AHL grads to battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup

stanleycup08_250.jpgThe 2008 Stanley Cup Finals are set with the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins preparing to battle it out, and nearly 75 percent of the troops leading the charge are graduates of the American Hockey League.

Of the 21 Pittsburgh players to dress for game action so far this postseason, 16 are AHL alumni, including four who skated for the Penguins’ AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, in 2007-08: forward Tyler Kennedy, defenseman Kris Letang and goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Ty Conklin.

Fleury, who sports a 12-2 record with a 1.70 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage in 14 postseason games this spring, is one of seven Penguins to have played in a Calder Cup Final. Fleury helped backstop Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the AHL’s title series in 2004, a squad that also included current teammates Ryan Whitney, Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik, and which was coached by current Pittsburgh bench boss Michel Therrien.

Additionally, veteran Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar was a 20-year-old rookie for the Portland Pirates when he won a Calder Cup in 1994; Georges Laraque was a Calder Cup finalist as a rookie with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 1997; and Conklin led Hamilton back to the Finals in 2003.

Therrien won a Calder Cup as a player for the Sherbrooke Canadiens in 1985, and he reached the playoffs three straight years (1998-2000) as head coach of Montreal’s AHL affiliates prior to his 2004 championship round appearance with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Pittsburgh assistant coach Mike Yeo was also Therrien’s assistant with the AHL Penguins in 2004, and general manager Ray Shero helped put together the Milwaukee Admirals team that defeated Wilkes-Barre in the Finals that year.

The Western Conference champion Red Wings feature 15 AHL graduates among their 23 players to have seen action this postseason, including former AHL All-Stars Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula, the Grand Rapids Griffins’ top two scorers en route to a conference finals appearance in the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs. Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda was also a member of that Griffins team in 2006.

Darren Helm led Grand Rapids in rookie scoring in 2007-08 and scored his first career NHL goal in Game 2 of the Red Wings’ conference final series against Dallas. Mark Hartigan and Darren McCarty join Helm as members of Detroit’s current playoff squad who also saw action in Grand Rapids this season.

Detroit forward Kirk Maltby won a Calder Cup as a first-year pro with the Cape Breton Oilers in 1993, the same year that goaltender Chris Osgood made his professional postseason debut as a member of the Adirondack Red Wings.

Head coach Mike Babcock, who is making his second appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, began his professional coaching career with the AHL’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and led the team to consecutive Calder Cup Playoff appearances (2001-02), including a franchise-record 95 points in the 2000-01 campaign. Wings assistant coach Todd McLellan made four straight playoff trips and won the 2003 Calder Cup title as bench boss of the Houston Aeros. General manager Ken Holland reached the 1982 Calder Cup Finals as a goaltender for the Binghamton Whalers and was an honorary captain at this season’s AHL All-Star Classic.

The 2008 Stanley Cup Finals get underway on Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

In operation since 1936, the AHL continues to serve as the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 84 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and this season marks the seventh consecutive year in which more than 6 million fans have attended AHL games across North America.