By Peter Schwartz
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John Tavares will represent the Islanders at NHL All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. But the captain is not the only player in the organization that is having a standout season.READ MORE: Montville, N.J. Police Asking For Public's Help Finding Missing Mother Cheng Hsiao And 2 Young Children
Former Quinnipiac defensemen Devon Toews is enjoying a stellar rookie campaign at the pro level with 21 assists and 25 points for Bridgeport, the Islanders’ affiliate in the American Hockey League.
Toews will be the lone Sound Tiger heading to the AHL All-Star Classic on Sunday and Monday in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“I’m extremely excited,” Toews told WFAN.com. “It’s a big honor for me and my family, as well as the Islanders and Bridgeport.”
When Toews was taken by the Islanders in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, he became the second-highest drafted player in Qunnipiac history. After getting passed up by all 30 teams during his first three draft eligible years, Toews was expecting the same fate, but the Islanders took a chance on him.
“It was a huge honor to get picked by them,” said Toews, a native of Abbotsford, British Columbia. “I have to thank them for that. They have faith in me and trust in the way I play.”
The dream of turning pro became a reality for Toews on April 15, 2016, when he signed an entry-level deal with the Islanders. This past September, he reported to his first NHL training camp and soaked in the experience while learning how to approach his new life from the likes of Johnny Boychuk and Thomas Hickey.
“It’s just been a huge learning phase in my career,” said Toews, who turns 23 on Feb. 21.
Toews played three seasons for Quinnipiac, including last year’s memorable run to the Frozen Four. Despite a 5-1 loss to North Dakota in the championship game, the Bobcats reached the big time of college hockey and Toews was a big reason why.
“That program is on its way up,” said Toews, who was a plus-27 during his final college season. “It was a great place to play. I couldn’t have been happier playing anywhere else.”
Making the transition from college hockey to the pros is not easy, especially when you consider there are twice as many games — and that’s before the NHL or AHL playoffs get going. Last year at Quinnipiac, Toews played in just over 40 games, including in the Frozen Four. So far this season, Toews and the Sound Tigers have already played 39 games. That’s a big difference and Toews credits Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold for putting together a system that prepared him for the jump.
“I feel really good,” Toews said. “The practices there were intense every day and you just come to the rink and work hard every day and that got me ready to play the pro game here.”READ MORE: Rookie NYPD Officer Sumit Sulan Hailed A Hero For Quick Actions In Deadly Harlem Shooting
Staying in Connecticut to start his pro career has also aided in the transition. Toews is still able to visit the Quinnipiac campus from time to time to check in with the team and his friends, but there are also three of his former college teammates with him on the Sound Tigers, twins Connor and Kellen Jones, along with Travis St. Denis.
“That was a big boost and a help for me to settle in and feel comfortable,” Toews said.
The four former Bobcats enjoyed a special moment together off the ice earlier this season. During a road trip, they were checking out Twitter on the team bus when they saw that former teammate Matthew Peca had become the second Quinnipiac player to get called up to the NHL this season. Peca joined the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 28.
Peca would then become the first former Bobcat to score a point in the NHL as he scored a goal against Montreal on Jan. 3.
“That was really cool,” Toews said. “I’m so happy for him. I might try to pick his brain in the next little while to see how it was for him and see what he learned.”
So far, Toews has learned a lot in the AHL. He has established himself as a solid two-way defenseman. With 25 points, Toews is 11th among blueliners in the AHL and is third among rookie defensemen. There were some parts of his game that had to be adjusted and he credits head coach Brent Thompson and his staff for guiding him along.
“They helped me with changing some little habits, especially system-wise,” Toews said. “They helped me feel my way into it and figure it out.”
While the parent Islanders are making a push for the playoffs, the same thing is happening down on the farm. Toews is on a roster full of prospects, including Ryan Pulock, Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle.
The Sound Tigers endured a stretch in which they lost 10 of 12 games, but they have rebounded to win won four in a row and have worked their way into a playoff spot. After withstanding that rough patch in December and early January, things have certainly turned around in Bridgeport.
“We were working really hard, but weren’t quite getting the bounces,” Toews said. “Special teams were hurting us a little bit. I think we’ve cleaned those areas up a lot.”
When he’s able to, Toews said he will watch an Islanders game on television just to check in on how the defensemen are doing, particularly guys like Boychuk and Hickey. While some players might pay attention to the parent team with the thought that a call-up could be possible, Toews said he is simply concerned with his job and the task at hand. He’s not constantly looking at his phone to see if the Islanders are calling.
“Not at all really, to be honest,” Toews said. “I think my parents probably do more than I do. I’m worried about trying to help my team win here and try to get us in a playoff spot.”
If the Islanders, for any reason, need to call up a defenseman from Bridgeport, Scott Mayfield and Pulock are likely the first two on speed dial. But considering the season that Toews is having and the transition he’s made from college to pro, Islanders general manager Garth Snow and interim head coach Doug Weight just might have to consider moving the former Quinnipiac star up in their respective address books.MORE NEWS: Connecticut Resident James Iannazzo Arrested After Tirade Caught On Video At Smoothie Shop
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @DevonToews6 and @TheSoundTigers