Pacific Division’s greatest minor-league seasons
Editor’s note: Throughout November, Pucks and Recreation looks back on each NHL franchise’s most memorable season within the minor-league ranks alone. We split our capsules by division, concluding this week with the Pacific Division. All statistics are according to the Internet Hockey Database.
Only the 1994-95 Greensboro Monarchs have won a minor-league title in Anaheim’s name. Diluting that ECHL title’s flavor, it came when the Mighty Ducks and Quebec Nordiques split the Greensboro affiliation.
Conversely, in 2006, an AHL team across the country gave the Ducks brass a glimpse of things to come. While Anaheim reached the third round of its postseason, the Portland Pirates did the same.
That they went that deep was little surprise on the heels of 114 points, the second-most in the league. Dustin Penner and Ryan Shannon were the top two scorers on that force.
For the playoffs, the Pirates infused up-and-coming prospects Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. Anaheim’s reigning No. 2 draft choice, Ryan came up from major junior and logged eight points in 19 postseason games.
Portland lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in overtime to the eventual champion Hershey Bears. But a year later, Getzlaf, Penner, Perry, Ryan and Shannon all raised the Stanley Cup at the Honda Center.
The Jets/Coyotes have no minor-league championships to call exclusively their own. In 1999, the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves had Phoenix and Los Angeles ties when they won a thriller over Richmond.
Six years prior, the Fort Wayne Komets won the IHL’s Turner Cup as a partial Winnipeg and Detroit affiliate. Most of the roster, though, was independent, and had a greater permeation of Red Wings prospects than Jets.
Likewise, as the name suggests, the 1985 Calder Cup champion Sherbrooke Canadiens were predominantly Montreal farmhands. But if nothing else, Jets draftee Murray Eaves was that team’s third-leading scorer in both the regular season and postseason.
After winning the 1987 Turner Cup as Calgary’s secondary affiliate, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles upgraded their Flames partnership. Late in the subsequent regular season, they brought up a searing prospect named Theo Fleury from major junior.
With 11 goals and 16 points in eight appearances by Fleury, the Eagles duplicated their playoff success. They won a seven-game barnburner against Peoria, then a pair of six-game sets over Colorado and Flint to retain their crown.
The next season, Fleury played 40 more IHL games before permanently moving up to the top level. He would be a key contributor to Calgary’s Stanley Cup triumph 12 months after raising the Turner.
Two times, split by one decade, the Oilers shared a minor-league championship runner-up with the Montreal Canadiens. Before the 2002-03 Hamilton Bulldogs fell one win short of the Calder Cup, there were the 1992-93 Wheeling Thunderbirds.
In the first year of pro hockey in West Virginia, Wheeling finished first in the 15-team ECHL. The regular-season East Division champions matched their feat in the playoffs, vanquishing Johnstown and Raleigh. But the West Division titans from Toledo cut their Riley Cup bid short in six games.
That run ended in a 7-6 overtime loss on April 18, but Edmonton’s prospects carried on in Cape Breton. The AHL Oilers, who finished third in the Atlantic Division, stunned Fredericton and St. John’s in a combined nine games.
Needing a best-of-three win over Springfield to reach the final, the Oilers swept the Indians with 4-3 and 9-3 victories. To start the Calder Cup Final, they lost Game 1 in overtime to the fresh-legged Rochester Americans, who had earned a semifinal bye. But Cape Breton regrouped and won four straight, clinching at their Nova Scotia home in a 7-2 Game 5 blowout.
Los Angeles: 1974-75
In the final year of the professional Western League, the Portland Buckaroos lost the playoff final to Phoenix. Much of their core group was L.A. property, and subsequently transferred to the AHL’s Springfield Kings.
Shared with the California Seals, the 1974-75 Kings would change their nickname to the Indians at midseason. Nonetheless, they retained a roster of predominantly L.A. farmhands en route to the Calder Cup. Ex-Buckaroos who redeemed their WHL loss the year prior included goaltender Rick Charron and four key skaters.
As it happened, the Kings and Seals also split an affiliation with the Central League’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles. With mostly California hopefuls, but also L.A. prospects John Healey and Scott Seagrist, Salt Lake won its 1975 playoff.
As a bonus, though in California’s system at the time, Charlie Simmer was among those Eagles. Simmer would later become one-third of L.A.’s Triple Crown Line.
San Jose: 1991-92
The Sharks have but two championships in their organization’s history, and they got their first in a hurry.
Adopting the second-year Kansas City Blades franchise as an IHL partner, San Jose watched its prospects finish first. Goaltenders Arturs Irbe and Wade Flaherty nabbed the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s top tandem.
Irbe, who would play 183 games for the Sharks, assumed full control of the crease for the Turner Cup playoffs. With 116 points securing home ice throughout, the Blades took five games to dump the Golden Eagles. In the West Division final, they missed two chances to close out Peoria before clinching in Game 6.
The championship round went quicker, as Kansas City swept Muskegon with a 22-12 aggregate scoring difference.
Nearly a quarter-century would elapse before the Allen Americans won the Kelly Cup in San Jose’s name. Coincidentally, the Sharks reached their first Stanley Cup Final that same spring of 2016.
When the Central Hockey League was a Triple-A circuit, two shared Vancouver affiliates won the playoff title. The 1975-76 Tulsa Oilers prevailed with a blend of Canucks and Atlanta Flames hopefuls. Three years later, the Dallas Black Hawks did the same as a mixed Canucks/Edmonton Oilers prospect pool.
Of those teams, Tulsa had more voluminous and visible Vancouver influence. Whereas future Edmonton coach John Muckler directed Dallas, soon-to-be Canucks bench boss Orland Kurtenbach led Tulsa.
As the Oilers racked up a CHL-leading 100 points in 1975-76, Canucks farmhands Jim Wiley, Andy Spruce and Dave Gloor constituted their top three scorers. Veteran Leon Rochefort, who was wrapping up his career after spending his final two NHL seasons in Vancouver, placed fourth on the leaderboard.
Another Canucks hopeful, Brad Gassoff, led Tulsa with 11 points in the postseason. Over that nine-game run, the Oilers swept rival Oklahoma City and topped Dallas in the final, 4-1.
Yes, this last one is an uncontested race, but it is what it is.
Before the Fort Wayne Komets signed on as their ECHL team for this season, the Golden Knights had only an AHL partner. The 2017-18 Chicago Wolves went 42-23-11, topping a tightly contested Central Division with 95 points.
But whereas the parent club went on an unlikely run to Stanley Cup Final, the Golden Knights prospects met a premature playoff exit in 2018. The Rockford Ice Hogs swept the Wolves in a best-of-five division semifinal.