Griffins’ Helm taking AHL head on

by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive

helm2_200.jpgThe strengths of Grand Rapids Griffins rookie forward Darren Helm can be summed up in one word: Speed.

“First and foremost of the many assets he brings to this hockey club is speed,” said Griffins head coach Mike Stothers. “He is probably the fastest guy on the ice, game-in and game-out.”

Sure, he skates incredibly well, but when describing Helm’s speed in relation to the game of hockey, one must delve into his past to see just how significant that word is in regards to the 20-year-old’s career track.

Detroit’s fifth choice, 132nd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Helm spent three years with the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers prior to arriving in Grand Rapids.

During his major junior debut in 2004-05, he managed just 24 points (10-14—24) in 72 games. That total quickly skyrocketed the following season when the St. Andrews, Man., native set career highs with 41 goals and 79 points. Those totals ranked fifth and eighth in the WHL, respectively, while his 38 assists led the Tigers.

Helm’s junior career culminated in a tremendous 2006-07 season. Aside from placing among Medicine Hat’s leaders with 25 goals (4th), a career-high 39 assists (3rd) and 64 points (T-2nd) in 59 regular season contests, he guided the team to the WHL playoff championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup Finals as an assistant captain. During the playoffs, he paced the Tigers with 10 goals and 22 points, finishing second in league scoring and tallying Medicine Hat’s lone goal in its 3-1 finals loss to Vancouver.

Although he was unable to drink from the holy grail of junior hockey, Helm took a lot away from that experience and looks back with many fond memories.

“It was a great organization and team to play for,” Helm said. “It is where I made a lot of life-long friends.”

Made a lot of friends, yes, but he also received quite a bit of hardware last season, as he was named a Memorial Cup All-Star and an Eastern Conference Second-Team All-Star, one year after taking home First All-Star Team honors.

Helm also spent a little time away from his club, representing Team WHL at the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge and winning his most valued prize to date, a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championship.

“Growing up in Canada, that tournament is really big and I always wanted to be a part of it,” Helm commented. “To have a chance to represent your country is something special, and to win a gold medal was really big for us.”

So, still remember his junior debut when he scored just 24 points in 72 games? Needless to say, Helm is a speedy developer.

Enter the American Hockey League.

Based on his adaptation to the WHL, one might think he would be ready to rank among the Griffins’ leading scorers in 2008-09, during his sophomore year. But don’t be surprised to see Helm’s name near the top of the list before the conclusion of this season. Which is exactly what coach Stothers has in mind.

“I certainly hope it is not going to take that long,” said Stothers. “I think as the season goes on, we are only going to see Helm get better and better. He creates opportunities for the team while on the ice, and he’s a very tenacious kid who plays big for a guy who weighs 185 pounds.”

helm_200.jpgFollowing a hasty recovery from a shoulder injury suffered during training camp with Red Wings – which, according to Stothers, “took all of about two or three games” once he was cleared to play – Helm quickly earned his way into the regular lineup and is playing on arguably the Griffins’ top line with veterans Carl Corazzini and Mark Hartigan.

Helm relishes the opportunity to play with the 28-year-old Corazzini and 30-year-old Hartigan, who combined have logged playing time with six different NHL teams. “They are definitely two great guys to be playing with at a young age,” Helm said. “They know the game really well and let me know what I could be doing better by talking a lot out there, which has built up my confidence.”

Like that confidence, the rookie’s ice time has gone up, resulting in a glimpse of the natural scoring touch he possesses. He notched his first pro points in consecutive games from Nov. 10-13, with his first goal coming in the latter of the two against the Quad City Flames. He also tallied his first two-point game on Nov. 21 against the defending Calder Cup champion Hamilton Bulldogs.

But like any young player making the jump from juniors to the AHL, Helm has noticed many challenges in his adjustment.

“It’s a pretty big jump to this league,” said Helm. “The players here are bigger and smarter, but I am just putting my head down and taking the AHL head on.” That attitude is something that has provided a smooth transition from the WHL to the AHL.

His linemates, who enjoy having him on their line just as much, if not more, than Helm does, would agree.

“I think he’s adjusted really well,” Hartigan said. “He has that incredible speed out there, and is also a strong kid comparable to anyone on the ice since he can break checks well.”

Now in his sixth year as a pro, Hartigan also knows that a calm and collected Helm is a benefit for their line.

“We like to have fun out there and keep Helm relaxed,” Hartigan said. “That way, he won’t over-think things and he will just play hockey.”

Also known for his speed, Corazzini talks about the tempo Helm provides.

“He’s infused great energy into our lineup,” said the seven-year veteran. “Helm is great on the forecheck and down low with the puck, which creates opportunities and space for myself and Harty. He already skates so well and is first to pucks at this level, so I look at him as a guy that has an NHL future.”

With Helm’s ability to adjust in speedy fashion, he’d likely find chemistry with any combination of linemates. But being part of that Griffins trio has put him on the fast track to becoming a name to be reckoned with around not just the AHL but, perhaps in the near future, the NHL.