AHL grads set to battle for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2012 Stanley Cup Final is set with the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils preparing to battle for the National Hockey League’s championship, and more than 80 percent of the players, coaches and managers involved are graduates of the American Hockey League.

The Western Conference champion Kings are guided by head coach Darryl Sutter, a former AHL forward. In 1979-80, Sutter won the Dudley "Red" Garrett Award as the AHL’s rookie of the year, tallying 35 goals and 31 assists in 69 games and helping the New Brunswick Hawks all the way to the Calder Cup Finals.

Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall is also a former AHL rookie of the year, winning the award with the Hershey Bears in 1985-86 — one year before capturing the Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies in Philadelphia.

Assistant coach John Stevens was a 2012 inductee into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame. The former defenseman won three Calder Cups during his playing career — with Hershey in 1988 and as captain in Springfield in 1991 and Philadelphia in 1998 — and was the head coach of Philadelphia’s Calder Cup winning team in 2005.

Stevens’ two young guns on that Phantoms club seven years ago were 20-year-old forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who are teammates again on the Kings this postseason. Carter led the entire AHL in goals (12) and points (23) during the 2005 playoffs, while Richards chipped in with 15 points in 14 games.

Nineteen of the 22 Los Angeles players to dress in a game so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including nine who came up through the Kings’ AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs. Captain Dustin Brown, Los Angeles’s leading scorer in these playoffs, was an AHL All-Star in 2004-05, recording 29 goals and 45 assists in 79 games and helping the Monarchs to a division title. Jonathan Quick played parts of two seasons (2007-09) in Manchester, registering 17 wins and three shutouts.

Slava Voynov, a two-time AHL All-Star, is one of four current Kings who played in Manchester this season. Dwight King (50 games), Jordan Nolan (40 games) and Andrei Loktionov (32 games) also skated in the Queen City in 2011-12.

Jarret Stoll reached the Calder Cup Finals with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2003, and Rob Scuderi followed with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2004. Dustin Penner was a Second Team AHL All-Star after scoring 39 goals and 84 points in 57 games for the Portland Pirates in 2005-06.

The Eastern Conference champion Devils boast 19 AHL graduates among their 23 players to have seen game action in the playoffs, including 14 who developed in New Jersey’s AHL system and six who skated for the Albany Devils in 2011-12. Adam Henrique, whose overtime goal clinched the conference championship for New Jersey, scored 25 goals as a rookie with Albany a year ago. Stephen Gionta, Albany’s captain the last three seasons, made his NHL season debut in New Jersey’s regular-season finale on Apr. 7 and has gone on to notch seven points in 18 playoff contests. Peter Harrold, Steve Bernier, Jacob Josefson and Tim Sestito all played for the Devils’ AHL affiliate this season as well.

Devils captain Zach Parise was an AHL All-Star in 2005 — teammates on the PlanetUSA squad with Dustin Brown and Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov. Patrik Elias represented the Albany River Rats at the AHL All-Star Classic in 1997, and Andy Greene and Peter Harrold were AHL All-Stars at the 2007 mid-season event.

David Clarkson was a 20-goal scorer with the Lowell Devils in 2006-07, the same year Ryan Carter put up 16 goals and 20 assists as a rookie for the Portland Pirates. Petr Sykora scored 20 goals for Albany in 1996-97, a mark he reached 11 times in the NHL since then. And three-time Stanley Cup champion Martin Brodeur spent his rookie season with the AHL’s Utica Devils in 1992-93, helping them to a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

New Jersey assistant coaches Larry Robinson, Adam Oates and Dave Barr are all former Calder Cup champions. Robinson was a 20-year-old rookie with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs when they won the AHL championship in 1972, the year before the future Hall of Famer began his 20-year NHL playing career. Oates was also a rookie when he notched 21 points in 17 playoff games to help the Adirondack Red Wings to the Calder Cup in 1986. And Barr was the general manager of the 2003 Houston Aeros team that won the Calder Cup in a seven-game Finals victory over Hamilton.

The 2012 Stanley Cup Final gets under way on Wednesday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

In operation since 1936, the American Hockey League continues to serve as the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 88 percent of all players competing in the NHL are AHL graduates, and through the years the American Hockey League has been home to more than 100 honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The AHL’s own championship series, the 2012 Calder Cup Finals, begins on Friday with the Norfolk Admirals (top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning) hosting the Toronto Marlies (top affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs).