While the Detroit Red Wings missed out on the postseason for the first time since the first Bush was president, their AHL-affiliate provided some hope for those in Mo’ Town in 2017-18. Last season, the Griffins brought the Calder Cup back to Grand Rapids for the second time in five seasons and the first for coach Todd Nelson.
The Griffins are part of the old guard, with their lineage dating back before the IHL-AHL merger. Hockey in the Midwest has some strong ties; the Central Division has four former IHL clubs. Since joining the AHL, two former head coaches for Grand Rapids currently hold NHL jobs: Jeff Blashill who was promoted to Detroit’s bench, and Bruce Cassidy is getting a crack at running the Bruins.
With more questions than answers for the 2017-18 Red Wings, expect the Griffins to have a flexible roster for the big club. Right now, four former members of the 2016-17 Grand Rapids team are expected to make it out of training camp for Detroit; including former Rogers High standout, Nick Jensen.
Friday, November 17th at Iowa (Wells Fargo Arena, 19:00 CST)
Sunday, December 10th at Iowa (Wells Fargo Arena, 19:00 CST)
Wednesday, December 13th at Grand Rapids (Van Andel Arena, 18:00 CST)
Friday, December 22nd at Iowa (Wells Fargo Arena, 19:00 CST)
Saturday, February 24th at Grand Rapids (Van Andel Arena, 18:00 CST)
Sunday, February 25th at Grand Rapids (Van Andel Arena, 15:00 CST)
Wednesday, March 14th at Grand Rapids (Van Andel Arena, 18:00 CST)
Saturday, March 17th at Grand Rapids (Van Andel Arena, 18:00 CST)
Friday, March 23rd at Iowa (Wells Fargo Arena, 19:00 CST)
Saturday, March 24th at Iowa (Wells Fargo Arena, 18:00 CST)
Iowa and Grand Rapids add two more games to their slate following the league re-alignment (Charlotte moved to the East). Both clubs will have a full month of hockey under their belt before the two meet in Des Moines in mid-November. Plenty of time for the NHL and AHL rosters to take hold and we see the top performer lists take shape.
Following the late-December match-up, the two clubs will go two months without seeing each other before the bulk of their tilts; hopefully occurring during what could be a playoff push for Lalonde and the Wild.
If you’re around Des Moines, three of the five home games will be $2 beer night (every Friday).
October 18th: Grand Rapids 4 - 3 Iowa
November 4th: Iowa 1 - 4 Grand Rapids
December 2nd: Iowa 4 - 3 Grand Rapids (SO)
January 4th: Iowa 5 - 6 Grand Rapids
January 18th: Grand Rapids 3 - 2 Iowa (OT)
January 25th: Iowa 2 - 1 Grand Rapids
February 10: Grand Rapids 2 - 4 Iowa
February 11th: Grand Rapids 4 - 3 Iowa (SO)
Last season, the Griffins won their first three games and never looked back. They only dipped below .600 eight times; all before December 15th. Under second-year head coach, Todd Nelson, the Grand Rapids finished 47-23-6 (100 pts) and second in the Central Division behind the Chicago Wolves.
Oh, and they won a Calder Cup, their second in five years.
If Todd Nelson sounds familiar, he was given the helm of the sinking ship that was the 2014-15 Edmonton Oilers. The year that led to Connor McDavid. It’s his second stint as a head coach in the AHL (Oklahoma City Barons, 2010-15) and his second go around with the Griffins. As a player, Nelson played 236 games in Grand Rapids and spent one season as an assistant in 2002-03.
If last season was a schoolyard brawl, the Griffins were the bully to Wild’s nerd asking for a wedgie. Iowa got two lucky punches in, but the Griffins took six of eight contests. However, Iowa’s 3-3-2 record against Grand Rapids accounted for eight points, and they were only bested in goal differential by three (26-23).
The worst loss came on January 28th where the Wild scored two power-play goals to open the third period but gave up two in the final ten minutes; they lost in OT, 3-2.
Nobody had more success against Iowa for the Griffins than Matt Lorito. The undrafted winger from Oakville, Ontario scored 8 points (3G/5A) on the Wildlings; doing most of his damage on the power-play. He was GR’s leading scorer last season with 56 points (22G/34A) and is ranked as the Wings’ 5th-best option on the left side for 2017-18.
