It’s hard enough to be a first-year head coach in the American Hockey League. Once you factor in becoming the bench boss of a budding franchise’s farm team, stacked with some high-end prospects and a disjointed roster because of the NHL’s unpredictable season, it becomes even more of a challenge. The 2012-13 AHL season was a lot like that for Bridgeport Sound Tigers coach Scott Pellerin.
“It was obviously uncertain times for the whole league, but we hit the ground running,” said Pellerin, the former University of Maine standout and 1992 Hobey Baker Award winner.
The Sound Tigers started last season with 10 wins in their first 14 games before the first of two lengthy losing streaks, an eight-game bender, set them back under .500. Bridgeport ultimately finished with a 32-32-12 record, missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.
“I think you learn from last year, you learn from the past, and you focus on moving ahead and getting better,” said Pellerin, who was named Bridgeport’s head coach in 2012-13, replacing Brent Thompson. Pellerin had served as an assistant coach on Mark Morris’ staff with the Manchester Monarchs for six seasons.
Because of the NHL lockout, the Sound Tigers’ roster had a few faces that would ultimately leave to go play on Long Island. Players like Travis Hamonic, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald started the season in Bridgeport only to depart once the NHL resumed, opening more playing time and development for younger prospects, but still, their presence was missed. While playing in only 35 of the team’s 78 games, McDonald still finished in the top 10 for scoring.
“Last season was a very trying season for all coaches in the AHL because you had a roster that was inflated at times,” Pellerin said. “When the lockout ended, some teams were depleted and some teams weren’t. It was difficult on the coaching staff to manage, but it was also difficult for some of the players.”
Pellerin knows what it’s like to be shuffled in between the AHL and NHL. Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the third round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Pellerin played for seven different NHL teams in his 12-year career, plus five different AHL clubs. With the New York Islanders on the verge of making a turnaround and putting more reliance on its younger prospects, it’s part of the reality that many of the players with the Sound Tigers could see a call-up to Long Island at one point in the season.
Now, it’s up to Pellerin and his staff to manage those expectations.
“There’s a time, and when it’s your opportunity, you have to be ready,” Pellerin said. “It can be humbling for some kids that think they should be on a certain level and they want that opportunity right away, but they have to earn it. You have to just keep plugging away, keep working and keep believing in your game. You have to continue the process, and when the opportunity comes, you have to make the best of it.”
Bridgeport returnees and highly touted prospects Ryan Strome, Calvin de Haan and Kirill Kabanov seem the most likely candidates to see playing time with the Islanders this season, though any breakouts are possible. Another name to watch is Brock Nelson.
Nelson, a former University of North Dakota center, was drafted 30th overall by the Islanders in the 2010 draft and had a breakout season with the Sound Tigers. Leading all Bridgeport players last season with 25 goals and 27 assists in 66 games, Nelson’s performance earned him a call-up with the Islanders. He played in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Penguins.
It’s also likely that some of the Sound Tigers’ players don’t get the call-up they might be expecting from the Islanders. It’s a challenge that Pellerin recalls from his playing days, and he realizes how frustrating it can be for the players who yearn for NHL opportunities.
“I love that they want it and that their goals and dreams are to play in the NHL, but it’s a process,” Pellerin said. “For some it’s easy to handle quickly and some take a little longer. You have to manage all of those personalities because it’s not the same situation for every single player. It’s where I come in and where my staff comes in. (We’re) able to have those conversations to get them over the tough times and push them during the good times.”
Pellerin’s Bridgeport staff includes assistant coaches Doug Holewa and Eric Boguniecki (West Haven, Conn.). A former University of New Hampshire star and AHL MVP, Boguniecki played with the Sound Tigers during the 2005-06 season. Pellerin praises both him and Holewa for being an integral part of the team’s dynamic.
“He has kind of done everything,” said Pellerin, referring to Boguniecki’s experience playing college and professional hockey at the ECHL, AHL and NHL levels. “He’s just a great role model for my guys and for the organization and has a great sense of what the team needs.”
Boguniecki joined the Sound Tigers coaching staff in the 2011 offseason, one year prior to Pellerin’s arrival. Pellerin credits Boguniecki’s great relationship with the players as an assistant coach as one of the most important pieces that he brings to the team.
