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Islanders forward Mathew Barzal has dazzled the NHL this season with his highlight reel play and has been the talk of the team this season. The Bridgeport Sound Tigers also have a forward, who has been the talk of their team this season.
Tanner Fritz’s path to an NHL contract could not be further from Barzal’s path, who was drafted 16th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. After going undrafted, Fritz spent four seasons at Ohio State University, where he was captain for his senior season. “I didn’t get anything coming out of college.” Fritz said. “I went pro and signed a coast (ECHL) deal. I didn’t know what to expect.”
The 26-year-old had a career night last Friday in a wild 7-6 win in Utica. His game-winning goal in overtime capped a five point night. His feat tied a Sound Tigers record for most points in a game. The others? Blake Comeau, Jeff Tambellini, Greg Mauldin and Ryan Strome. Fritz currently sits sixth in the league with 24 points in 20 games.
The last time Fritz had that many points in game? “Pee Wee or something. It’s been a long time,” he said. You really don’t look at that when you are playing the game but had guys texting me after the game, obviously it was pretty cool but it was more important to the start the weekend off right and get a win.”
The Grande Prairie, Alberta native started the 2015-16 season with the Islanders’ former ECHL affiliate, the Missouri Mavericks. There were ups and downs for the forward. “I was getting scratched for 10 games. I just kept working hard, watched a lot of film, and watched a lot of other guys move up. I thought to myself, I can be there. I kept working at my game. I have a lot of people to thank, giving me the opportunity.”
Fritz had 33 points in 43 games for the Mavericks and signed a pro tryout deal with the Sound Tigers in February of 2016. “I think he’s taken steps in the right direction from the first time we called him up, even from training camp (last year) when he was on a tryout,” said Bridgeport Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson. “He caught our eye, at the end of the day, every-time I put him out on the ice, he continued to do the right things with and without the puck and almost being without the puck and how he played was more impressive. That was his first impression.” he said.
That first impression earned him an AHL deal for the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs and the 2016-17 season. Fritz was a bottom six forward during his first year with the Tigers, netting 12 points in 19 games. He did whatever was asked of him. “When he was called up to Bridgeport he started off as a utility player. He was a solid third line center/right wing, penalty killer. You saw the skills, he can skate, shoot the puck. When he played that simple game he was always rewarded offensively and stayed with that mindset over the next couple of years,” Thompson said.
Fritz was rewarded with an invitation to Islanders training camp for the 2016-17 season. “I wasn’t expecting to go to camp. It was a great experience for me,” Fritz said. Seeing how hard the guys work on and off the ice, the pace of the game, seeing how much different it is compared to the AHL. Hopefully feeding off that and bring the mentality down here so I can get up there.”
The 5'11" forward brought that mentality back to Bridgeport as he went from being a utility player to a top-six forward. Fritz played with a bunch with first-round picks Michael Dal Colle and Joshua Ho-Sang last season and put up impressive numbers, 42 points in 63 games.
“He's been rewarded because he’s playing the game the right way. It has nothing to do with elite skill, not that I’m taking anything away from his skill but it’s because he plays the game the right way. He’s hard on the puck, he’s physical, he goes to the net hard. His foot speed is a huge part of it. He plays a 200-foot game. He’s solid away from the puck. That’s probably his biggest asset, Thompson said.
His hard work earned him an NHL two-way deal in April. “It gave me more confidence to see that people notice me and believe in me to take that next step to the NHL,” Fritz said. It’s been my lifelong goal. I’ve always fought for everything I’ve gotten and I just work to get better each day, keep working hard and hopefully good thing will continue to happen.”
He went from centering AHL rookies last season to veterans this season in Ryan Bourque and Steve Bernier. “I think his stats are one way to tell how well he’s playing. But obviously if you see him play everyday and see how he competes and how much he’s into the game, said Bernier. As well as he’s playing now, I can see him getting better and improve each day.
You see his confidence growing each game.”
Fritz’s plan if he gets the call? “Keep it simple, use my speed, that’s one of my biggest assets. Not trying to do too much and hopefully if that opportunity comes I can take advantage of it and open up some eyes up there.”
Not only is Fritz on the verge of taking the next step professionally, he’s also on the verge personally as he got engaged this Summer and is getting married next Summer in California.
Update: Fritz had one of his points taken away from last Friday's game giving him four points