Bridgeport Sound Tigers Head Coach Brent Thompson’s job is to prepare the Islanders prospects for the NHL. His personal goal for this season is to win a Calder Cup. The way he sees it, his goal and job are aligned.
“Winning is developing,” Thompson said at the start of Islanders rookie camp in early September. “That’s probably the biggest misconception that everybody has, that development happens by itself and it doesn’t matter if you win,” Thompson said. “If you’re not winning down there, then you’re not teaching guys how to win.”
Establishing a winning culture throughout the organization is crucial for the Islanders. The Sound Tigers are two years removed from a 41-26-3-6 finish under Thompson that saw them earn 91 points, win the Northeast Division and qualify for the AHL playoffs. The Sound Tigers have missed the playoffs the last two seasons, during which Thompson served as an assistant coach with the Islanders.
General Manager Garth Snow addressed the situation in Bridgeport by bolstering depth at all levels in the organization. Snow signed a rash of top-end AHL players and some key two-way deals, giving the Islanders and Sound Tigers the most depth in recent memory. Even after assigning five players on the first day of NHL camp, the Islanders still have 24 professional forwards competing for 13 spots.
Regardless of how the Islanders roster shakes out, the Sound Tigers are guaranteed to add players with NHL experience.
“We'll have a lot of depth for the guys who don't make it here that are going be down there,” Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “We feel that team can compete for tops in the division and make the playoffs down there.”
Continuity is another key step in the development of the Islanders young players. Thompson served as Capuano’s assistant for two seasons, although the pair have had a relationship dating back further.
“There are going to be a lot of similar drills,” Thompson said. “These young guys are going to see the same breakout scenarios, d-zone coverage, neutral zone coverage and forecheck.”
The Sound Tigers coach plans on playing ‘Islanders hockey’ in Bridgeport, which means a fast, intense, physical brand of hockey, with similar systems and structures in place. Thompson and Capuano want players to be prepared to play with the big club on Long Island.
“It definitely makes the transition easier,” said Casey Cizikas, who played under Thompson during the 2011-12 season before joining the Islanders post-lockout the next season. “I remember going into my first NHL game and I already knew the systems. At that point, you’re not worried and you’re pretty much prepared for what’s in store. They did a good job of getting us ready and teaching us the things we needed to know to switch over to this level.”
Cizikas was the Sound Tigers’ second-leading scorer that season, netting 45 points (15G, 30A) in 52 games. He finished the season with the Islanders and made the team in 2012-13, scoring 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 45 games, helping the team reach the playoffs.
After last year’s Olympic Break, the Islanders finished the season 12-7-3 and finished the season with 10 Sound Tigers (11 total rookies) on their NHL roster. Capuano credits continuity for the team’s strong finish despite a lack of experience.
“For the most part, you could see the second-half of last year how well our guys played,” Capuano said. “We won a lot of games with eight or nine guys from Bridgeport in our lineup, and for them to make that transition, they were right on the same page, and they played extremely well.”
Thompson has a track record of success as a head coach in the minor leagues. He won a Kelly Cup with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces in 2010-11 before taking the Bridgeport job. In his only year with the Sound Tigers, he oversaw a 24-point turnaround from the previous season and led the team back to the playoffs.
He’ll be tasked with doing it again, as he inherits a similar situation. The 2010-11 Sound Tigers cycled through 63 skaters, while the 2013-14 team played 66. He demands intensity, work ethic and passion from his players, but he’s right in the trenches with them and players rave about his communication.
Thompson knows the Islanders system and what Capuano and Snow are looking for from their players. He’s been tasked with teaching Islanders hockey, establishing continuity and developing players for success in the NHL.
“There are no excuses,” Thompson said. “I think we’re going to win down there. That’s the objective.”
“Winning is developing.”