Andrew MacDonald, getting here with a little help from my friends.
About a month ago in a short article on the AHL's official site, it was announced that Mark Wotton would be returning for a fifth season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Wotton, the 36 year old veteran of 13+ AHL campaigns, will be the captain of the Sound Tigers for the fifth season. Why does this matter? Why am I writing about a journeyman career AHLer that has played in a total of 43 NHL games and hasn't seen an NHL rink in over a decade?
Because he's hockey's answer to Crash Davis, the savvy vet that knows all the tricks and all the cliches. He's the player that serves as a mentor to the young guns coming up through the ranks. This coming season his role will be especially important because of a young roster in Bridgeport that will include several prospects the Islanders are high on. I wanted to take a closer look at Wotton and the development program in Bridgeport. I had a chance to talk to Bridgeport Head Coach Jack Capuano about his captain and the coming season in Bridgeport.
Over the past four seasons in Bridgeport, Wotton has played mentor to many of the Islanders prospects including Andrew MacDonald (2007-2010), Dustin Kohn (2008-2010), Jack Hillen (2008-2009), Frans Nielsen (2006-2008), Kyle Okposo (2008). The praise these guys give to Wotton shows how important a leader he is, like what Okposo told Chris Botta back in November:
"Mark Wotton is the man," said Okposo. "What a great person... Some of our fans may not know about a lot about Mark, but I can tell you he played a big part in my development in Bridgeport - just like all the coaches. I can’t thank Wotts enough."
Okposo is not alone in his praise of Wotton. Andy MacDonald, Dustin Kohn, Jack Hillen and Blake Comeau have all at one time or another noted how important Wotton's presence was in their development not only as players but as men. Something right must be going on down in Bridgeport.
I wanted to delve deeper into why Bridgeport has been so successful at developing talent for the Islanders in recent year and Mark Wotton's role in that. I had the opportunity talk to Bridgeport Head Coach Jack Capuano about his captain and the Sound Tigers:
Lighthouse Hockey - You've coached Mark Wotton for four years, one as an assistant and three as head coach of the Sound Tigers. What has made this partnership work so well?
Jack Capuano - The one word that comes to mind about Wots is professionalism. He has the ability to get the guys close together and leads by example. He's also a great person on and off the ice, terrific in the community and a great father.
LH - Several of the young players that have went on to have success in the NHL like Kyle Okposo and Andrew MacDonald, praised Mark for helping in their development. How important is it to have a someone like him around?
JC - It's very important. As a coach you're trying to learn the players and Mark has that ability. Mark's like a father figure to these guys. He's been around, he's won a championship with Hershey and he's older than most of the other guys on the roster. He tries to pass on that knowledge to the young guys. He has a great heartbeat for the room. He helps the young guys realize that there's a life outside of hockey. He helps the young guys realize the values of life.
LH - With several new players on board for next year including first year pros like Travis Hamonic, how important was it that the organization retained Wotton?
JC - Well first off I don't make personnel decisions. Mr. Snow and Mr. Wang make those as they try to build a winning team and organization. If there was a guy I wanted around it would be him. I don't think there's a guy that has gone through Bridgeport since I've been here that has a bad thing to say about Wots. These young guys look up to him, he's a great teacher and a great coach.
LH - This past season, injuries to the Islanders blueline saw several of your young players called up to the Islanders. Most never really looked out of place in the NHL. How are you able to prepare the players for the NHL?
JC - Video is important, as are gaps, angles, positioning and skill work. One of the most important thing for me is our conditioning level. If players are well conditioned they can make the adjustment to the NHL game easier.
LH - Anything you can tell us about next season? Is there a game plan?
JC - We are a young team, we'll probably be one of the youngest teams in the league. It will be no different then the last three years. I want to get these guys to the Islanders as quick as I can but not rush them. When the Islanders need someone, I have discussions with Mr. Snow about who is ready to bring up.
I want to thank Coach Capuano for taking time out of his schedule to talk with me about his captain.
As Coach Capuano noted, Bridgeport's team next season could be very young and very talented but very green. On the blue line, Travis Hamonic, Mark Katic, Anton Klementyev already on board, Dustin Kohn pssibly getting another year of AHL seasoning (Depending on who Snow brings in via free agency) and the possibility of Calvin de Haan, Blake Kessel and Aaron Ness joining the fold once the NCAA and Junior seasons end, Wotton's leadership and knowledge will be needed there. In the forwards, you're probably going to have Ullstrom, Robin Figren, Justin DiBenedetto and Matt Martin. Wotton's leadership on and off the ice is very important in the development of these young players not only into quality NHL players but quality men.
In my personal observations of the Sound Tigers, I've noticed a change in both MacDonald and Kohn during their AHL careers. It was a seemingly small gesture by both Kohn and MacDonald early in this past season that made me realize both had "got it." It was the fourth game of the season at home versus Worcester. Mikko Koskinen was making save after save to keep the Sound Tigers in the game. After each goal Bridgeport scored, Kohn and MacDonald each went over to Koskinen and tapped him on the pads and gave him a few words of encouragement and thanks. In the previous two years of watching both guys play, I can't remember ever having seen them do that (It doesn't mean that they had not), but it was definitely something I remember Wotton doing. Incidentally, that was Koskinen's second game after which he required hip surgery that kept him out the majority of the season.
When Mark Wotton finally decided it's time to hang up the skates I hope that the Islanders find a place for him in the organization. He has shown his worth and has the makings of a terrific coach. He commands the respect of his fellow players and is an excellent teacher. That's why Mark Wotton is important.