Stanley Cup Final loaded with AHL graduates

Pictured: Pekka Rinne, Jake Guentzel

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators are ready to face off for the Stanley Cup, and more than 94 percent of the players on the conference champions’ rosters are graduates of the American Hockey League.

Pittsburgh and Nashville have two of the league’s longest and most successful relationships with their AHL affiliates over the past two decades. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have reached the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of the last 15 seasons, the longest current run in the AHL (Pittsburgh’s current 11-year streak is the longest in the NHL), all while helping develop players for four Stanley Cup Finalists and two Cup champions to date. The Milwaukee Admirals have won five division titles and appeared in 14 postseasons during their 16 AHL campaigns, and boast 19 alumni on the NHL’s Western Conference champions this year.

On the Eastern Conference champion Penguins, 23 of their 25 players to skate in a game so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including 13 who came through Pittsburgh’s system with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Jake Guentzel, who was voted to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team for 2016-17, is tied for the NHL lead with nine goals during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and is tied for sixth in the league with 16 points through the first three rounds. Guentzel tallied 21 goals and 21 assists for 42 points in 33 games with Wilkes-Barre during the regular season.

Goaltender Matt Murray‘s rise to NHL stardom was highlighted by two outstanding seasons in the AHL, where he was 45-20-4 with a 1.81 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and 16 shutouts in 72 AHL appearances from 2014-16. Two years ago, Murray was named both the AHL’s outstanding rookie (Dudley “Red” Garrett Award) and outstanding goalie (Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award).

Bryan RustConor Sheary, Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney, Josh ArchibaldTom Kuhnhackl and Chad Ruhwedel are all recent additions to the Pittsburgh lineup from Wilkes-Barre as well.

Another Wilkes-Barre graduate is Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan, who was promoted on Dec. 12, 2015, and has now guided the Penguins to back-to-back Finals.

Justin Schultz won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s outstanding defenseman in 2012-13, and former AHL All-Stars on Pittsburgh’s roster include Game 7 hero Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen and Ron Hainsey, who reached the Calder Cup Finals with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2003.

On the other side, the Western Conference champion Predators show 25 AHL graduates on their 26-man roster, including those 19 former Milwaukee Admirals.

Filip Forsberg (8-7-15), who leads Nashville in goals and points this postseason, racked up 34 points in 47 games with Milwaukee during the 2013-14 season. Viktor Arvidsson, a 31-goal scorer during the regular season, was a member of the AHL All-Rookie Team in 2014-15, and Pekka Rinne was a two-time AHL All-Star who backstopped Milwaukee to the Calder Cup Finals in 2006.

Other former Admirals making big contributions include Colton Sissons and Austin Watson, who combined to score five goals in Nashville’s series-clinching over Anaheim in Game 6 of the Western Conference final; Pontus Åberg, who tied for third in the AHL with 31 goals this season before scoring his first career NHL playoff goal — the game-winner — in Game 5 against the Ducks; and homegrown defensemen Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm.

P.K. Subban (2010) and Yannick Weber (2009) were both AHL All-Star blueliners while playing with Hamilton, and Matt Irwin was an All-Star representing Worcester in 2012.

Nashville’s Peter Laviolette is already one of six head coaches ever to win both the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup; he led Providence to the title in 1998-99, the same year he earned AHL coach of the year honors.

When the 2017 Stanley Cup Final gets underway on Monday night at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, it will actually be the second championship series between the organizations. Milwaukee swept Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the 2004 Calder Cup Finals, a series that included both Vernon Fiddler with the Admirals and Marc-Andre Fleury with the Penguins.

Founded in 1936 and now with franchises in 30 cities across North America, the American Hockey League serves as the top development league for the players, coaches, managers, executives and broadcasters of all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 88 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and for the 16th year in a row, more than 6 million fans have attended AHL games in 2016-17.