The American Hockey League exists to develop prospects. That’s not limited to players, and Rocky Thompson’s three seasons leading the Wolves are a perfect example.
Thompson, who is expected to coach the Golden Knights’ new Nevada-based AHL affiliate next season, went 113-71-18-11 with the Wolves. In that time, the team won two division titles and the 2019 Western Conference championship, growing Thompson’s reputation and further establishing him as a potential NHL head coach.
Thompson didn’t guess how much his profile has increased in the last three years, offering his familiar refrain that he only can control what he can control.
“You try to get better every single day,” said Thompson, whose Wolves tenure ended Monday, when the AHL canceled the remainder of the season. “I really evaluate myself at the end of the day whether I’m doing that or I’m not doing that. I can walk away from this experience in the last three years in Chicago really happy with the evolution of where I am as a coach, and that I continue to move in the right direction and I continue to learn, which is so important, so when I do get the opportunity at the next level, I’ll be ready for it and I can be successful at it and do the best that I could to get to that position.”
Last summer, Thompson reportedly was linked to an assistant coaching spot with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It wouldn’t be surprising if his name comes up in the rumor mill whenever the NHL offseason begins, and it would be partly because of his three seasons with the Wolves.
Each season had its own vibe.
The 2017-18 season was Thompson’s first with the Vegas organization and the first of the Golden Knights-Wolves partnership. That team, however, had a handful of prospects from the Blues, who didn’t have an exclusive affiliate. Thompson admitted he had to earn the trust of the St. Louis players, a process that likely led to the team’s slow start. But a fast finish led to a 42-23-7-4 season and a division title.
The 2018-19 Wolves were one of the AHL’s most talented teams but faced their own
issues. Brandon Pirri played only 29 AHL games, top prospect Erik Brannstrom was dealt to the Senators and key scorers Daniel Carr, Brooks Macek and Tomas Hyka missed significant time. Still, the Wolves went 44-22-6-4 and came within three wins of the Calder Cup.
“The things that have impressed me [are] the opportunities the young players have received, the ability to have a team jell,” Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said of Thompson during last year’s playoffs. “We’ve got great veteran leadership on this team, but that starts with the coach, in my opinion.”
Then this abbreviated season brought new challenges. The Wolves were considerably younger, and their roster was a revolving door. Recognizing this, Thompson and the coaching staff had to do more hands-on work, getting the team to 27-26-5-3 and in contention for a playoff spot when the season was halted.
Each team was distinct, and Thompson picked something up from the different challenges.
“Every year, you learn so much when you’re running a team,” Thompson said. “The culture is always something I felt was a big strength of mine.”