Cossa’s progress coming along as planned

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

This is where the Detroit Red Wings had hoped Sebastian Cossa would be.

The 15th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft is taking on a steady workload with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Battling for positioning in the standings in an AHL playoff race. And getting ready for what both Detroit and Grand Rapids hope can be a fruitful and long-running engagement in the Calder Cup postseason.

The Griffins already have locked up a match-up with Rockford as the second- and third-place teams in the Central Division semifinals. What is left to be determined is home-ice advantage. Both teams have three games remaining, and the Griffins enter the final week of the regular season with a one-point edge on the IceHogs.

But getting Cossa to this point has required plenty of teamwork. With an eye toward the 21-year-old someday taking over the crease in Detroit, the Red Wings have followed their customary slow, deliberate approach in bringing him along. After a standout junior career in the Western Hockey League, many assumed that Cossa could easily step into the AHL when he turned pro last season.

Instead the Red Wings stationed him mainly with Toledo, their ECHL affiliate, for his rookie pro season. There, Cossa got 46 games of playing time and a chance to ease his way a bit more into the pro game. The Red Wings also brought in the highly regarded Roope Koistinen as the new goaltending coach in Grand Rapids this season. Only 31 years old himself, Koistinen already had a strong teaching background with the long-successful Kärpät Oulu development program as well internationally with Finland’s national program.

The Red Wings also brought in a proven veteran goaltender in Michael Hutchinson, someone who could both mentor Cossa and ease some of the pressure and workload.

After the Griffins missed the Calder Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons, Cossa has been a significant part of their rebound in 2023-24. He has gone 20-8-9 in 37 games to go with a 2.42 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.

He went 19 decisions without a regulation loss (13-0-6) from Jan. 19 to April 5, establishing a franchise record. After an up-and-down first part of the season, Cossa has gone 16-2-6 with a 2.01 GAA and a .923 save percentage since Christmas.

The work is paying off.

Cossa cited his skating, puck-tracking and screens, post play, and angles as areas in which he has improved since the beginning of this season. One of the first things about Cossa that immediately jumps out is his size (6-foot-6, 225 pounds). But like a lot of big goaltenders, learning to make that size an advantage can take time. Repetition, repetition, repetition. And of course success begets confidence that can lead to even more success.

“[I am] really maximizing my size,” Cossa explained, “really figuring out my game and what I need to do to be successful at this level. Guys are executing at a high level, so I’ve got to be ready, and I’ve got to be all over the puck all the time. If I’m skating well, and I’m beating plays on my feet, I’m going to have a good chance to stop the puck.”

Making or not making the next step to the NHL can so often come down to the smallest details in a player’s game. Having an asset like Cossa’s size with which to work, Koistinen really set about trying to bring out its best.

Said Koistinen, “I feel like movement is the big thing to get to the next level.”

The Cossa-Koistinen relationship is a significant part of that growth. The Red Wings hired Koistinen last July 3, and the pair quickly got in touch. They set expectations, mapped out a plan, and set about building the unique relationship that exists between a goaltender and goaltending coach.

“I feel very comfortable with him talking about whatever it is,” Cossa said. “He’s a good person that I can go talk to. Obviously he’s got great insight for me, and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from him.”

What is Koistinen’s take on his student? With any teacher in any subject, a ready-to-learn pupil is key.

“He’s going toward his dreams, and he’s been very open from the start,” Koistinen said. “I feel like those conversations we are having – how we respond to success, how we respond to adversity… Goalies, they always have the pressure. They learn to handle that when they’re pretty young.”

A chance to work with a top young athlete like Cossa is what pulled Koistinen to take the job in Grand Rapids. He had seen his goaltenders in Finland making the move to North America and wanted to try it for himself. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Joel Blomqvist is one of Koistinen’s more recent young pupils. When talks with Detroit about an opportunity opened last spring, he jumped.

“I felt like that would be something I would like to do, too,” Koistinen said. “Work with the best athletes in the world.”

But it has also been off the ice that both Koistinen and Watson have been impressed by Cossa’s growth. The position brings so much pressure, and learning to manage that burden is not an easy process.

“I think with Sebastian,” Watson said, “the maturing over the last couple years, certainly [I have] seen that both on and off the ice with his game. He’s becoming a little bit older, too. I think another big part of it is just learning how to be a pro every day. And with that, it’s responsibilities away from the ice. It’s responsibilities when you’re not at the arena with your coaches. What you do on a daily basis? That maturing process for him has been really good.”

Watson stays informed on goaltending matters, but he mainly leaves the detailed work to Koistinen.

“It’s all about relationships, the way they communicate,” Watson said of the goalie-goalie coach dynamic. “You really have to trust each other. They’ve got to be able to be open, have to have some clarity, make sure there’s honesty within each other.”