By Kyle Kujawa -
One month away from the drop of the puck on the AHL’s 77th season, Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill knows that his opening night lineup is not exactly set in stone. While he is aware of the many different scenarios that could play out, he’s preparing to work with any players willing to buy into his recipe for success.
“Like anything in this league, you deal with the hand that you’re dealt,” said Blashill, who was named the Griffins’ ninth head coach on June 25.
The Griffins roster for the 2012-13 season is mostly set. The team returns much of the young talent featured on last year’s club in addition to several new AHL veterans and Red Wings prospects. What’s up in the air at this point is the status of the NHL – a potential lockout could see every AHL team pick up a few players it wouldn’t otherwise have.
“If we end up with some of those players, that’s great for us,” he continued. “How are we compared to who other teams are getting? I don’t know, and I’m not going to spend time studying that. I believe that if we commit on a daily basis, we’ll have a chance to be successful.”
“I don’t think the differentiation in talent is going to be enough to be a road block for our success or enough to guarantee our success. We’re going to have to earn it.”
The current landscape of the game makes Blashill’s AHL head coaching debut an interesting one. At this time of year, teams are typically gearing up for prospects camp – like Detroit’s annual camp in Traverse City – and Blashill would be preparing to work on-ice with current and future Griffins before the Red Wings’ main training camp later in September and eventually the NHL preseason.
However, that camp has already been canceled, and training camps and exhibition contests may soon follow. Instead, potential Griffins will skate in Grand Rapids, and use the team’s first two preseason games since 2005-06 (Oct. 6 at the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, and Oct. 7 at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, both against Lake Erie) as tune-ups for the regular season.
The situation leaves Blashill playing the waiting game. Meanwhile, he’s moved his family to the Grand Rapids area and is preparing for what might lie ahead. For now, his expectations for the team come from a delicate balance of research of their past performances combined with the knowledge that nothing will be settled until they hit the ice.
“I have experience with some of them, both through last year’s Red Wings camp and from the few who were called up to Detroit last year,” said Blashill. “Others I’ve had past experiences with from coaching against (in the NCAA and USHL). Ultimately, the judgment will be made here on a daily basis; your past is part of who you are, but you have a chance every day to make new impressions.”
Having served as an assistant coach with the Red Wings in 2011-12 presents Blashill with a wealth of connections who can provide knowledge on his potential players. The Griffins return several familiar faces on the bench, including assistant coach Jim Paek, athletic trainer John Bernal and equipment manager Brad Thompson. Blashill can also lean on the Red Wings’ Ken Holland, Jim Nill and current assistant coach Bill Peters, who coached against many Griffins as the Rockford IceHogs head coach from 2008-11.
“It’s a fresh start and guys change from year-to-year,” said Blashill. “I’ve had a lot of conversations to learn about them not just as players, but as people. At the end of the day, you make your own decisions based on what you see on a daily basis.”
A lockout would guarantee that Grand Rapids returns the top offensive talent that helped it finish second in the AHL in scoring one year ago. The team will benefit from Gustav Nyquist, who would likely start the season in the NHL, as well as Joakim Andersson and Tomas Tatar, who would get long looks during training camp and potentially serve as Detroit’s top injury call-ups.
“Once we get together, we’ll see where the chemistry is at,” Blashill said. “Nyquist, Andersson and Tatar are all talented players. But there are other guys in the system that I know people are excited about. Frankie Pare has been here for a number of years and has been a really good offensive player. Landon Ferraro is someone who can take a step forward and do things as well.
“We want to make sure that all of those guys aren’t just putting up points but are complete players who are doing all the things that it takes to win hockey games,” he continued. “That’s certainly scoring and making plays, but it’s also winning puck battles, tracking back into your end, playing defense and blocking shots. We want to make sure everyone’s doing that.”
On the backend, the team returns a pair of regulars in Brian Lashoff and, in the event of a lockout, Brendan Smith. Blashill believes that his experience in the USHL and NCAA – where large roster turnover from season to season is the norm – will help him sort out the new faces patrolling the blueline.
“The AHL presents unique challenges in itself, but there are a lot of similarities in terms of turnover and your team changing on a weekly basis,” explained Blashill. “Chemistry is an important thing, and that’s something you don’t know until you get going. We have a number of quality, quality players. The important thing to understand for us is the difference in talent between the top and bottom teams is not very much. That’s why I truly believe we’ll dictate our own success.”
The new look defensive corps could go a long way in improving the team’s goaltending from one year ago. A former goaltender at Ferris State University, Blashill plans work with his goalies “to be better and keep their habits sharp,” while also sticking to the plan and techniques set in place by goaltending coaches Jim Bedard and Chris Osgood.
“We certainly need our goaltending to be great – it’s impossible to have success if you don’t have great goaltending,” said Blashill. “I know Thomas McCollum from coaching the United States World Junior team. I know Jordan Pearce from coaching against him while he was at Notre Dame. And I watched [Petr] Mrazek play and everyone has great things to say about where he’s at coming into his pro career. Those are all guys to be excited about.”
Three players Blashill knows he’ll have for sure are Brennan Evans, Triston Grant and Nathan Paetsch, a trio who signed AHL contracts with the Griffins this offseason. While he hasn’t met any of them yet, he knows the players who will make up the team’s veteran component have the credentials, but he’s also relying on returning players to assume leadership positions.
“I don’t know them as people at all, and to me that is just as important as their skill on the ice,” he said. “I’ve heard good things about all of them and that they have good experience at this level. I believe you need a veteran presence to succeed at any level. We also have a group of what could be considered young guys that have been here for two or three years who can contribute to our veteran presence. Leadership is leadership, and if you have it in you, you’re going to lead no matter what age.”
Blashill’s overarching message was that the names on the team’s roster won’t dictate how he coaches or what the philosophy in the locker room is on a daily basis. His goal is to push the Griffins over the hump and back to the playoffs, and he believes that total team commitment is the best way to do that.
“It’s quality over quantity to me,” said Blashill. “Practice doesn’t have to be long, but it has to be to the best of our ability. We want to be as hard on the puck as possible and winning puck battles. We want to value the puck once we get it. We want to have an understanding as a group that we’re going to dictate our own success.”