Things are coming together for Griffins

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The results are starting to show for the Grand Rapids Griffins, but the trust came first.

Bidding for their first trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2019, the Griffins start this week one point behind Texas for second place in the Central Division, and 13 points clear of the divisional playoff cut line.

Two home dates with the Stars, plus a visit from the streaking Milwaukee Admirals, await the Griffins this week. And while there is still plenty of work to do, it has been a road that first-year head coach Dan Watson could see coming even when they were not necessarily picking up points earlier in the season.

Sitting at 9-13-3-1 going into the Christmas break, the Griffins proceeded to churn out five consecutive wins. And since a brief mid-January stumble, they have grabbed a point in 12 straight games (8-0-2-2) to shoot up the Central standings. It is their longest point streak since a 13-game run in 2015-16.

All-Star forward Jonatan Berggren leads Grand Rapids with eight goals and 14 points over the 12 games. Veteran Austin Czarnik, whose third-period goal carried the Griffins past Rockford on Saturday night, has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in his past 16 outings.

Watson looks back to a stretch of four consecutive games against Texas back in December as a turning point. The Griffins earned only three of a possible eight points, but Watson saw progress. For one, the Griffins went down 2-0 before rattling off four unanswered goals to take that a 4-2 win on Dec. 15.

That left the Griffins something to think about. So did a 6-2 thumping at Texas on Dec. 20, their last game before a week-long break. Those are the ups and downs that go into development at the AHL level.

“We had some good games and some high-level hockey being played just weren’t being rewarded for,” Watson recalled, “and I think the message heading into Christmas was we can be a good team. We’ve got to make that decision to do it as a group. It can’t be individuals. We need to be doing it as a team, and since Christmas we’ve been really good at that, guys pulling for each other and all the cliche things.

“You can talk about being a team and playing for each other, but inside that locker room, they’re starting to talk. They’re starting to go for dinner. They’re starting to become a team behind the scenes.”

After a disappointing 2022-23 campaign, Detroit Red Wings management – led by executive vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman – vowed that there needed to be a higher standard in Grand Rapids. Assistant GM Shawn Horcoff, who doubles as the Griffins’ general manager, had a busy offseason as the Red Wings restructured much of their operation in Grand Rapids, starting with bringing in Watson from Toledo, their ECHL affiliate. Long-time Griffins captain Brian Lashoff retired and immediately went behind the bench as an assistant coach.

In came top veterans in blueliners Josiah Didier and Brogan Rafferty. Zach Aston-Reese and Tim Gettinger added depth at forward while goaltender Michael Hutchinson arrived to help bring along first-round pick Sebastian Cossa in net. They serve as the support system for a deep group of young prospects.

But that chemistry takes time to form. And there is not a playbook for exactly how to foster it, either. Does it happen organically? Can it be nudged along in the right direction? How does a collection of 25 players, many of them new faces, become a true team rather than a collection of players who happen to wear the same jersey?

Watson does know something about creating that environment. He never missed the Kelly Cup Playoffs during his 14 seasons with Toledo, where he worked as an assistant, associate, and head coach. He twice reached the finals and had a 51-win season in 2016-17 that earned him ECHL coach of the year honors.

“I think you put guys in certain situations potentially that can help that,” Watson said of his approach to creating chemistry, “but it does have to happen organically. I can’t go make teammates like each other, but they’ve got to have respect. They got to have the trust for each other. They have to understand that everyone’s there for a reason. What that reason is can be different for everybody. But the common goal is we want to win hockey games. We want guys to move on to the NHL. We want guys to be successful at the American League level.

“I think once everyone understands that, that’s when they become close.”

That trust extends to the player-coach relationship. The Griffins have one of the jewels of the Detroit system in 19-year-old forward Marco Kasper, who was selected eighth overall by the Red Wings in the 2022 NHL Draft. When can a head coach feel safe putting such a young player on the ice in the final minutes of a game to protect a lead or to help spur a comeback? Are a player’s habits in all three zones up to an AHL standard?

“In terms of Marco,” Watson explained, “the compete level, the work ethic…  coaches want that, and they love to see that. When you have that and now you’re responsible with the puck, you’re responsible without the puck, I think that’s when that trust builds. For Marco, it’s been building since day one.

“He wasn’t maybe getting rewarded offensively early on as he figured out the league. But I think the way he’s been building throughout the year, he’s steadily gone up our lineup. He’s been a responsible 200-foot player. He’s someone we trust a lot.”

Kasper is just one example. There are plenty more now dotting the Grand Rapids roster as the Griffins work to build what the Red Wings hope can someday be part of a foundation in Detroit.

“It does show on the ice,” Watson said of his team’s closeness. “Guys stick up for each other. And when you have that unselfishness, that’s when teams become good, and I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.”