Griffins ready to defend AHL title; season starts tonight

A photo from the Griffins' postseason run last spring. (Michael Caples/MiHockey)


By Pat Evans – 

The Grand Rapids Griffins’ historic run to capture the Calder Cup seemingly just ended, but their quest to keep the cup in West Michigan begins now.

Finishing last season 42-23-3-7 atop the Midwest Division, the Griffins didn’t appear as a favorite to win. Grand Rapids entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and barely made it past a first round scare against No. 6 seed Houston. Despite falling into an 0-2 hole, the Griffins powered past the Aeros winning the last three games of the best-of-five series, including a 7-0 Game 5 win.

The Griffins moved on and finished off the Toronto Marlies in six games. The Western Conference Finals proved a little more difficult with the Oklahoma City Barons, which went seven games, including a postponement because of a tornado.

The Syracuse Crunch provided a hearty matchup in the Calder Cup Final, but the Griffins completed a 4-2 series win in Syracuse.

Tomas Tatar led the Griffins in scoring, notching 16 goals and five assists in the playoffs. Tatar won the league’s Jack A. Butterfield Trophy, awarded to the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs.

Most of the roster returns and the team could be poised to make a serious run at the AHL Championship.

“That kind of experience can’t be replicated,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “You learn how to win the difficult games.”

Yet the Griffins will be counting on a different Red Wings prospect to lead the team up front this season, as Tatar has started the season with the Red Wings, and Gustav Nyquist has started with the Griffins. Nyquist, 24, was a casualty of roster limitations and one vs. two-way contracts; he was the only player competing for time in Detroit that could be sent to Grand Rapids without needing to clear waivers.

In 2011-12, Nyquist set a Griffins’ franchise record for points as a rookie, as he recorded 22 goals and 36 assists for 58 points.

Goaltending stud Petr Mrazek, who went 38-25 last season (including the playoffs) is expected to be in Grand Rapids at some point this season, even though he is currently serving as Jimmy Howard’s back-up in Detroit. During last year’s regular season, Mrazek held opponents to a 2.33 goals-against average.

Until Mrazek returns, the goaltending duties will be on former Red Wings’ first-round pick Tom McCollum and Northern Michigan product Jared Coreau. The rumor mill suggested that McCollum would not be returning to the organization this summer, before the New York native inked a deal with the Griffins, and not the Red Wings.

Shortly after the Calder Cup was hoisted, the Red Wings announced they had signed Grand Rapids-native Luke Glendening to a two-way contract, but with load of forwards in Detroit, Glendening likely will log a lot of ice time in his hometown. Glendening provides a solid defensive presence and smart play. He nearly matched his regular season totals of eight goals and 18 assists in 51 games in the playoffs with six goals and 10 assists.

The veteran backbones of the Griffins were re-signed shortly after Glendening’s announcement. Captain Jeff Hoggan, Brennan Evans, Triston Grant and Nathan Paestch all were signed to AHL contracts for this season.

“We are excited to have this core group of veterans back for the 2013-14 season,” Blashill said in a statement at the time of the signings. “This group was an integral part of our Calder Cup championship team. Their daily work ethic, attention to detail, selflessness and competitiveness created a culture of success in our locker room.”

The team also returns a hoard of players key to the Calder Cup run still under contract with the Red Wings, including Adam Almquist, Teemu Pulkkinen, Willie Coetzee (currently injured), Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Louis-Marc Aubry and Landon Ferraro (currently injured).

A few players who could also make an impact for the Griffins this season are defensemen Max Nicastro, Gleason Fournier and Nick Jensen, and forwards David McIntyre, Andrej Nestrasil, Martin Frk, Calle Jarnkrok and Trevor Parks. The Griffins also recently added former UM center Kevin Lynch.

The entire Griffins coaching staff – Blashill and assistants Jim Paek and Spiros Anastas – return. In the offseason, the three coaches led the Red Wings’ prospects to their first-ever NHL Prospects Tournament championship.

The Griffins start their season tonight in Rochester, N.Y., and they follow it up with two more road games. Grand Rapids will raise their 2013 AHL championship banner on Oct. 18 at Van Andel Arena.

The highlight of the regular season will come on Dec. 30, when the Griffins and Toronto Marlies play an outdoor contest at Comerica Park, as part of the Hockeytown Winter Festival. The teams promptly turn around and play on New Year’s Eve at Van Andel Arena.