By Kyle Kujawa –
Although they weren’t players in the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter sweepstakes, the Grand Rapids Griffins went a long way to filling out their 2012-13 roster with several key free agent acquisitions.
To be more accurate, it’s the Detroit Red Wings who made the splash on the Griffins’ behalf. With full control of player personnel now in the hands of the parent club, the Red Wings are able to sign players to AHL contracts. In addition to several fresh faces coming to Grand Rapids through NHL entry-level contracts, Detroit used AHL contracts to sign several key components for the Griffins, allowing them to add a much-needed veteran influence to a young lineup without burning one of their 50 available NHL contracts.
Here’s a look at some of the new faces who could see time in Grand Rapids.
Adam Almquist, D – The second-to-last player selected in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft moved up the depth chart quicker than expected. An offensive defenseman, Almquist lit up the Swedish junior ranks and arrived in the country’s top professional league earlier than expected, less than six months after he was drafted. With two and a half seasons of SEL experience under his belt, Almquist will ply his trade on North American ice as he hopes to assume a large role on a Griffins blueline that will look much different in October.
Chad Billins, D – Billins co-captained Ferris State to their 2012 NCAA Frozen Four appearance, where they were defeated in the championship game by Boston College. The Marysville, Mich., native spent four seasons with the Bulldogs and is very used to playing in his home state, having played a season of junior hockey with the Alpena IceDiggers. Billins picked up 29 points (7-22—29) as a senior and earned several prestigious accolades – CCHA Scholar-Athlete of the Year, All-CCHA First Team, CCHA RBC Player of the Year, CCHA Best Offensive Defenseman and Lowe’s Senior CLASS All-American Team.
Damien Brunner, RW – Not much is known about where the Swiss scoring sensation will fit into the Red Wings’ lineup. The 26-year-old forward led his country’s National League in scoring last season, tallying 60 points (24-36—60) in 45 games for Zug and earning national attention for a strong performance at the 2012 World Championship in Finland and Sweden. In particular, Mike Babcock is high on the skills of Brunner and expects him to compete for a top-six role in the NHL. However, with a glut of forwards in Detroit and a two-way clause on his contract, there’s the potential that Brunner could see at least a handful of games in Grand Rapids while he adjusts to North America.
Brennan Evans, D – Evans adds size (6-foot-4, 225-pounds) and toughness (1,349 career penalty minutes) to what will be a young Griffins team that will need the services of a 10th year pro. Evans has logged 636 career AHL games but also has two NHL games on his record – a pair of games with the Calgary Flames in their 2004 playoff series against the Red Wings. Not known as much for his offense, Evans has an even 100 points (14-86—100) in his career – three of those goals coming from an unexpected hat trick on February 23, 2011 vs. Texas.
Luke Glendening, RW – The four-year University of Michigan winger became the first Grand Rapids-native to sign with the team when he inked an AHL contract with the organization in June. Glendening was named the CCHA Best Defensive Forward this past season and had a career-best 10 goals. The versatile forward will compete for a regular role on the Griffins as he begins his professional career.
Triston Grant, LW – Grant is a hard-hitting winger with good size who’s no stranger to dropping the gloves, having racked up more than 150 penalty minutes in six of his seven AHL seasons. Grant is known for more than just his fists, though, as he has 10 or more goals in three seasons and was one of two players in the AHL last season to have more than 150 penalty minutes and a double-digit plus-minus rating. He was an integral part of the Oklahoma City Barons’ regular season conference championship.
Tomas Jurco, RW – Losing is not something Jurco is overly familiar with, as his Saint John Sea Dogs won 81.1 percent of their games while he was there. In addition, he helped his team win back-to-back QMJHL President’s Cups (and one Memorial Cup) while appearing in the finals in three straight seasons. Known for his YouTube stickhandling highlights, Jurco is an all-around offensive threat who recorded 68 points (30-38—68) in 48 games last season. Jurco officially signed with the Red Wings organization on Aug. 7.
Petr Mrazek, G – Mrazek adds youth to a crowded minor league crease, where he is expected to compete for a starting job. Mrazek wrapped up a decorated junior career by leading his Ottawa 67’s to the OHL Conference Finals after recording at least 30 saves in 11 of 17 postseason games. Mrazek really rose to prominence at the 2012 World Junior Championship in Calgary and Edmonton, earning a spot on the IIHF tournament All-Star Team and winning the Directorate Top Goaltender Award. Mrazek made 52 saves in an upset over the United States and appeared on highlight reels across the world – mostly for his work between the pipes, but also due to his high-energy celebrations during the game.
Max Nicastro, D – A two-way defenseman with size, Nicastro developed his game in his home state of California before two seasons in the USHL and eventually Boston University. In three seasons on a deep Terriers blueline, Nicastro never managed more than 15 points (as a freshman, which earned him a spot on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team), but his booming shot makes him a threat on the power play, where nearly half of his career collegiate goals came.
Nathan Paetsch, D – Paetsch’s 167 games of NHL experience are the most on the Griffins roster right now, as the offensive defenseman played five seasons with the Buffalo Sabres and posted 42 points (7-35—42). Paetsch spent last season in Germany with the interestingly-named Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams, and hasn’t seen a full season in the AHL since his all-star year with Rochester in 2005-06, when he recorded 50 points (11-39—50).
Riley Sheahan, C – Sheahan has already gotten a taste of the AHL, skating in seven games with the Griffins after finishing his junior year with the University of Notre Dame. He even made his NHL debut with Detroit in the last game of the season and showed fans that it won’t be long until he’s in the NHL full-time. Sheahan was a player used in all situations while with the Fighting Irish, posting a career-high 25 points (9-16—25) and finishing as a runner-up for the CCHA Best Defensive Forward award.
Moving On: Several key parts of the 2011-12 edition of the Griffins will have new homes this coming season. Five of the team’s free agents signed overseas: Doug Janik (Adler Mannheim) and Chris Minard (Kolner Haie) in Germany; Jamie Johnson (Dinamo Riga) in the KHL; Fabian Brunnstrom (Frolunda) in Sweden; and Travis Ehrhardt (TPS) as a tryout in Finland. A trio of players were signed by other NHL clubs: Chris Conner by Phoenix, Garnet Exelby by Boston and Logan Pyett by the NY Rangers. Forward Mike Thomas and goaltender Ty Conklin remain unsigned.