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SPRINGBOARD TO SUCCESS

03/02/2018 12:02 AM -

Becoming an AHL playoff MVP often leads to a roster spot in the NHL.

Story and photos by Mark Newman
              
There are many paths to the NHL, but most players pass through the AHL on their way to the world’s foremost hockey league. In fact, 88 percent of all NHL players last season were graduates of the AHL.
              
One sure ticket to the NHL – or as close as one can get to a golden pass – is the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy, the award given annually to the Most Valuable Player of the Calder Cup Playoffs (and named in honor of the man who had the longest tenure of any AHL executive in history, 28 years).
              
First awarded in 1984, the Butterfield Trophy is no guarantee of NHL stardom, but the list of past winners is peppered with a number of solid NHL performers, including Olaf Kolzig, Derek Armstrong and Dixon Ward, among others.
              
Two of the past five winners are current Red Wings. Tomas Tatar was the MVP of the 2013 playoffs when he helped the Griffins win their first Calder Cup by tallying 16 goals in 24 games. Tyler Bertuzzi won the postseason MVP honors last spring when he had 19 points (9-10-19) in 19 games to power Grand Rapids to its second Cup.
              
Although both players can cite the playoffs as their stepping stone to the NHL, their experiences were actually quite different.
              
For Tatar, the 2013 Calder Cup race provided him with his first taste of the playoffs, the team’s first season under the tutelage of Jeff Blashill, who would use his own AHL experience to land a head coaching job in the NHL with the Red Wings.
              
“My first three years in Grand Rapids we didn’t make it into the playoffs, but we had a really good team and we started to believe,” Tatar said. “We went from round to round and all of a sudden, we were in the Finals. Obviously we encountered some frustration, but when things didn’t go our way, we battled through.
              
“We believed in ourselves and never gave up.”
              
Like most MVPs, Tatar was able to elevate his game during his team’s playoff drive.
              
“Even with all the pressure, it was so much fun,” Tatar said. “I can’t describe the feeling. Everything was clicking for me at the time. I felt really loose, just having fun, doing my thing, and I was fortunate to find the puck in the back of the net.”
              
Tatar, who has always been a bit streaky as a scorer, enjoyed probably the best stretch of hockey in his career. He scored at least one goal in exactly half of the Griffins’ playoff contests, including four two-goal games, and his 16 goals were the third-most in AHL history by a player in a single postseason.
              
“I was really young when I started my career in Grand Rapids,” Tatar said. “I was only 18, so I wasn’t ready to play in the NHL. I tried to be patient and learn to play great hockey – how to play the right way – and it paid off for me.”
              
Although honored as the playoff MVP, Tatar gives credit to his teammates for their role in his success.
              
“One cannot win a Cup without everyone contributing,” he said. “We all pulled the same string and had a great time. Playoff hockey is the most fun. The city, the owners, the organization all deserved it, and I was really happy to see the Griffins win it again last year.”
              
For Bertuzzi, the 2017 playoffs marked his third successive strong postseason. He had recorded 13 goals in 18 playoff contests the previous two years before raising his production to a point-a-game clip during the Griffins’ second Calder Cup championship run.
              
“Any time you can get into a playoff run, you’re going to gain experience,” Bertuzzi said. “I was lucky enough to experience three long playoff runs in Grand Rapids and I think it helped my development a lot.”
              
Playoff hockey is decidedly different from the regular season, with a noticeable increase in the intensity surrounding every contest. “You’ve got to be able to elevate your game,” Bertuzzi said. “You learn to battle every night and I think it ultimately helps your play.”
              
Bertuzzi said being a playoff MVP requires a little bit of luck – being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of fortuitous bounces.
              
“When you’re in the playoffs, you’re trying to play really simple, especially late in games,” he said. “You’re trying to be strong in the forecheck, shooting from everywhere, get the puck in, get it out. It’s playing simple and gritty, and being hard to play against.
              
“Our team thrived on playing that way last year.”
              
Although the Butterfield Trophy is given for individual achievement, Bertuzzi said that the award is, in truth, a team honor.
              
“It was obviously a huge honor to receive the award because you work so hard the whole year, but then you think about your linemates and the whole team,” he said. “Being able to hoist the Cup on home ice was even better. I’ll remember it for the rest of my career and the rest of my life. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
              
Other AHL playoff MVPs who have followed Tatar and Bertuzzi to the NHL are Columbus Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand and Philadelphia Flyers center Jordan Weal, who won the Butterfield Trophy as members of the Cup-winning Lake Erie Monsters and Manchester Monarchs, respectively, in 2016 and 2015.
              
A third-round pick (89th overall) in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Bjorkstrand, 22, split last season between Cleveland and Columbus, but the 22-year-old Danish right-winger earned a full-time spot with the Blue Jackets this year. He had nine goals and 20 assists through his first 55 games this season.
              
Weal, 25, a third-round (70th overall) pick of Los Angeles in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, saw his career blossom after getting traded by the Kings to the Flyers organization. He became a point-per-game player with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms last season, tallying 47 points (15-32-47) in 43 games, and he also recorded eight goals and four assists in 23 games with Philadelphia. Weal became a full-time center for the Flyers this season, with seven goals and nine assists in his first 50 games.
              
One of the most notable AHL playoff MVPs of the past decade or so is goaltender Carey Price, who took home the Butterfield Trophy for his performance in helping the Hamilton Bulldogs win the 2007 Calder Cup. At age 19, he became only the third teenage goaltender to be named the AHL’s playoff MVP, posting a 2.06 goals against average and .936 save percentage.
              
A first-round pick (5th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Price compiled a 270-175-44 record in the NHL entering this season. His best season was 2014-15, when his record was 44-15-6 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage, and he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league MVP and the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie.
              
Of course, not all MVPs are so fortunate.
              
Travis Morin, the 2014 Butterfield winner, saw action in six NHL games the following season but has spent the past three seasons in Texas, where he is the Stars’ captain and is now in his ninth year with the organization.
              
Chris Bourque saw action in 19 NHL games with the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals after winning the Butterfield Trophy in 2010 as a member of the Hershey Bears, the same number of games that he has played for Russian teams in the KHL.
              
Bourque, who has spent the past three seasons in Hershey, has also played 60 games in the top Swiss league. The son of Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque, he is a member of the 2018 USA Men’s Olympic Ice Hockey team.
              
Other AHL playoff MVPs include a number of goaltenders who became dependable NHL backups, including Antero Niittymaki (Philadelphia, 2005), Michal Neuvirth (Hershey, 2009) and Robin Lehner (Binghamton, 2011).