Both Sam Anas and Mario Lucia led the way for the Baby Wild by scoring five points apiece (2G/3A; 1G/4A). The power-play was huge for Iowa against Grand Rapids as they scored 8 of their 44 total goals on the peepers against their Central Division opponent.
This match-up is an interesting one with Lalonde and the Wild having most of their attention on the defensive side of the puck. Grand Rapids scored 251 goals last season, tied for fifth most in the league with Chicago. On the flip-side, Iowa was one of only five teams to hold the opposition to under 200 goals last year (min. 70 GP).
The NHL.com top five for the Red Wings going into 2017-18 features a few players that will either start or spend the majority of the season with the Griffins. When you’re team is as garbage as Detroit was in 2016-17, you’d hope to have a steady prospect pool that can get you back to postseason form.
With injuries, trades, and the potential departure of Andreas Athanasiou to Russia, a few of these guys just might have to learn to sink or swim at the NHL level.
Evgeny Svechnikov (1st round, #19 - 2015) had a great year for Grand Rapids in his rookie season. He finished third on the team in scoring and fourth among AHL rookies with 51 points (20G/31A). His 12-game point streak was the second longest in the league as he brought home 14 for the Griffins (5G/9A) during the stretch.
He’s been praised as a highly effective winger, but he’s also been knocked as having a one-way style of play. Before you throw jabs the KHL, Svechnikov moved to North America and played a season in the Q before the Red Wings took him in the first round. If he can shore up his D, maybe he’ll have a lasting impact for the team that gave up the most goals in the Atlantic Division in 2016-17.
He’ll be a fringe guy, but don’t expect to see him later on in the AHL season. Roster Resource books him as a health scratch for Detroit and RotoWorld lists him as the fourth-best option on the right wing (maybe higher if Athanasiou holds out). If your ear is to the prospect ground, his brother Andrei is a projected lottery selection for 2018.
Filip Hronek (2nd round, #53 - 2016) starts his North American professional career with Grand Rapids after playing 12 games for the Griffins after his only season in the O with Saginaw. He has a professional pedigree of playing 41 games in the Czech Extraliga, starting as a 17-year-old. FutureConsiderations.ca talked about Hronek in his draft year as a two-way defender with great on-ice awareness and he’s going to get the opportunity to prove it in the A.
The right-handed shot has been a scoring presence for the Czech Junior National Club with 13 points in 23 appearances for the U20 side (he’s still only 19). With Saginaw, he was the Spirit’s second leading scorer with 61 points (14G/47A), though it was in a weak division for a team that didn’t make the postseason (one of only four on the outside in a twenty team league).
It’s no secret that Detroit’s defensive unit is aging out. Only one of their seven projected blueliners is under the age of 25 (Xavier Ouellet), but there is no rush to bring the Czech-native up to the big club for more than a few cups of coffee. Expect him to bide his time playing in the A this season.
Vili Saarijärvi (3rd round, #73 - 2015) is another guy making a jump to a professional blueline with the hope of replacing the dilapidating Red Wings defensive corps. A graduate of Kärpät’s junior program, Saarijärvi moved to the States and played one season in the USHL before being drafted. To better his game, he moved to the OHL where he played with two different clubs in his two seasons. He’s represented his native Finland at every level in their junior system and won a gold medal with the U20s at the 2016 WJCs.
He missed the front half of 2016-17 for Mississauga following wrist surgery but still played well enough in a limited capacity to be nominated for the Max Kaminsky Trophy; the award for the O’s best defenseman. He has tremendous upside if he can find a way to skate with the pros. He’s shown that he’s been an elite player at the junior level, but Detroit will have to let him spend a year in the A to see if he’s ready to get time with the Wings. Another right-handed shot, expect to see him compete with Hronek in Grand Rapids this year.
The two other players on the top five (Michael Rasmussen and Dennis Cholowski) are going to spend their 2017-18 in their respective junior leagues. So who got snubbed/couldn’t crack the top five? Martin Frk was drafted back in 2012 by Detroit but only has two professional contests to his name...with Carolina. He’s only 23, but he has to prove this season that the juice is worth the squeeze.
Robbie Russo re-signed with the Red Wings this summer after helping to win that Calder Cup at age 24, but the management also decided to sign Luke Witkowski, another right-handed shot, that spent 34 games playing for Tampa Bay last season. Both will battle for Ryan Sproul’s bottom spot, who is still recovering from his ACL injury last year.
Up next: Chicago Wolves (Vegas Golden Knights/St. Louis Blues)