Griffins’ blue line blooming

by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive

How many times has it been said, “offense wins games, but defense wins championships”? It’s a common refrain within sports, and it may have been repeating endlessly through Grand Rapids Griffins general manager Bob McNamara’s head during the off-season.

Perhaps if the saying were “offense win games, but experienced defense wins championships,” the Griffins would already be on track for the Calder Cup Finals. Heading into the 2009-10 season, defensemen Andy Delmore, Doug Janik, Jakub Kindl, Sergei Kolosov and Logan Pyett had combined for 1,758 professional games. Add two highly-touted rookies in Travis Ehrhardt and Sebastien Piche, and the Griffins’ blue line stacks up pretty well on paper.

Jakub Kindl represented the Griffins at the AHL All-Star Classic in 2009.

“It is always the intent during the summer to strengthen your defense and I think we had an easier time of it this summer than last, simply because of the numbers in Detroit,” said McNamara. “Last season, when we were looking to sign free agent defensemen, they tended to shy away from the Wings organization because they were so deep. They had Kyle Quincey on the roster at the time, Andreas Lilja was healthy, plus they had Jonathan Ericsson and Kindl in the AHL, so free agents wanted to go somewhere they would have better NHL opportunities.”

With potentially more of those opportunities available to players this season, the Griffins began strengthening their defense with veteran leadership. That is where off-season acquisitions Delmore and Janik fit in.

Inserting Delmore, a 13-year veteran, and Janik, a nine-year pro, helped to bolster Grand Rapids’ numbers in the NHL experience category, with a combined 444 big-league games. Similar to the 2008-09 season, when Ericsson and Garrett Stafford were the only two defensemen with prior NHL experience, Delmore and Janik are in the same position resume-wide, but with 434 more games to their credit.

“I think we always look to focus on the veteran leadership from the blueline,” said McNamara. “Adding Delmore, who won the 2005-06 Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman, and Janik, who is really solid defensively and has played 161 games in the NHL, will definitely help us out this season.”

Sergei Kolosov recorded four goals and seven assists in 70 games as a rookie last season.

Being solid and consistent in his own end is exactly the style of play newcomer Janik likes to provide.

“I like to take care of my own end first and move the puck up to the forwards and let them do the scoring,” said the Agawam, Mass., native. “But we do have a good mix of guys on defense this season: guys that can jump up in the rush, and guys like myself who like to sit back and play solid defense, so I think we will be pretty strong this year.”

Of course, veteran leadership also needs to come from within, and it’s something that Kindl, Janik’s early-season partner, looks to contribute in his third season with the team.

Kindl returns with a wealth of Griffins experience, with 157 contests under his belt heading into the 2009-10 campaign. Although none of his games have come in the NHL, his debut is likely to be very soon after earning a three-year extension from the Red Wings in the off-season.

With the Wings showing confidence in Kindl’s development, and McNamara looking to him to serve as an example to the younger guys on the blueline, high expectations surround the native of Sumperk, Czech Republic.

“I definitely feel I am gaining more responsibility and have a bigger role on the team now that I am older,” said Kindl. “We have a lot of experience on the back end this year, and I really liked our first game. I thought we were really solid defensively. It helps having guys like Delmore and Janik on the team with their experience, so I learn from them and also help with the younger guys so we are all at the same pace.”

A couple of the younger returning D-men are Kolosov and Pyett, who are both entering their second year with the Griffins. Each impressed coaches during training camp with their fitness and added bulk, a testament to their summer work ethic.

Logan Pyett enters his second pro season with the Griffins in 2009-10.

Kolosov, who logged one pro season in his native Belarus before coming to North America, joined Detroit as a “black ace” for a portion of the parent club’s playoff run last season, while Pyett tallied 14 points during his rookie year in 2008-09.

The rookies protecting the D-zone this season are Ehrhardt and Piche, and if their junior reputations follow them into the pro ranks, they will be expected to play the roles of offensive defensemen in the coming years.

In 256 career games in the Western Hockey League, Ehrhardt tallied 119 points, 37 (9-28-37) of which came in 68 contests for Portland last year. He skated in his first three pro contests with Manitoba at the end of last season.

Piche, meanwhile, is coming off his final season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he led the circuit’s defensemen by tallying 72 points (23-49-72) through 62 games for Rimouski.

Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek, a two-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is charged with overseeing the team’s defensemen and likes the mix of guys on the blueline this season.

“First off, you have Kindl, Pyett and Kolosov all returning from last year. So each of them is another year older experience-wise. Then you add veteran guys in Delmore and Janik. Throw in two really great young talents in Ehrhardt and Piche, who are only going to get better the more they play around the other guys, and you have a great mix that should make for a great developing process,” said Paek.

Although excited, Paek remains reserved about what he has to coach with this year due to the unpredictable nature of hockey.

“You never really know how things will turn out. All you try to do is get who you think is the best available, and I think we did that this year,” said Paek.

With the season underway, only time will tell how the Griffins defense will fair against the rest of the AHL. But early indications are working in McNamara’s favor.

“I think this group of defensemen ranks up there with some of the better ones we’ve had over the years here,” said McNamara, who has been the only general manager of the Griffins since the team’s inaugural 1996-97 season. “I think we have a little bit of everything with this group and we are really deep. It is nice to be in a situation where we can put any of those seven guys on the ice and be real comfortable with it.”