The New York Islanders were busy this offseason, shoring up the team’s lineup at forward, defense and in goal. The organizational depth extends beyond Long Island, up I-95 to Bridgeport, where a coaching change, a couple of key signings and a developing defense have helped the club jump out to a 10-4-0-1 start.
While the Islanders are grabbing headlines, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have quietly grabbed the top spot in the Northeast Division and second place in the American Hockey League's Eastern Conference. It’s a dramatic turnaround from a tumultuous season last year, where injuries and mass call-ups led the Sound Tigers to the bottom of the division.
"This team just seems to have it,” captain Aaron Ness said. “We seem to be clicking right now, everyone is pretty close, and we're playing for each other too. That's the big thing. It's helping and so far we've kept a pretty steady group of guys that are contributing and playing well."
The Sound Tigers are scoring. A lot. They lead the league with 60 goals this season (four per game), but no player has over six tallies. Much like the Islanders, the Sound Tigers scoring has been spread throughout the lineup.
Harry Zolnierczyk (six goals, 10 assists) and Alan Quine (five goals, 11 assists) lead the Sound Tigers with 16 points each, but another five players have at least 10 points.
“Right now, there are a number of guys,” Head Coach Brent Thompson, who is on his second tour with the Sound Tigers, said. “You can't isolate one player. There's been a group of guys that have stepped up in each game, in different situations.”
Quine and Zolnierczyk embody the balanced attack. They play on separate lines, yet Quine is riding a 10-game point streak (four goals, nine assists) while Zolnierczyk had an eight-game run snapped on Nov. 16.
Quine’s early turnaround has been remarkable. A year and a half ago, he re-entered the draft and was selected by the Islanders in the sixth round. His first season with the Sound Tigers produced 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) in 61 games, but he was also sent to the ECHL for a total of 15 games, including playoffs. Less than a year later, he’s playing on the Sound Tigers top line with Kael Mouillerat (four goals, 11 assists) and Colin McDonald (11 points in 10 games).
“His battle level one-on-one, compete level in his own end, basically has been giving him opportunities offensively,” Thompson said about Quine. “One year of growth and maturity and his mind is willing to do all the little things, he's definitely taking a step in the right direction.”
Zolnierczyk is another player taking advantage of an opportunity with the Sound Tigers. When he signed a two-way deal this offseason, he said making the Islanders was his goal and that determination has propelled him to the top of the Sound Tigers scoring chart. Zolnierczyk has put himself in the best position possible, should Long Island come calling.
"Harry Zolnierczyk is a game-changing kid,” Thompson said. “He plays hard. He's edgy. His speed is dynamic and he's another guy in our locker room that's a leader and he's a good guy to have around.”
“For depth purposes for the Islanders, he's one of the guys that if something happens up in New York, he's right there in their back pocket and he's definitely an asset to the organization.”
The offense has been bolstered by free agents like Zolnierczyk and Mouillerat, but the Sound Tigers defense corps is completely homegrown.
All of the Sound Tigers defensemen were drafted by the Islanders, except Kevin Czuczman, who was signed as a college free agent last season. They’re all coming through the AHL ranks together, growing under Thompson’s defense-first mentality. They’re also pushing each other to get – and stay – in the lineup on a nightly basis.
“There’s a lot of good talent down here,” Ryan Pulock said. “We have a tight group that’s pushing each other every day. In practice we’re pushing each other to get in the lineup and that helps every guy improve.”
|Griffin Reinhart had seven points in his first nine games for Bridgeport. |
Pulock is generating a lot of buzz with his booming slap shot. The Islanders first-round pick in 2013 has four goals in his last three games and his six goals tie Zolnierczyk for the team lead. Thompson said he’s yet to see a shot harder than Pulock’s in the AHL.
Griffin Reinhart has also had a fast start to the season, scoring seven points in his first nine games before being sidelined with a lower-body injury. He’s played primarily with Scott Mayfield, a gritty, shutdown defenseman who saw five games with the Islanders last season. Combine that with Ness’ veteran savvy and NHL experience and the Sound Tigers have a well-rounded, organic defense core.
“At this point, we have eight solid defensemen,” Thompson said. “Guys like [Jesse] Graham and [Andrey] Pedan, who at this point are seven and eight, if you call them that, are guys that on any other team would be in the top six maybe top four of other [AHL] teams.”
Behind the defense, the Sound Tigers have gotten stellar goaltending from Kevin Poulin. The Montreal, QC, native is 7-2-1 with a 2.23 goals against average and a .934 save percentage, his best numbers since his rookie season. Safe to say, Poulin has been a rock for the Sound Tigers.
“You see his record, his numbers have been outstanding,” Thompson said.
Another key for the Sound Tigers early success is continuity in the lineup. Last season, the Sound Tigers continuously sent players to Long Island, including their top three leading scorers – Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Mike Halmo – and top defenseman Calvin de Haan.
“Last year, there were guys in and out of our lineup,” Quine said. “It's easier when you have a group of guys that have stayed together and have developed chemistry, and that's what we have here so far."
|Ryan Pulock has six goals for the Sound Tigers this season. |
The continuity also extends up and down the organization. The Islanders and Sound Tigers are playing similar styles of hockey, so when these players graduate from Thompson’s team, they’ll slide seamlessly into Jack Capuano’s system on Long Island.
“What I like is the consistency between the [Islanders] and us as far as our structure, our expectations and our standards as far as the details,” Thompson said. “Jack and I had a really good relationship last year and that same mindset of what he expects of the Islanders up there, our staff down here has that same expectation.”
The Islanders and Sound Tigers are both conducting their business in similar fashion, playing tight in their own end and free-wheeling in the offensive end.
The style, expectations and work ethic are all the same. Right now, so are the results.
Things are sounding pretty good up in Bridgeport.