AHL alumni ready to battle for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning are ready to face off for the Stanley Cup, and the finalists’ rosters are stocked with graduates of the American Hockey League ― including the first match-up between former Calder Cup-winning head coaches in a Stanley Cup Final since 1975.

Colorado reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001 with key contributions from several AHL alumni, notably head coach Jared Bednar. Bednar spent seven seasons coaching in the AHL before joining the Avalanche in August 2016, just two months after he led the Lake Erie Monsters to the Calder Cup championship. Bednar was also a head coach in Springfield (2014-15) and Peoria (2010-12), in addition to three seasons as an assistant.

Among the Avalanche’s AHL graduates on the ice is Mikko Rantanen, who in 2015-16 was voted co-winner (sharing the honor with Frank Vatrano) of the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding rookie when he recorded 60 points in 52 games as a 19-year-old for the San Antonio Rampage. Rantanen established NHL career highs with 36 goals and 92 points for Colorado this season, and has added 17 points in 14 playoff games entering the Final.

Devon Toews has emerged as one of the top defensemen in the National Hockey League, recording 13 goals and 44 assists along with a plus-52 rating in 66 games for Colorado in 2021-22. Toews, an AHL All-Star as a rookie in 2016-17, played 130 games over parts of three AHL seasons with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

The Colorado Eagles have only been members of the AHL since 2018, but can already call several members of Avalanche among their graduates including Logan O’Connor, Alex Newhook, Bowen Byram and Pavel Francouz, who is a perfect 6-0 this postseason.

Other notable AHL alums on Colorado’s roster include Darcy Kuemper, J.T. Compher, Darren Helm, Josh Manson, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Nico Sturm, Andre Burakovsky and Nazem Kadri, who helped the Toronto Marlies reach the Calder Cup Finals in 2012.

Tampa Bay’s run to the Final – their third in a row and fourth in eight years – has again been sparked by AHL alumni, as 18 of the 22 Lightning players to dress for a game this postseason have come through the American Hockey League. Eleven 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 Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat.

Palat returned to the Calder Cup Finals in 2013 with Syracuse, leading 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.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner, began his North American career in Syracuse, posting a .923 save percentage in 37 AHL appearances over the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point also started their roads to Tampa Bay playing for the Crunch, as did Erik Cernak, Ross Colton and Cal Foote.

Other AHL alumni with the Lightning include Corey Perry, Ryan McDonagh, Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul and Pat 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 2022 Stanley Cup Final begins tonight at Ball Arena in Denver.

In operation since 1936, the AHL serves as the top development league for all 32 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.