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AHL alumni ready to battle for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens are ready to face off for the Stanley Cup, and the finalists’ rosters are stocked with AHL All-Stars, Calder Cup winners and other graduates of the American Hockey League.

Tampa Bay’s run to the Final – their second in a row and third in seven years – has been sparked by AHL alumni, as 19 of the 22 Lightning players to dress for a game this postseason have come through the American Hockey League. Thirteen of those players 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 the NHL 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 JohnsonAlex 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. Current Lightning assistant Rob Zettler guided that team to the championship series after Cooper joined Tampa Bay.

Syracuse also reached the Finals in 2017, with a lineup that included Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde, whose shorthanded goal on Friday gave the Lightning a 1-0 Game 7 win over the New York Islanders. Gourde skated in 298 games over parts of six American Hockey League seasons before becoming a 20-goal scorer in the NHL.

Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, the top two scorers in the NHL this postseason, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, with a 1.99 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and four shutouts in 18 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. Erik Cernak, Ross Colton and Mathieu Joseph also started their road to the NHL with the Crunch.

Four Lightning players were AHL All-Stars during their development years, including Johnson (2013), Gourde (2017), Barclay Goodrow (2016) and Curtis McElhinney (2007, 2013).

Other AHL alumni with the Lightning include Ryan McDonagh, Blake Coleman, David Savard 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.

The Montreal Canadiens — whose AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket, won the Canadian Division title in 2020-21 — show 22 AHL graduates among their 24 playoff participants, led by former Calder Cup Playoffs MVP Carey Price. Price, who is 12-5 with a 2.02 GAA and a .934 save percentage this postseason, was 19 years old when he backstopped the Hamilton Bulldogs to the AHL championship in 2007.

Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar also won Calder Cup MVP honors earlier in his career; his 16 goals and 21 points helped the Grand Rapids Griffins to their first title in 2013. And Josh Anderson has a Calder Cup on his resume as well, contributing 12 points in 15 playoff games for the Lake Erie Monsters in 2016.

Tyler Toffoli, Montreal’s leading scorer this postseason, won the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding rookie in 2012-13 when he tallied 28 goals and 51 points in 58 games for the Manchester Monarchs. Toffoli also participated in the AHL All-Star Classic that season, where he was coached on the Eastern Conference squad by current Habs assistant Luke Richardson and the Lightning’s Jon Cooper.

Toffoli is joined by Eric Staal (2005) and Jake Allen (2011, 2014) as former AHL All-Stars on Montreal’s roster, while captain Shea Weber (Milwaukee Admirals, 2006) and Ben Chiarot (St. John’s IceCaps, 2014) both reached the Calder Cup Finals during their time in the AHL.

Cole Caufield’s breakout performance for the Canadiens in these Stanley Cup Playoffs comes after a memorable pro debut with the Laval Rocket in a two-game visit to Toronto back in April. Shortly after he was announced as the winner of the 2021 Hobey Baker Award on Apr. 9, Caufield went out and recorded two goals and an assist in a 5-3 win, and then followed up with another goal – his second game-winner of the weekend – in a 4-3 victory the next afternoon.

Other AHL alumni with the Canadiens include Brendan Gallagher, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Corey Perry, Phillip Danault, Jeff Petry, Paul Byron, Joel Armia, Jake Evans, Brett Kulak, Jon Merrill, Erik Gustafsson, Joel Edmundson and Nick Suzuki, whose first taste of professional hockey was a triple-overtime game with the Chicago Wolves during the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Behind the Canadiens bench, assistant coach Luke Richardson spent four seasons at the helm of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators (2012-16), and Alex Burrows played 107 games with the Manitoba Moose during his 16-year pro career and later served as an assistant with the Laval Rocket from 2018 to 2020.

Both the Lightning and Canadiens have been built by general managers with AHL pedigrees as well. Julien BriseBois spent nine seasons with Montreal before joining Tampa Bay, winning a Calder Cup while overseeing the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007. BriseBois was GM of the Lightning’s AHL affiliates in Norfolk and Syracuse from 2010 to 2019, reaching three more Calder Cup Finals and capturing the title in 2012. Marc Bergevin played 121 games in the AHL in addition to nearly 1,200 in the NHL, and won back-to-back Calder Cups with the Springfield Indians in 1990 and 1991.

The 2021 Stanley Cup Final begins tonight at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

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.