts during his tenure with the Isles.
Every coach that has a built or possesses a championship caliber team has to be a genius in order to keep them hungry, yet extremely grounded and composed.
For Hulton, that’s an everyday occurrence, that’s just the Islander way and every single player understands and buys in to that philosophy almost instantly.
With the condensed schedule across the QMJHL, Hulton was forced to get creative in order to keep his hockey club sharp and focused.
“It’s been hard and we have modified our schedule the week during this road trip,” said Hulton after a dominant effort versus the Moncton Wildcats on Tuesday night.
“We probably would have normally gone back to Charlottetown after the game in Rimouski, but we know what these kids have been through.”
“We went a night early to Bathurst and made few more hotel room nights just to be cognizant. March was our really really difficult month, a ton of travel, a ton of injuries and guys out of position, but if you talk to anyone in the league we are going through it.”
“We just try to harp on some simple things, like if you’re tired or not you can always play defence you can play above the puck, you can play in the right situations,” stressed Hulton.
“We have talked a lot about our player’s mindset and learning how to win on nights where you don’t have your “A” game. You hear it all of the time in the National Hockey League when they go the rigors every season, but to me that’s playing above pucks, playing well defensively and playing to your strengths.”
“We have six veteran defencemen and a hell of goaltender there so let’s use that to our strength,” explained Hulton.
The Islanders tandem of Lapenna and Oliver Satny have been solid all year long. Satny has a 20-7 record with 2.63 GAA and a 0.894 save percentage with one shutout in 30 appearances this season.
“We have two goalies with twenty wins, I’m not really sure if I’ve ever had that in junior, that’s an internal competition right there and I think that’s the key.”
Competition throughout the entire line up is the key.
“We try to create competition every day. If you can learn to embrace competition and thrive every day and really love the battle, the game becomes the easy part and these kids have had a pretty high standard of practice all year and I think that helps kind of drive the momentum.”
With the tight and intense schedule across the QMJHL, teams have had to adopt new practices routines.
Ever since Hulton’s arrival to Charlottetown, the Islanders practices have become the stuff of legend around the league. Known for their intensity and duration Hulton’s practice philosophy have left an indelible mark on the organization.
“We have cut right back on practice time, forty-five minutes that’s for a normal schedule, there’s been days this year that we have gone out for twenty to twenty-five minutes, but again we tried to keep the pace whenever you hit the ice you have to go at game pace, if you can only do it for fifteen minutes on certain days, then so be it, but we can the goalies some work, but let’s not drop our pace, that’s the big thing, to keep that pace right there,” explained Hulton.
Specialty teams are a weapon for many championship caliber hockey clubs. The Islanders are tops in the circuit on the penalty kill at 84.3% and currently ranked 5th in the league with the man advantage which is clicking at 25.5%. With so much offensive depth how does Hulton provide his skilled players with some runway while also holding them accountable?
“That’s a challenge, but I think there’s internal accountability and we try to look at the front of the jersey and treat everyone the same, “stressed Hulton.
“Now the ice time isn’t going to be the same, but the expectations and the accountability part no matter who’s wearing the sweater, no matter if you’ve been in the league for five years or five days, there’s a certain level of expectations and the same thing applies to the power play.”
“My assistants do a fantastic job with the specialty teams, Guy does the power play and the only time we get in trouble is when we get too cute or too fancy and when we run fast and use the skills we have with five unselfish guys that could easily be selfish, there’s a lot of talent there, but they kind of hold each other accountable which is the key factor there.”
“As for the penalty kill, we made a conscience decision a couple of years ago to get way more aggressive, we didn’t have a good year, so we looked at some of the models in the NHL and Kevin has done a really good job there studying those models and to come in with a really good mindset to be aggressive and use our experience.”
Historically the Islanders have always possessed solid goaltending, defensive structure and accountability. Offensive depth and scoring punch have been the biggest question mark since the “Sprong” years. How has Hulton ensured his team executes offensively and in all three zones every night?
“For us, offensively, we are trying not to cheat the game,” Hulton said.
“We aren’t necessarily trying to be a rush team.”
“There are a lot of rush teams in this league and they are really really good at it, but we lost a deciding game in the semi-finals last season basically one nothing to a team that grinded us out and went onto win a championship playing a grind game, the Tigres didn’t play a rush game they played a grind game.”
“Year after year we see the rush is great during the regular season, but the grind is what gets you to the promise land,” stressed Hulton.
“We have learned from our mistakes in the past, we built teams that were rush teams and you referenced the Sprong year, we could shoot the lights out, but we lost to a hard checking Blainville team, so you try to learn every time you get close to the mountain top and if you don’t get there, you try to learn from your mistakes and for us it’s about that, it’s can you learn to play the grind and it’s all about having great leaders that buy in and we are really fortunate to have that here.”
The old adage “you live, and you learn” certainly rings true for Hulton and the entire organization.
What has he learned from this version of the Isles?
“This team is pretty resilient group,” Hulton said.
“They have fought through some adversity, a year ago we lamented after the fact that we didn’t face a lot of adversity and that doesn’t battle test you so to speak.”
Hulton believes the adversity this team has faced will prepare them for what lies ahead.
“Through the injuries and we had some blown leads, we lost our confidence as a group, but we had to work through that to get it back and I really think that’s a good thing for this group.”
“We are also learning about the quality people in our room and the veterans, they kept it all together, there was no panic, they have understood it’s part of the process, that’s easier said than done, some teams don’t accept that,” added Hulton.
Playing the game the right way is critical for any team with championship aspirations.
“We can play with anybody, that we are in every game and when we play properly and fast like we did tonight against Moncton that we are hard to play against.”
There’s no question the Charlottetown Islanders have a team that could go all the way. How has Hulton kept his hockey club hungry, driven and focused on the playoffs?
“We don’t give them much leeway, we hold their feet to the fire really from August on.”
“It’s a day to day process, we don’t talk about what lies ahead, what’s coming on today, let’s get through today, and let’s be a little better today and I think when we narrow our focus it’s the same thing on the ice we try to create simple little snapshots in the mind of how we play so it clarifies somethings for them and let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here because there’s a long journey ahead it’s served us well in the past so let’s keep doing the same.”