Edvinsson off to strong start with Griffins

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

📝 by Patrick Williams

Simon Edvinsson is 19 years old.

And he is an American Hockey League defenseman, a job that can test the confidence of 10-year pros.

But he is in no rush, and neither are the Detroit Red Wings.

The Red Wings hope that he is a future fixture on their blue line for years, which is precisely why they have him with the Grand Rapids Griffins this season. Edvinsson went to the Red Wings as the sixth overall selection in the 2021 National Hockey League Draft.

“I want to bring my game to Detroit,” Edvinsson said, “and I feel like I can start [in Grand Rapids] and develop my game here.”

Red Wings executive vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman led the construction of the Tampa Bay Lightning for most of the past decade before returning to Detroit in 2019. His approach with today’s Red Wings bears many resemblances with his work in Tampa, but none more so than a commitment to patience and using his AHL affiliate to bring along prospects carefully and methodically.

Sure, the Red Wings could have kept Edvinsson on their opening night roster without raising many eyebrows. Besides the draft pedigree, Edvinsson already possesses high-level European experience with perennial contender Frolunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League. At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, he is sturdy enough. Detroit is building around youth, and Edvinsson is one of the centerpieces of that long-term plan.

But Yzerman wants Edvinsson working every day with Griffins head coach Ben Simon and his staff in Grand Rapids, just like Moritz Seider – himself a defenseman taken sixth overall in 2019 – did before heading off to Detroit and winning the Calder Memorial Trophy last season.

And during Yzerman’s days with the Lightning, he placed the likes of Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy with the Syracuse Crunch for early seasoning. Yzerman has never been one to worry about the impression he might send by giving a top prospect additional development time in the AHL. Detroit has invested heavily in development staff, and the Grand Rapids coaching staff also goes six deep, including assistant coach and former pro blueliner Matt Macdonald.

Before leaving Detroit, Edvinsson met with Yzerman and assistant general manager Shawn Horcoff, who also doubles as the GM in Grand Rapids. The message to him was simple – play your game.

“It sounded really good, actually,” Edvinsson said of the decision to assign him to Grand Rapids. “I wanted to come down. I don’t want to be up there and survive. I want to be the best [defenseman] out there.

“I have some stuff to improve. It’s going to take time. I want to be better defensively, be harder. I want to develop my offensive game as well, and I feel like this is the best place to do it.”

So far, so good for Edvinsson, who picked up his first AHL goal, chipped in three more assists, and left Simon impressed last weekend. A left-handed shot, Edvinsson was paired with veteran Steven Kampfer, who has skated in more than 500 games between the AHL and NHL. Following an opening-night loss to San Diego on Friday, the Griffins came out on Saturday with four first-period goals en route to an 8-5 victory in the rematch; Edvinsson’s empty-net goal sealed the win after picking up two assists earlier, including one on a stretch pass from deep in his own zone to help set up the Griffins’ seventh goal.

“Very raw,” Simon began in providing his early assessment of Edvinsson. “He can skate. He’s got elite skating ability. He’s got elite hockey sense. He’s going to be one heck of a hockey player.”

Simon showed a willingness to give Edvinsson ample ice, but there is often a balance an AHL head coach must find with young defensemen. How to allow that player to play freely but within a team structure. And how not to push that player into too much too soon. That give-and-take is on “a game-to-game, a shift-by-shift basis” for Simon.

“You have to have patience,” the Griffins’ fifth-year head coach stressed. “I think the biggest thing is you have to have patience with these guys.

“I’m sure he is disappointed about being sent down and he won’t tell you that,” Simon surmised. “But he’s not the kind of kid to drag his lower lip and to cower and to be frustrated. There are a lot of emotions that go into this.”

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

That composure and maturity come across immediately from Edvinsson, who already has experienced high-pressure hockey. Along with his time in the SHL, he also won a bronze medal with Sweden at the World Junior Championship back in August. But even still, Edvinsson’s first night in the AHL was an eye-opener, and he was willing to admit that.

“Everything goes a lot quicker here,” he acknowledged. “You need to be head-up all the time. Sometimes it’s okay to just chip the puck [up].”

So Edvinsson is happy to take in what Simon and the Grand Rapids staff have to say. This is a teaching environment, and he is an eager student. Two early areas of priority for Edvinsson are focusing on a quicker release for his shot as well as using space with his teammates more effectively.

“[The coaches] talk to us a lot, that we need to improve different stuff, and that’s what we all feel we need to find our identities,” Edvinsson continued.

Before the AHL schedule really intensifies, October and November are particularly heavy teaching times for AHL clubs. The Griffins play only five games over the final 16 days of the month, beginning Wednesday night when the Milwaukee Admirals visit Van Andel Arena.

That Simon and his staff have plenty of practice time to work with a Griffins club filled with top prospects, Edvinsson included. They also can rely on previous experience developing top-10 picks who were only 18 or 19 years old. Forward Filip Zadina, an 18-year-old sixth overall pick, came through in Simon’s first season; Seider came through a year later.

“The great thing that we have going here is we’ve had experience with some young defensemen like that in the past,” Simon explained. “If you look back a few years ago with Mo Seider, he didn’t exactly come in and light the league on fire, and he’ll tell you that himself. He got frustrated easily. Coaches got frustrated with him getting frustrated easily.

“We’ve worked with guys like Seider [who] have gone through kind of the same things, and you see where [Seider ended] up a couple of years later. We’ve got confidence that we know how to develop him.”

They also have a patient student himself.

“I love playing hockey, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Edvinsson said. “If it takes a longer time to go up there, it’s how it’s supposed to be. I want to still be better, develop more here.

“I’m here. I want to win with this team, and we have some stuff to improve.”