By Kyle Kujawa –
In the American Hockey League, having a strong group of veterans is essential for success on the ice.
Not including goaltenders, the AHL permits teams to play five players who have more than 260 games of professional experience, which includes the NHL, AHL, IHL and European elite leagues. As it stands right now, the team’s veteran core will look very different next season.
Each of the five veterans who finished the season in Grand Rapids are set to hit the open market on July 1, meaning the first few weeks of unrestricted free agency will be just as important for the Griffins as it is for the parent Detroit Red Wings.
Even if there is a lot of activity in July, there’s a good chance the Griffins won’t know who their veterans are until training camp. Forwards Tomas Tatar (who sits just over the veteran limit at 261 professional games played) and Joakim Andersson (272 games played) will be in the mix for full-time roster spots in Detroit, but could easily be returned to the AHL because both are exempt from waivers.
The same applies for Fabian Brunnstrom, who is an unrestricted free agent with 284 pro games under his belt. If any of those three return, Grand Rapids could slot them into a sixth veteran spot (unused by the team in 2011-12) reserved for players with 320 or fewer games of professional experience. Otherwise, that spot could be occupied by Francis Pare, who sits sixth in Griffins’ history with 295 games played and has another year left on his contract.
Each veteran from last year’s crew certainly made a strong case for sticking around for another season, but a number of factors will determine if they reprise their role. The Red Wings will have the final say on who gets an NHL contract, and may see fit to keep one around for depth on the big club’s roster. Additionally, others could be looking to secure a contract with an organization that isn’t as deep as Detroit, potentially on a one-way deal, or look to Europe as an alternative path to further their pro hockey career.
Chris Conner was up and down in his first year with the organization, and he enjoyed the luxury of being able to see his family in Plymouth, Mich., more often, whether he was in Grand Rapids or Detroit. The energetic and skilled forward is the youngest of the five and definitely did not look out of place during NHL call-ups. If he can’t be promised an NHL deal elsewhere, it seems likely that Detroit would have the inside track on a two-way contract due to location.
Captain Garnet Exelby has the most NHL experience of the bunch at 408 games, and he posted a career offensive year while providing his trademarked reliable, physical game in the defensive zone. His serious demeanor but light-hearted attitude in the locker room makes him a valuable role model to the team’s young defensemen, and his experience was called upon when Detroit selected him as a “black ace” for their playoff run.
Doug Janik is in a similar boat as Exelby, as he provides Detroit with NHL-ready depth and sets a good example with his proficiency at each end of the ice. After bouncing around between three different organizations (and their AHL affiliates) during the 2008-09 season, it’s obvious that Janik has enjoyed the stability that three seasons in Grand Rapids has offered.
Jamie Johnson enjoyed a bounce-back campaign, eclipsing last season’s goal totals in just 27 games and tying with Tatar and Gustav Nyquist for the team scoring lead. The 30-year-old spent his first two professional seasons in the ECHL and has cemented himself as the type of consistent scorer that AHL teams push their NHL affiliates to lock up.
Chris Minard will be the first to tell you that his 2010-11 offensive output was not up to snuff, and after missing the first half of this season with a concussion, many doubted if he could regain his form. But the sharp-shooting forward won Reebok/AHL Player of the Month in his first full month back and recorded a team-high three hat tricks en route to capturing the Fred T. Hunt Award for his comeback efforts.
The Griffins’ strong veteran group was instrumental in helping the team become the AHL’s second-best offensive team in 2011-12. They trailed only Norfolk, which won 43 of their final 46 games en route to capturing the Calder Cup with a four-game sweep of Toronto.
With five or six spots open for next season, the Griffins will face difficult decisions as they try to balance familiar faces against fresh ones.