Sunday notebook: Grimaldi still fighting through adversity

Photo: Ross Dettman

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Rocco Grimaldi leaves 2023 the way he entered it: Piling up goals. Lots and lots of them.

Grimaldi’s 18th goal of the season last night put him atop the AHL this season. Going back to Dec. 9, a span of nine games, he is on an 11-goal tear. For the calendar year, his 39 regular-season goals are a league-high.

For Grimaldi, 2023 began with San Diego, where he was tied for first in the AHL with 27 goals when he was traded to Rockford on Mar. 2. The IceHogs needed a scorer for their push to the Calder Cup Playoffs and Grimaldi delivered, providing six more goals in 16 games plus another tally in the postseason.

Then came a call from USA Hockey and an invitation to participate in the IIHF World Championship in Finland last May. Grimaldi donned the red, white and blue for the first time in more than a decade and led a tournament filled with some of globe’s top talent by recording 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 10 games, helping the American side to a fourth-place finish.

But then came a very quiet summer; the phone was not ringing. Grimaldi has 203 NHL games on his resume, but his last stint up top had been a seven-game run with Nashville back in 2021-22.

Finally talks with the Chicago Wolves arose. On Sept. 29, Grimaldi signed a professional tryout deal and headed off to training camp. It was not an NHL one-way deal. Not a two-way deal, or even a full AHL contract. But it was an opportunity. The Wolves needed offense, and Grimaldi needed a job, but he also needed somewhere to show that he still could help an AHL club as well as showcase himself for NHL work.

Grimaldi speaks frankly about the experience.

“I didn’t even know until the week before camp started,” Grimaldi said. “I was just sitting there for a while frustrated that no one was reaching out. No one was interested, so it was a pretty hard summer.”

He admits that he was confused as to why that was the case.

“What I did last year, I guess, wasn’t enough. What I did this summer wasn’t enough. So it was pretty frustrating. I don’t know what I could do differently, but I’d love to know so that I can change.”

Grimaldi was up-front with Wolves general manager Wendell Young in their talks.

“My goal is to go back to the NHL, and that’s why I’m here,” Grimaldi recounted. “He said that he would do everything he could to help that happen, and obviously that starts with me playing well. That starts with me doing what I was brought in to do, which is to produce offense, to help the team win.”

And so now Grimaldi is going to let his puck work speak for itself. All told, he scored 47 times in 2023.

So why couldn’t the 10th-year pro find a job this summer? Is it his size: 5-foot-6, 160 pounds? His age? Grimaldi wonders.

“Mentally, I would say it’s definitely harder,” Grimaldi said of progressing through his career. “I’ve always fought with ‘he’s too small.’ And now it’s turned into, ‘not only is he too small, now he’s too old.’ Which is funny because I don’t think either is a big deal. I think that the hardest part mentally is wondering. What can you do more? How can you break down those barriers, those presuppositions that people have on you?

“What am I working for if I’m never going to get a fair shot? That’s probably the hardest part for me, and that’s something that I’ve had to grind through, especially the last few years.”

But it’s not a woe-is-me mindset. Not at all. NHL jobs simply are not always there, and plenty of remarkably skilled players have struggled to break through into a full-time role in the world’s best league. Grimaldi acknowledges the frustration, but life in the AHL and having those big ambitions can mean those emotional ups and downs.

“I think there are so many guys that I’ve played with either now or in the past that have been labeled a ‘minor-league guy’ and are so much better players than people give them credit for,” Grimaldi noted.

Even past NHL opportunities have sometimes been challenging. Is it a one-game call-up? Something more? Grimaldi’s game is based on pushing the play and that can lead to mistakes, and a role that allows for some leeway can be difficult to carve out at the NHL level. He stuck with Nashville for all of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons only to find himself in San Diego last season on an AHL deal.

“You’re just nervous,” Grimaldi explains. “You feel like you’re almost in a box because you don’t want to make mistakes. I mean, I’m a creative player. I like making plays. I’m going to make mistakes. I feel like top guys are guys that usually make the most mistakes, have the most turnovers because they have the puck the most, they play the most, and inevitably that’s when the mistakes are going to happen.

“I heard a skills coach a year or two ago say that he tries to teach his players to make the right play eight of 10 times. So if you make two mistakes right off the bat, we’re going to have eight good ones. I think that’s a valid thing.”

He admits that he pondered whether his career might be finished.

“I always want to get better,” Grimaldi continued. “I always want to have a better year than I did the year before. I’m never satisfied with things that I’ve done, things that I’ve won, points that I’ve produced. I’m never satisfied.

“I always think that I can get better. I think I’m better now at 30 than I was at 20. I think I’ll be better from 30 to 35 than I was from 20 to 25 just because of the stuff that I’ve learned with the help of different video coaches and skills coaches that I’ve worked with. My mind feels better than it did, so I’m just hoping to keep getting better and one of those doors can open up.”

Perhaps 2024 can bring Grimaldi that next opportunity that he seeks. Something seems like it has to give if he continues to dominate like he is.

“Hopefully it can be used as a launching pad to bigger and better,” Grimaldi said of his time with the Wolves, “but we’ll see if that happens. I don’t think the door’s closed fully, so hopefully I can either get through that crack or break the door down.”

The Hershey Bears made a memorable 2023 a bit sweeter with a 4-0 win at Lehigh Valley last night.

It was the defending Calder Cup champion Bears’ eighth consecutive victory and 18th in their last 20 outings. They lead the league with 54 points (27-6-0-0) and have already built a 16-point lead for first place in the Atlantic Division. Hershey closed out the calendar year with a record of 49-18-3-3, not including their 14-6 mark during the 2023 postseason.

Clay Stevenson made 37 saves last night to tie a franchise rookie record and extend his league lead with his fifth shutout of the season.

Could there have been a more fitting end to 2023 for the Calgary Wranglers than Dustin Wolf delivering a shutout? Wolf blanked Abbotsford with 37 stops on Friday night, leading the Pacific Division-leading Wranglers to a 5-0 victory.

The AHL’s MVP in 2022-23 and the two-time reigning goaltender of the year, Wolf went 37-10-3 with a 2.13 GAA, a .932 save percentage and seven shutouts in 50 regular-season appearances during 2023. The calendar year also saw him earn co-MVP honors at the AHL All-Star Challenge and make his National Hockey League debut.

The Laval Rocket needed veteran help in net, and Kasimir Kaskisuo fit the bill.

With injuries, recalls to the parent Montreal Canadiens, and a 7-13-3-2 start, the Rocket put in a call for the former AHL All-Star on Dec. 17. The move helped ease some of the pressure on rookies Jakub Dobeš and Strauss Mann, who have a combined .886 save percentage this season.

Kaskisuo is a proven hand, with 95 games of AHL experience with Toronto and Chicago and deep playoff runs with the Marlies in 2017 and 2019. The Finnish netminder and University of Minnesota-Duluth product also has NHL experience with the Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators, and spent the last two seasons in the Swedish Hockey League.

As a quiet fall moved along, Kaskisuo remained unsigned. Teams have their goaltending plans firmed up in the summer, and it can be difficult to find a spot. But his patience was rewarded when the Rocket reached out with a tryout offer.

Laval head coach J.F. Houle turned to Kaskisuo on Friday night to open a crucial two-game home set against Syracuse, and he came through with 36 saves in a 3-2 victory in his first AHL action since Feb. 17, 2020.


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