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AHL Weekly: Coaches continue climbing

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The American Hockey League’s role in developing the NHL stars of tomorrow is well documented. However, the AHL also serves as an important training ground for future NHL coaches, and the promotion of Davis Payne from the Peoria Rivermen to head coach of the St. Louis Blues on Saturday is only the latest example of a trend that’s been building for years.

Payne becomes the seventh head coach to be named an NHL head coach directly from the same post in the AHL since Nov. 22, 2007, when Bruce Boudreau went from the Hershey Bears to the Washington Capitals. In between, Atlanta’s John Anderson (from Chicago), the N.Y. Islanders’ Scott Gordon (from Providence), Ottawa’s Cory Clouston (from Binghamton), Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma (from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and Colorado’s Joe Sacco (from Lake Erie) have all gotten their first NHL head coaching gigs straight from the ranks of the AHL. All told, 22 of the 30 current NHL bench bosses previously coached in the American Hockey League, including six who won the Calder Cup in their AHL days.

Due in no small part to the impressive graduation rates of both AHL head and assistant coaches to the NHL in recent years, there are currently nine first-year AHL head coaches behind benches around the league, including Payne’s interim replacement in Peoria, former AHL and NHL goaltender Rick Wamsley. Additionally, there are three head coaches new to their team this year, and two others – Springfield’s Rob Daum and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Todd Reirden – in their first full season after taking over midway through the 2008-09 campaign.

The list of first-year bench bosses is headlined by Hershey’s Mark French, who has his Bears on a 10-game winning streak and atop the entire AHL at 27-8-0-2 (56 points). Two other rookie coaches have their squads in first place in their respective divisions as the AHL season nears its halfway point. Guy Boucher’s Hamilton Bulldogs are first in the North Division at 23-9-2-3 (51 points), while Glen Gulutzan’s Texas Stars have led the West Division since late October and currently check in at 20-11-2-4 (46 points).

An assistant coach in New Jersey for the past six seasons, John MacLean took over the Lowell Devils’ head coaching duties this year and has Lowell (21-14-3-0, 45 points) in contention for its first-ever playoff berth, currently ranking third in the tight Atlantic Division. Don Nachbaur also has the Binghamton Senators (15-15-3-1, 34 points) well within range of their first playoff appearance since 2005, while Reirden, who took the helm when Bylsma was promoted to Pittsburgh last February, has guided Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a 6-2-0-0 run, moving the Penguins one point out of second place in the East Division.

David Quinn’s Lake Erie Monsters have won eight of their last nine games; former NHL assistant Dallas Eakins’ Toronto Marlies have won their last two games to climb back to .500 (15-15-3-2); and the San Antonio Rampage are 9-6-1-1 since Ray Edwards took over as head coach on Nov. 23.

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ALL-DECADE … The current issue of The Hockey News, on newsstands today, names Darren Haydar as the AHL Player of the Decade and the American Hockey League’s absorption of six teams from the defunct International Hockey League as the AHL Story of the Decade.

Currently suiting up for Lake Erie, Haydar was the AHL’s highest scorer during the 2000’s, amassing 571 points in 530 regular-season games. He was the AHL’s rookie of the year in 2003, league scoring champion and MVP in 2007 and a Calder Cup winner in 2004 and 2008. Haydar also became the league’s all-time leading playoff scorer and set a league record with a 39-game scoring streak in 2006-07.

The addition of six teams from the IHL in June 2001 paved the way for the AHL to become the sole primary development league for all 30 NHL teams. The five remaining clubs from that expansion – Chicago, Grand Rapids, Houston, Manitoba and Milwaukee – have helped broaden the league’s geographic footprint and have combined for four Calder Cup championships and seven Finals appearances while also setting examples as leading business models off the ice.

DAYS OF AULD LANG SYNE … The calendar year of 2009 was one to remember for Hershey Bears forward Alexandre Giroux, who led all AHL scorers with 54 goals and 102 points in 68 regular-season games. The AHL’s MVP and regular-season scoring champion in 2008-09, Giroux also led all AHL scorers in the postseason as the Bears captured their 10th Calder Cup championship.

The Hamilton Bulldogs’ .665 points percentage was tops in the AHL during calendar year 2009, as the Bulldogs went 51-24-4-3 for 109 points in 82 regular-season games. Hershey (.660) finished second, followed by the Milwaukee Admirals (.631), Hartford Wolf Pack (.630), and Manitoba Moose (.624).

SHARK BITES … Worcester continued its ascent in the league standings last week, posting a perfect 4-0-0-0 mark against four divisional opponents. The Sharks have won six straight overall and are 14-2-0-1 since a franchise-record-tying seven-game losing skid from Nov. 7-20.

Seven different skaters have scored the game-winning goal in Worcester’s last seven victories. Rookie Logan Couture owns a league-high six game-winners, is tied for the AHL rookie lead with 35 points (13-22-35) in just 24 games, and brings an AHL season-high nine-game scoring streak (4-10-14) into the new week. Fellow rookie Benn Ferriero has a point in eight straight outings (5-8-13), and first-year goaltender Alex Stalock paces the league with 20 wins in 29 appearances (20-8-1, 2.34, .911).

ETC. … Hershey’s current 10-game winning streak is one short of the 72-year-old Bears’ franchise-record 11-game run achieved just last season, from Nov. 14 to Dec. 7, 2008… Rob Hisey notched a goal in three of four games (3-1-4) last week after joining Springfield’s lineup… The Falcons’ snapped their 17-game winless slide with a 2-1 win over Providence on Saturday as Devan Dubnyk made 32 saves in his return from Edmonton… Lowell’s Patrick Davis has notched nine of his 10 goals this season (10-14-24) on home ice… Portland rookie Tyler Ennis has registered at least three points in three of his last five contests (3-8-11)… Lake Erie rookie Justin Mercier had gone his first 31 career AHL games without a goal before opening the 2010 portion of the schedule with consecutive two-goal games… Hartford went 3-for-3 in the shootout in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Syracuse after going a cumulative 3-for-21 in losing its first four shootouts of the season… Peoria is 5-2-0-1 in its last eight road games after starting the campaign 3-6-0-1 away from Carver Arena… Albany is 14-1-0-1 this season when it scores the game’s first goal and 5-14-1-1 after allowing it… After playing 12 of their last 16 games on the road, the Abbotsford Heat will play 12 of their next 15 at home beginning Friday… Lowell takes on Hartford this Wednesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the first of two games for the Devils this season at the home of their NHL affiliate… The Allstate Arena crowd of 15,319 for Saturday’s Chicago-Peoria game was the largest in the AHL in 2009-10.