American Hockey League

Coaches boosting NHL hopes in Calder Cup Playoffs

The American Hockey League has built its reputation on developing players, but that success also extends behind the bench.

Twenty-three current NHL coaches are AHL coaching alumni. More could be on the way with the coaches of the four teams remaining in the Calder Cup Playoffs carrying regular-season success into the postseason.

Western Conference

Dallas Eakins: San Diego (Anaheim Ducks)

Anaheim management has entrusted Eakins with its top prospects for four seasons, and he’s used that time productively as he attempts to work his way back to an NHL job.

In three of those four seasons, the 52-year-old has taken San Diego to at least the second round of the postseason in the highly competitive Pacific Division. This season, San Diego defeated San Jose (San Jose Sharks) before eliminating regular-season division champion Bakersfield (Edmonton Oilers) in six games. San Diego is facing Chicago (Vegas Golden Knights) in the best-of-7 Western Conference Final, which is tied 1-1. Games 3, 4 and 5 are at San Diego, starting Wednesday.

Eakins came to San Diego after going 36-63-14 with the Oilers in 2013-14 and 2014-15. When the Ducks moved their AHL affiliate from Norfolk, Virginia, to San Diego in 2015, they turned to Eakins, who has a 154-95-23 record in four seasons.

But his success has gone beyond wins and losses. Former San Diego players to advance to Anaheim include forward Nick Ritchie and defensemen Brandon Montour and Shea Theodore. His latest crop of talent could play a key role in the Ducks’ rebuilding plan, especially after this playoff run. Among the talented young players in San Diego are forwards Max Comtois, Max Jones, Isac Lundestrom, and Sam Steel.

This is not Eakins’ first successful AHL stint. In four seasons at Toronto, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ affiliate, he was 157-114-41. His teams won two division titles and reached the Calder Cup Final in 2012.

Rocky Thompson: Chicago (Vegas Golden Knights)

Thompson has two division titles in his two seasons as a pro coach.

The Golden Knights selected Thompson to be a key figure in building their AHL program, but he faced a unique challenge. With time needed to begin cycling draft picks into their AHL roster, the Golden Knights had a number of players on loan from the St. Louis Blues last season who had to be blended into the lineup.

But Chicago’s roster this season has been strictly Golden Knights prospects, and the talent pipeline is looking strong. Chicago had a Western Conference-best 98 points while developing young defensemen Nic Hague, Dylan Coghlan and Zach Whitecloud.

Thompson came to Chicago after two seasons with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League. The Golden Knights hired him for their AHL affiliate 10 days after Windsor won the Memorial Cup in 2017.

Thompson is 41 but has 12 seasons of coaching experience. He was an assistant for three seasons with Edmonton of the Western Hockey League, then spent four seasons as an AHL coach in the Oilers organization before taking the same role with the NHL club. He also played 11 pro seasons.

Eastern Conference

Sheldon Keefe: Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Keefe’s name is no secret in hockey circles.

He led Toronto to the Calder Cup last season and has his team in position to become the first repeat champion since Hershey in 2009 and 2010. Though last season ended with a championship, Keefe’s work this season might be even better. Toronto dealt with goaltending instability for much of the first half, a crush of key injuries and a North Division that included the second- and third-best teams in the AHL in Syracuse (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Rochester (Buffalo Sabres).

But Toronto swept Rochester in the first round and Cleveland (Columbus Blue Jackets) in the second to set up a third trip to the Eastern Conference Final in Keefe’s four seasons as coach. Toronto had swept four of six playoff series dating to the beginning of the 2018 postseason before splitting the first two games of the conference final against Charlotte, which took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series with a 5-1 win at Toronto on Tuesday. Games 4 and 5 are at Toronto on Thursday and Friday.

The 38-year-old has a regular-season record of 189-87-28. Among his former players to reach the NHL are forwards William Nylander, Andreas Johnsson, and Frederik Gauthier, and there looks to be more talent on the way to the Maple Leafs.

Mike Vellucci: Charlotte (Carolina Hurricanes)

Vellucci hasn’t needed long to find his footing in the AHL.

In his second AHL season, the 52-year-old won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the league’s outstanding coach after Charlotte led the league with 51 wins and 110 points. Charlotte had the top-ranked penalty kill in the AHL while finishing fifth in goals scored and second in goals against. Charlotte defeated Providence (Boston Bruins) in four games and swept Hershey (Washington Capitals) to get to the conference final against Toronto.

Vellucci spent 14 seasons in the Ontario Hockey League as a coach with Plymouth and twice won the OHL’s Coach of the Year award. His Plymouth alumni include forwards James Neal (Calgary Flames), Tyler Seguin (Dallas Stars), Vincent Trocheck (Florida Panthers) and Tom Wilson (Washington Capitals).

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