Growing pains for Griffins, but foundation is strong

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Nights like Sunday in Grand Rapids are what the Detroit Red Wings have in mind for their ever-growing group of American Hockey League prospects.

The first-place Cleveland Monsters are in town, riding a seven-game winning streak. Van Andel Arena is sold out for the Griffins’ annual New Year’s Eve celebration. Grand Rapids is fresh off road wins in Rockford and Chicago coming out of the Christmas break. Top prospects Jonatan Berggren and Simon Edvinsson are back from Detroit, as are veteran goaltender Michael Hutchinson and forward Austin Czarnik.

It would be a stout test for the Griffins, and they delivered a 5-1 victory, breaking the game open with three goals in a span of 12:10 during the second period. Defenseman Albert Johansson, a 2019 second-round draft pick, scored twice. Rookie Carter Mazur, a Michigan native and third-round pick in 2021, popped in his eighth goal of the season. Edvinsson, the sixth overall choice in 2021, and Berggren, a 2018 second-rounder, had two assists each. Czarnik recorded three helpers and Hutchinson stopped 26 shots.

It was a good night in Grand Rapids.

A deep base of young draft picks complemented by proven veterans. That was Red Wings executive vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman’s formula when he built much of the foundation for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships after his departure for Detroit.

But after Grand Rapids did not qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs last season, finishing 15 points below the cut-off line, Yzerman did not hesitate to express his disappointment. Allowing that injuries in Detroit had impacted the Griffins, Yzerman made it clear that much more was expected if this ongoing organizational rebuilding plan is to work out.

“It was a very disappointing year,” Yzerman said last April. “We expected more. Having said that, the team we put together for various reasons I think underperformed. I speak for the organization in saying we’re disappointed in the season that we had in Grand Rapids.”

But Yzerman did not panic, despite that disappointment.

“I’m OK with the progress,” Yzerman said, “but I intend to stick with the process, the plan.”

Yzerman replaced Griffins head coach Ben Simon with Dan Watson, who has been with the Detroit organization since 2009, helping build a successful program with their ECHL affiliate in Toledo. Long-time Griffins captain Brian Lashoff retired and stepped behind the Grand Rapids bench as an assistant coach. Highly regarded coaching prospect Stephane Julien was brought in as an assistant as well.

They added defenseman Brogan Rafferty, who was just off a trip to the Calder Cup Finals with the Coachella Valley Firebirds, to help lead the Grand Rapids blue line. Forwards Tim Gettinger (Hartford Wolf Pack) and Nolan Stevens (Utica Comets) also arrived as free agents, and NHL veteran Zach Aston-Reese came aboard following training camp. Defenseman Josiah Didier came over from the Providence Bruins and earned the Grand Rapids captaincy. And they added Hutchinson to help cushion second-year pro Sebastian Cossa, a 2021 first-round pick.

That group joined returnees like Czarnik, Taro Hirose, Joel L’Esperance, Dominik Shine and Tyler Spezia to give Grand Rapids a trusted leadership base.

“We lean heavily on the older guys to carry our voice, to carry our message, and create the environment they want inside that locker room,” Watson said earlier this season. “It’s extremely important to have the right guys in place, and I feel we do here.”

Yzerman always made winning a part of development with the Lightning’s affiliate in Syracuse. He wants to do the same with the Griffins, who coincidentally defeated the Crunch in the Calder Cup Finals in both 2013 and 2017.

Said Didier, “The history here and the culture… they win. I want to win, and I want to help this team win the championship. They’ve done it in the past, and I want to help.”

A Griffins team that had been 8-12-2-1 has now earned points in five of their last six (4-1-0-1), lifting themselves into a third-place tie in the Central Division heading into 2024. And the work in Grand Rapids is also starting to pay off in Detroit, where the Red Wings are just three points out of a wild-card spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference race thanks to contributions from Griffins alumni like Dylan Larkin, Michael Rasmussen, Joe Veleno and 2021-22 Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider.

Now there is another crop. The Griffins’ roster includes eight players who were recently first- or second-round draft picks by the Red Wings. Detroit has not shied away from putting prospects in the AHL as teenagers, and forward Marco Kasper, taken eighth overall in the 2022 NHL Draft, is now with Grand Rapids as a 19-year-old. Rookie forward Amadeus Lombardi had a 102-point effort with Flint of the Ontario Hockey League last season. Forward Cross Hanas, a 2020 second-rounder, is back after injuries disrupted his rookie season a year ago. Defenseman William Wallinder is only 21 but already has two seasons of work in the Swedish Hockey League; he is a second-round pick from Detroit’s 2021 draft class, and 2019 second-round selection Antti Tuomisto is rounding into form following an early-season injury.

That foundation, that base, is growing in Grand Rapids. But it is a young group.

“We’ve had a few roller-coaster rides,” Watson acknowledged. “It’s a work in progress. We are getting there. We’ve made big strides from day one to now, meshing together and jelling, and that’s the fun part of it, too. You get to see these guys become closer working for each other.”

Nights like Sunday have to underscore that message.

“I know it’s a cliche, but it’s so true. You can see you can start to see it develop on the ice with how we play.”