With a fully intact coaching staff from last season, the pressure is on Bridgeport to win now, especially as a team that hasn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2003.
“We’re going to have a very youthful group, but we have a lot of talent on paper,” Pellerin said.
In 2012-13, Bridgeport recorded its highest attendance since 2004-05. Though both seasons were plagued by lockouts on the pro level, the average attendance of 5,300 in Bridgeport demonstrated that hockey can still thrive on the AHL level with the Sound Tigers, despite whispers that the farm team could be moving closer to Brooklyn once the Islanders call the Barclays Center home.
“Our job is to develop our players and win at the same time,” Pellerin said. “It’s very difficult to do both and it’s a huge challenge, but it’s something that we strive to do, to be able to work with some of the prospects. The talent that we had last season was a lot of fun.
“Our job is for those guys to grow, get better and become big parts of the organization.”
1. PROVIDENCE BRUINS
A highly surprising season for the Providence Bruins turned sour quickly after they blew a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. This year, Bruce Cassidy’s club will look somewhat similar, as Boston addressed any major vacancies in free agency. Providence will have a full season of some of Boston’s best prospects along with the benefit of highly touted draft pick Malcolm Subban in net, replacing Niklas Svedberg, the 39-win netminder who could get the call to back up Tuukka Rask in Boston. A key component that could be missing is veteran leadership now that former captain Trent Whitfield signed with Bolzano HC in Austria.
2. MANCHESTER MONARCHS
A model of consistency, the Monarchs have made the postseason in six of seven seasons under coach Mark Morris. Missing is a championship run. While the Monarchs have developed many present-day NHLers, they have yet to reach a Calder Cup finals. Winger Tyler Toffoli had a breakout season with 51 points in 58 games before being called up by the Kings just in time for the postseason. This season, another player is going to have to replace his production. Last year’s leading scorer, Linden Vey, seems primed enough to repeat.
3. PORTLAND PIRATES
The Portland Pirates — who will actually call Lewiston, Maine, their home this winter — had the luxury of getting a solid year of production from the Phoenix Coyotes’ prospects. What made the Coyotes so successful was that they had a scorer-by-committee strategy. No one player stood out among his peers, but rather, a group effort put forward to produce. The Pirates will miss goaltending from Chad Johnson, who split time as a starter with Mark Vistentin, but Portland should be able to keep consistency.
4. BRIDGEPORT SOUND TIGERS
Bridgeport will again be a breeding ground for the Isles’ top young prospects. 2012-13 leading scorer Brock Nelson will try to replicate his breakout campaign, this time alongside potential contributors Kirill Kabanov and Ryan Strome. The back end will need some work, but newly turned pro and 2012 draft pick Griffin Reinhart should help stabilize the defense. Still, the Islanders’ dynamic roster calls for their high-end prospects to play now. This might mean another season of constant call-ups and send-downs in Bridgeport.
5. SPRINGFIELD FALCONS
Much like their NHL affiliate, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Springfield Falcons enjoyed a successful 2013-13 season, finishing second in the Eastern Conference. Led by top-scoring forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, the Falcons made an appearance in the postseason for the first time in 10 years. Now, the pressure is on to prove that last season wasn’t an anomaly. In his second season as a head coach, Ben Larsen will have the heavy duties to produce a better result with a more watered-down roster.
6. HARTFORD WOLF PACK
No longer the Connecticut Whale, the Hartford Wolf Pack re-emerges after a three-year hiatus away from the AHL. After just missing out on the playoffs last season, the Wolf Pack should have a reloaded roster of prospects fresh from the New York Rangers organization. If he’s in the AHL this season, expect USHL standout Brady Skjei to be a force on the Wolf Pack’s blue line. Under the leadership of Ken Gernander, who is going into his seventh year as a head coach, the Wolf Pack are looking to get back into the postseason.
7. WORCESTER SHARKS
It has been a trying few years for the Worcester Sharks, a team that hasn’t seen the playoffs since the 2009-10 season. The pressure is on for Roy Sommer, the Sharks’ head coach since the team’s rebirth from the Icecats in 2006, to succeed more than ever. With a prospect pool that is dwindling, the Sharks will need one of their team’s veterans to lead the way. Creating more offense will be critical, too. The 2012-13 squad scored only 191 goals, the fewest in team history.
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.