SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars are ready to face off for the Stanley Cup, and the conference champions’ rosters are stocked with AHL All-Stars, Calder Cup winners and other graduates of the American Hockey League.
Tampa Bay’s Eastern Conference championship run – their second in six years – has been sparked by AHL alumni, as 22 of the 24 Lightning players to dress for a game this postseason have come through the American Hockey League. Fourteen of those skaters developed in the Tampa Bay system playing for their top affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper spent nearly three years coaching Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate before his promotion to Tampa Bay in 2013. Cooper won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach in 2011-12, the year he led the Norfolk Admirals to a Calder Cup championship with a team that included Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat.
Johnson and Palat returned to the Calder Cup Finals in 2013 with Syracuse, capping a year in which Johnson won AHL MVP honors and Palat led the AHL in playoff scoring with 26 points in 18 postseason games. Syracuse also reached the Finals in 2017, with a lineup that included Yanni Gourde, Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Cirelli, who scored the Lightning’s conference final series-winning overtime goal on Thursday night.
Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, two of the top three scorers in the NHL this postseason, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, with a 1.82 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 19 playoff starts, all began their professional careers in Syracuse. Kucherov opened the 2013-14 season with the Crunch and collected 24 points in 17 games before graduating to the Lightning; Point was 19 years old when he debuted with Syracuse at the end of the 2014-15 season; and Vasilevskiy posted a .923 save percentage in 37 AHL appearances over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns.
Six Lightning players were AHL All-Stars during their development years, including Johnson (2013), Gourde (2017), Stephens (2018), Barclay Goodrow (2016), Braydon Coburn (2006) and Curtis McElhinney (2007, 2013).
Other AHL alumni with the Lightning include Ryan McDonagh (Hartford Wolf Pack), Kevin Shattenkirk (Lake Erie Monsters), Blake Coleman and Patrick Maroon, who played 353 games in the American Hockey League over his first five pro seasons – including two years in Syracuse when they were affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks.
And Jon Cooper’s three assistant coaches are all AHL graduates as well: Todd Richards won Calder Cups as a player with the Springfield Indians (1991) and as an assistant with the Milwaukee Admirals (2004) before reaching the Finals as head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (2008); Jeff Halpern was an assistant coach on Syracuse’s Finals team in 2017; and Derek Lalonde joined the Lightning after two seasons as head coach of the AHL’s Iowa Wild (2016-18).
The Western Conference champion Stars show 21 AHL graduates among their 25 playoff participants, including 14 former Texas Stars and six who spent time in Cedar Park during the 2019-20 season – most notably forwards Denis Gurianov and Joel Kiviranta.
Gurianov, whose overtime goal on Monday clinched the Western Conference Final for Dallas, spent some time in Texas earlier this season after an All-Star campaign with the AHL Stars in 2018-19. He went on to score 20 goals for Dallas during the 2019-20 regular season and has added 17 points in 21 postseason games entering the Stanley Cup Final, including his four-goal night vs. Calgary on Aug. 20.
Kiviranta, the hero of Dallas’s Game 7 win in the Second Round when his hat trick helped eliminate Colorado, skated in 48 games for Texas in 2019-20 and notched 12 goals and 11 assists. He made his NHL debut with the Stars on Jan. 3, 2020, and totaled one goal in 11 regular-season NHL games.
Jamie Benn, a member of the Stars organization since he was drafted in 2007, has 18 points in 21 games for Dallas so far this postseason. Benn spent the 2010 playoffs with Texas and tied an AHL rookie record with 14 goals, helping the club reach the Calder Cup Finals. Radek Faksa and Jamie Oleksiak were members of Texas’s Calder Cup championship team in 2014, while Gurianov, Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz were on the AHL Stars team that reached the Finals in 2018.
Anton Khudobin, 12-6 with a .920 save percentage in 19 appearances for Dallas this postseason, played 200 games in the AHL over parts of eight seasons between 2007 and 2017, most recently with the Providence Bruins. Khudobin was an AHL All-Star in 2010; other AHL All-Stars on Dallas’s roster include Esa Lindell (2016), Jamie Oleksiak (2013) and Ben Bishop (2012).
Other AHL alumni with the Stars include Alexander Radulov (Milwaukee Admirals), Blake Comeau (Bridgeport Sound Tigers), Corey Perry, Joe Pavelski and veteran defensemen Taylor Fedun and Joel Hanley, who have each played more than 350 games in the American Hockey League.
Behind the bench, interim head coach Rick Bowness began his long coaching career in 1982-83 as a player/coach for the AHL’s Sherbrooke Jets; he later served as head coach of the Moncton Hawks (1987-89) and Maine Mariners (1989-91). His assistants in Dallas include AHL Hall of Famer John Stevens, who won three Calder Cups as a player and another as head coach of the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005; Todd Nelson, one of three people in history to win Calder Cups as a player (Portland Pirates, 1994), as an assistant coach (Chicago Wolves, 2008), and as a head coach (Grand Rapids Griffins, 2017); and Derek Laxdal, who won a championship playing with the Springfield Indians in 1990 and coached Texas to the Calder Cup Finals in 2018.
Both the Lightning and Stars have been built by general managers with AHL pedigrees as well. Julien BriseBois was general manager of the Hamilton Bulldogs from 2007-10 and of Tampa Bay’s affiliates in Norfolk and Syracuse from 2010 to 2019, reaching three Calder Cup Finals and winning the title in 2012. And Jim Nill spent 19 seasons in a player development role with the Detroit Red Wings, serving as GM of the Grand Rapids Griffins’ Calder Cup championship team in 2013 (defeating Syracuse in the Finals).
The 2020 Stanley Cup Final begins Saturday night at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
In operation since 1936, the AHL serves as the top development league for all 31 National Hockey League teams. Nearly 90 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and more than 100 honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame spent time in the AHL in their careers.