It was a season to remember for the Charlottetown Islanders in 2016-17.
Despite falling in five games in the third round to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, the Islanders had its best season and playoffs to date. They set many new franchise records and milestones throughout to course of the season.
For starters, it was the first time in franchise history (dating back to the 1999 Montreal Rocket original franchise) that the Islanders swept a playoff series and it was the first time in franchise history the team advanced to the third round. Those are just two of many great accolades the Islanders achieved this season.
“The one thing that stuck with us at the end of last season was the feeling of a job unfinished,” said Islanders Head Coach and General Manager Jim Hulton. “We thought that one of the things that hurt us (last season) was our really poor first half so that’s one thing we wanted to address. We had a great home record, but didn’t have home ice advantage and ultimately we thought that cost us, so those were our mandates coming in.”
The group at the start of this season did a terrific job for the first half of the season, said Hulton.
“It really put us in a position we could ‘load up and go for it’ and it’s been a fun ride. There’s been a lot of great moments and a lot of great memories.”
Hulton knew the team was going to be a lot better than what people gave the team credit for.
“A lot of people underestimated us, even the first half of the year. We had some great contributions from guys that aren’t here anymore…luckily everything fell into place. We stayed healthy which I think was a big thing in the first half.”
The Islanders finished the 2016-17 season fourth overall with a 46-18-4-0 record with 96 points. Those 46 wins set a new franchise record for most wins in a single season, surpassing the previous record of 41 set by the P.E.I. Rocket in 2012-13. Those 96 points also set a franchise record for most points in a season, surpassing 91 set by the Rocket in 2003-04. To add those records, the Islanders won the Luc Robitaille Trophy for scoring the most goals during the regular season with 303.
Hulton in his first season as taking on the role of both head coach and general manager, made a splash early by acquiring defencemen Guillaume Brisebois and Jake Barter (later traded) from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan for first-round picks and fellow blue-liner Luc Deschenes at the 2016 QMJHL Draft in Charlottetown. He later followed that up by acquiring defenceman Cody Donaghey, along with goalie Blade Mann-Dixon from the Moncton Wildcats during training camp, who were later traded.
The Islanders sat in the fifth overall spot during the winter trade period. Hulton said he knew the team was close but was interested in what other teams were going to be adding.
“Frankly, I didn’t think we had enough if we stood pat. We wanted to make some adjustments.”
The Islanders started off the trade period by acquiring 19-year-old defencemen Nicolas Meloche and Jean-Sebastien Taillefer from Gatineau in exchange for Will Thompson, Marc-Olivier Alain, Carl Gervais and Shawn Boudrias.
Hulton wanted to upgrade the goaltending a little bit and when Meloche became part of it, it was too good to pass up.
“That’s going back my philosophy of building from the back-end out,” said Hulton. “Once we were there we had the attitude of no sense of having one foot in the pool we might as well be all the way in.”
The return of Daniel Sprong also helped Hulton’s decision to go all in.
Everything just spun into place, said Hulton.
“There’s no sense being half pregnant. Once we’re in, we’re in. If it costs us a first round pick, well we’re going to have to do some work in free agency but we’re confident we can recover that.”
Charlottetown added forward Will Bower, 19, from Moncton for a pair of draft picks. Next coming in was 19-year-old Dillon Boucher from Cape Breton for 17-year-old Kyle McGrath and a draft pick.
Next, the Islanders added forward Alex Dostie from Gatineau in-exchange for Mitchell Balmas, Barter, a third-round draft pick in 2018 and a first-round draft pick in 2019.
After that, Charlottetown acquired overage defenceman Carl Neill from the Sherbrooke Phoenix for four draft picks ranging between the years 2018 and 2020.
Lastly, the Islanders acquired forward Francois Beauchemin, 20, and Adam Marsh, 19, from the Val-d’Or Foreurs in exchange for Donaghey, a first-round pick in 2017 and a fifth-round pick in 2018.
In other trades, the Islanders traded away Mann-Dixon and overage Jake Coughler.
The moves gave the team incredible depth, said Hulton.
“Depth is what ultimately wins it for you…it let us put people in the right chair and a role where they were comfortable and could develop. I think that’s what it did for us.”
Charlottetown won a first round series for just the fourth time in its 17-season history and for a third year in a row. The Islanders won Game 4 against Baie-Comeau by a score 4-1 to sweep a playoff series for the first time ever.
On April 13, 2017, the Islanders found themselves in unchartered waters – advancing to the third round for the first time in franchise history after sweeping the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
The Islanders season came to an unexpected end on April 28 at home after a 5-2 loss in Game 5 against the Armada.
For overage forward Kameron Kielly, it was his last game in major junior.
“It’s pretty tough,” said an emotional Kielly after the loss. “There’s really no words to explain it I guess.”
Kielly played four full seasons with the Islanders and joined the team as a 16-year-old sophomore at the beginning of the inaugural 2013-14 season in a trade from Gatineau. He went on to play 246 regular season games with the Islanders while scoring 75 goals and 196 points.
Kielly also appeared in 39 career playoff games with the Islanders, recording 11 goals and 30 points.
It’s been a bit of a roller coaster since day one, said Kielly.
“Having the chance to go for it in my overage year, I’m very grateful for it and grateful for Jim to make the moves. I believed in this group early on.”
The tables definitely turned for Kielly. In his first season with the Islanders, they saw themselves get swept by the Halifax Mooseheads in 2014, before winning a first round series for the first time since 2004 in 2015 against Sherbrooke, and then again for the next two years. This year, Kielly experienced the other side of a sweep and a taste of the semi-finals.
“It’s a lot more fun to be on this side that’s for sure,” said Kielly. “It’s a hell of a lot more fun being on this side of things.”
Defenceman Carl Neill said he was very excited when he joined the Islanders in January during the trade period.
“I knew they were going to do special things as a group. Once things got into place it went really well. For me it was really exciting to be a part of it.”
The playoff run was a great experience for Neill.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better, besides a better finish.”
Neill spent all but four months of his junior hockey career in Sherbrooke, where he played since a 16-year-old rookie. He served as the team’s captain from 2015 until his trade to Charlottetown. Neill, 20, never experienced a second or third round series during his tenure in the Q. That changed this year.
“It’s a breathe of fresh air,” said Neill.
Neill scored three goals and 23 points in 31 games with the Islanders while adding an additional two goals and 11 points in 13 playoff games.
The native of Lachute, Que., native enjoyed his short stay in Charlottetown.
“It was the first time I left Sherbrooke. The fans here were so supportive. The organization was first class. It was an A1 experience for me. I wish we could have finished better but overall it was a great experience.”
For the city of Charlottetown, there was a buzz in the air for the first time in over a decade. Fans were excited, tons of talk outside the rink and the Eastlink Centre was buzzing when the team hit the ice. It was a season to remember and season that won’t soon be forgotten.