If you look at the makeup of the 2020-21 Islanders roster, you will see a number of players that gained valuable experience when they played for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ affiliate in the American Hockey League. There are key players up and down the lineup every night that spent time in Bridgeport on the road to the Islanders and the National Hockey League.
To reach the big club on Long Island, sometimes you have to spend some time at Webster Bank Arena before that opportunity comes your way, especially when you’re talking about a team like the Islanders who were six wins away from winning a Stanley Cup last season.
“When you’re in an organization like the Islanders have been tracking towards playoff success for a number of years, there’s a certain level of expectation,” said Sound Tigers General Manager Chris Lamoriello during a Zoom meeting with reporters as training camp in Bridgeport is now underway.
Islanders Captain Anders Lee joined the Sound Tigers for the 2013-14 season and scored 22 goals while adding 19 assists for 41 points in 54 games. That season, he also played in 22 games for the Islanders and the following season, he became a regular in the National Hockey League.
There are other forwards on the Islanders’ roster who cut their teeth in Bridgeport including Brock Nelson, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, Keiffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom and Otto Koivula.
Defenseman Ryan Pulock began his professional career with the Sound Tigers in 2014 and made his NHL debut with the Islanders in 2016. Pulock became a regular in 2017 and is now in his 4th full NHL season.
Other defensemen to make the jump from the Sound Tigers to the Islanders in recent seasons include Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Sebastian Aho, and Devon Toews who was traded to the Colorado Avalanche this past season in a move made to create salary cap room.
“Everyone’s on their own timetable,” said Sound Tigers Head Coach Brent Thompson. “Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two or three years. Eventually they’re going to buy in that we’re here trying to help them so that they’re successful in the NHL.”
Some players can make the jump right from juniors to the National Hockey League and sometimes it may take a cup of coffee in the minors before one is NHL ready. But for some players like current Islanders forward Michael Dal Colle, it could take some extended time in the American Hockey League learning what it takes to a regular in the National Hockey League.
Drafted 5th overall by the Islanders in 2014, Dal Colle needed a two and half year stay in Bridgeport before establishing himself as an NHL player.
“Coming in at 20 years old it was obviously a little bit of a culture shock coming from junior to the professional level. It’s a bit of an adjustment period for anyone but they were great. Brent Thompson really taught me a lot of things.”
During his time in Bridgeport, Dal Colle became a two-way player as he was able to learn how to be responsible in the defensive zone. What he also had to do was rid himself of bad habits because coasting around the ice in juniors and compiling big numbers isn’t necessarily going to translate into an NHL career.
“That’s what we try to preach all the time that it’s a 200-foot game,” said Thompson.” “If you look in the National Hockey League, everyone has to have the ability to play defense and be sound defensively and have to be engaged physically. Once you turn pro, you’re playing against men.”
Because of the on-going coronavirus pandemic, the American Hockey League followed what the NHL did and realigned their divisions for the 2020-21 season so that teams could cut down on travel. The Sound Tigers will be in the Atlantic Division along with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the affiliate of the New York Rangers, and the Providence Bruins, the Boston Bruins’ affiliate for a 24 game regular season. The season opener for the Sound Tigers will be Friday February 5th when they visit Providence and they will welcome the Bruins to Bridgeport for the home opener on Saturday February 13th.
This year’s Sound Tigers roster will include a number of players that the Islanders and their fans will be keeping an eye on including defensemen Bode Wilde (2nd round pick in 2018), and Samuel Bolduc (2nd round pick in 2019) who were both with the Islanders during their abbreviated training camp.
Up front, 2019 first round pick Simon Holmstrom will be joined by NHL veterans Andrew Ladd and Tom Kuhnackl along with other players with AHL experience like A.J. Greer, Tanner Fritz, Cole Bardreau, Robert Carpenter, Jeff Kubiak and Mason Jobst.
Between the pipes, Jakub Skarek is one of three goalies in training camp for the Sound Tigers. Skarek figures to be Bridgeport’s number one goalie after he was with the Islanders during their training camp. The other netminders in Sound Tigers camp are Francis Marotte and C.J. Motte.
Even in a pandemic-shortened season of just 24 games, the Sound Tigers’ mission statement is still in place.
“I don’t think the objective is much different,” said Thompson. “We still want to make sure all these players are ready for the Islanders at any given point whether it’s a transfer up to the taxi squad or directly to the Islanders. The approach is the same.”
The goal is to get Sound Tigers players to Long Island regardless of how many games or seasons it takes.
“You want to make sure that these players are prepared for success and prepared for challenge,” said Lamoriello. “I don’t think there’s a specific time frame or number of games that you can count on to say when a player is ready. As long as they get there, how long it takes is not as important as them getting there and being ready.”
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers have been the Islanders AHL affiliate since the 2001-02 season. Since that time, there have been many players that wore a Sound Tigers jersey on their way to playing for the Islanders and there will certainly be some on this year’s club that will one day put on an Islanders sweater. Whether they play a handful of games in Bridgeport or they are with the Sound Tigers for a year or two, they are gaining valuable experience as they get closer to realizing their goal.
They are learning the “Islanders Way” on their way to being an Islander.