AHL grads battling for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2015 Stanley Cup Final is set with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks preparing to battle for the National Hockey League’s championship, and more than 80 percent of the players involved are graduates of the American Hockey League.

On the Eastern Conference champion Lightning, 21 of the 24 players to skate in a game so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including four former Calder Cup champions and 13 former members of the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate since 2012-13.

Tyler Johnson, whose 12 goals and 21 points both lead the NHL during the 2015 playoffs, was the AHL’s most valuable player in 2012-13 and joined Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Mark Barberio on the 2012 Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals.

That Admirals team, which won a professional hockey record 28 consecutive games to end the 2011-12 regular season, was coached by Jon Cooper, who won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach. Cooper was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the top coach in the NHL last season.

Palat was the leading postseason scorer in the AHL in 2013, racking up 26 points in 18 games as Syracuse reached the Calder Cup Finals. Johnson, Barberio, J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov, Andrej Sustr and Cedric Paquette were all members of that Crunch squad as well.

Ben Bishop, 12-8 with a 2.15 GAA and a .920 save percentage this postseason for Tampa Bay, was 91-68-10 with nine shutouts in 175 career AHL appearances and was MVP of the 2012 AHL All-Star Game.

Nikita Kucherov made his professional debut with Syracuse last fall and recorded 13 goals and 11 assists in just 17 games before graduating to Tampa Bay, where he tallied 29 goals and 36 assists during the 2014-15 regular season.


On the other side, the Western Conference champion Blackhawks boast 17 AHL graduates among their 23 players to have dressed for game action in the playoffs, including 12 former members of the Rockford IceHogs.

Patrick Sharp, a Calder Cup champion with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005, is one of 127 players in history to win both a Calder Cup and a Stanley Cup, winning titles with the Blackhawks in 2010 and 2013.

Duncan Keith, who entered the Stanley Cup Final with 2-16-18 and a plus-13 rating in 17 games for Chicago this spring, played two full seasons in the AHL with Norfolk (2003-05) before moving on to the Blackhawks.

Goalie Corey Crawford played 255 games with Norfolk and Rockford over five AHL seasons from 2005-10, winning at least 22 games each year and posting a record of 135-98-13 with eight shutouts.

The Blackhawks are led by head coach Joel Quenneville, a former player, assistant coach and head coach in the American Hockey League. Hawks assistant coach Mike Kitchen is also a former player and assistant in the AHL, and assistant Kevin Dineen was the AHL’s coach of the year in 2005-06 with the Portland Pirates.

The 2015 Stanley Cup Final gets underway on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

In operation since 1936, the AHL continues to serve as the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 88 percent of all of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and nearly 350 players skated in both the AHL and the NHL during the 2014-15 season alone.