Summer of rebuilding on tap for Horcoff, Griffins

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

📝 by Patrick Williams

Change has come to Grand Rapids as the parent Detroit Red Wings continue their rebuilding process.

Overseeing the ongoing organizational transition is executive vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman. As he did during his time with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he has made his AHL affiliate a crucial part of building the Red Wings organization.

The Griffins, who have won the Calder Cup twice in the last decade, missed the Calder Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season in 2022-23, finishing last in the Central Division at 28-36-4-4. Captain Brian Lashoff announced his retirement after playing 629 games in Grand Rapids, third-most in AHL history among players who spent their entire careers with one club. Head coach Ben Simon, assistants Todd Krygier and Matt Macdonald and goaltending coach Brian Mahoney-Wilson will not be returning after long tenures with the Griffins.

Yzerman has long-time NHL forward Shawn Horcoff, Detroit’s assistant general manager, handling much of the day-to-day work in Grand Rapids. Horcoff also serves as the general manager in Grand Rapids and just completed his first full season in that role after six seasons in player development for the organization. Yzerman and Horcoff both understand the role that the Griffins will play in building another winning operation in Detroit. Neither wanted to overlook missing the Calder Cup Playoffs and the Griffins’ long history of success.

“We want to focus on development, but we want to win as well,” said Horcoff, who began his 16-year playing career in the AHL before going on to skate in 1,008 games in the National Hockey League. “It’s a hard league. It’s a very good league. Our division is very competitive. There are no easy games any night. I learned a lot. This is my first year from start to finish and having to watch the team and really get to know the American League on a much deeper level, it’s depth [that is key].”

Said Yzerman in his end-of-season availability, “We want a winning environment, and we didn’t put together a good enough team this year. We didn’t put together a good enough team last year. We expected more.

“We had some positions on the team that underperformed for us there, and we’re hoping to fill those spots whether it be with our own prospects or go out and sign some free agents that can help the team.”

And with change comes hope. Building out a new coaching staff, finding a new captain, and adding veteran help for an incoming class of prospects will be among the Griffins-related items to complete in a busy summer for Yzerman and Horcoff. There is also the young and growing base of prospects that Yzerman and his front office have brought into the organization. The draft-and-develop philosophy that he employed with Tampa Bay and Syracuse has carried over to the Detroit-Grand Rapids set-up.

One prospect on the blue line is 22-year-old Albert Johansson, who made a successful transition to the AHL following three seasons in the Swedish Hockey League. The 2019 second-round pick collected 25 points (five goals, 20 assists) in 53 games with the Griffins before an injury ended his season in March. Another young defenseman, Simon Edvinsson, had shoulder surgery May 1 and is expected to miss four to six months; the 20-year-old established himself in the AHL and showed steady progress in Grand Rapids this season. Chosen sixth overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, Edvinsson played 52 games with the Griffins and had 27 points (five goals, 22 assists), while also playing his first nine NHL games with Detroit and picking up a pair of goals.

The final weeks of the season also provided a peek at the Red Wings’ future, as several prospects saw time with Grand Rapids. Forward Amadeus Lombardi, a fourth-round pick in 2022, had a two-game AHL audition after a 102-point season (45 goals, 57 assists) with the Ontario Hockey League’s Flint Firebirds. Lombardi turns 20 on June 5 and will be eligible for pro action next season.

Another forward, Carter Mazur, elected to leave the University of Denver after two seasons to sign with the Red Wings and finished the season in Grand Rapids, contributing six points (three goals, three assists) in six games. A 2021 third-round pick, Mazur is now representing the United States at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.

Defenseman William Wallinder, a second-round pick in 2020, made his AHL debut after completing his second SHL campaign at age 20. In net, Sebastian Cossa, a first-rounder in 2021, has had a strong season with Toledo in the ECHL and could be ready to man the crease for the Griffins in 2023-24.

“We have some youth in our organization, but at the same time they’re not quite ready to make that step yet,” Horcoff said. “At least we don’t think they are — but even if they were, that would be a bonus for us. You do need a tandem. You need two goalies who can carry the load.”

So there is plenty of organizational hope surrounding the prospects that Detroit continues to stockpile. And Horcoff has indicated that the Red Wings plan to be active in remaking the Grand Rapids roster with veteran help to help facilitate those prospects’ growth while winning games in Grand Rapids.

Replacing Lashoff on the blue line will also be on Horcoff’s to-do list. The Griffins also lost veteran Steven Kampfer in a March trade with Arizona.

“We’ve got to fill that position not just on the ice, but also the off-the-ice leadership role,” Horcoff continued. “We have to bring in a veteran to help the young guys along there.

“Up front, you’re probably looking at a couple forwards. Maybe two or three forwards that can come in as well to help solidify our core of 15 guys or so going into the season.

“We have a young team. It’s important for us to surround them with guys that do things the right way because they don’t know, they haven’t been exposed to it. A lot of times this is their first situation where they really face any sort of adversity, and having the value of a veteran voice in the locker room that has been through it before is very important.”

If there is one silver lining to the Griffins missing the postseason, it is that they have that much more time for offseason training. Horcoff made sure to stress that point in end-of-season meetings.

“The message to all these guys was to use it wisely,” Horcoff said. “Take some time off, but let’s get back in the gym here. There’s plenty of work to be done. The entire organization needs to have a big summer and to continue that development process.”