Grand Rapids 2008-09 season preview

By Jason Menard

The Detroit Red Wings may be known as one of the older organizations in the league, but its farm club, the Grand Rapids Griffins, will have approximately a quarter of its roster comprised of AHL rookies this season.

This year’s edition, devoid of any elite offensive talent, but bursting with strong, two-way character players, an outstanding goaltending tandem, and a new head coach, should challenge for a playoff spot — one that eluded them last season. And with a strong NHL parent club — one with few holes to fill — the team should benefit from a season of consistency in the lineup.

Forwards

The Griffins may be a young squad overall, but they currently feature a pair of grizzled vets up front who will be counted on to help groom the next generation of stars, while showing them what it takes to be a NHLer. Aaron Downey is currently scheduled to play with the Griffins, while Darren McCarty continues to fight back from personal demons that derailed his professional career.

At 34 and 36, respectively, the duo has almost 1,000 NHL games’ worth of experience between them and they will be counted on to smooth the professional transition of new forwards like Justin Abdelkader, Cory Emmerton, and Jan Mursak — all rookie pros, lacing up for the Griffins. They’ll be joined by recent signee Darren Haydar, a former AHL MVP who will be counted on playing a key leadership role with the club this season.

Other new additions to this squad include a Quebec connection in the form of former QMJHL MVP Francis Pare and Francis Lemieux, acquired last year from the Montreal Canadiens.

Defense

The blueline features a pair of players making their AHL debuts this season in Sergei Kolosov and Logan Pyett — both highly touted players that the organization counts as cornerstones for the future.

They’ll be joined on the blueline by Griffin veterans Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson, Brett Peterson, and Tom Galvin. Also in the mix are P.J. Atheron and Jason Jozsa. The Red Wings, despite regularly selecting at the end of the rounds during the NHL entry draft, have done an admirable job in finding diamonds in the rough and developing players who perform above their draft status. This season, Pyett and Kindl will be counted upon to play key roles, despite their relative youth.

Goal

The goaltending situation is still up in the air. One thing’s for certain — Swedish goaltender Daniel Larsson will be in the mix. Larsson joined the Griffins this season following an impressive 2007-08 Swedish Elite League campaign that led to him winning the Honken Trophy as best goaltender. His 2.29 GAA and .921 save percentage also led him to earning the league’s rookie-of-the-year award.

While Larsson is a certainty between the pipes this year, Jimmy Howard‘s future with the club is a little more questionable. Following the retirement of Dominik Hasek, the 24-year-old Howard felt his time for the NHL was at hand. Although he signed a multi-year contract with the club, the off-season signing of journeyman netminder Ty Conklin seems to indicate the Red Wings would prefer another year of seasoning for the Syracuse, NY native.

However, incumbent NHL starter Chris Osgood is getting up there in years and may be more susceptible to injury. If either Osgood or Conklin succumb to the injury bug — or a performance malaise — expect Howard to head east fairly quickly. Should he spend the year in Grand Rapids, the one-two punch of Howard and Larsson allows the Griffins to feature one of the best goaltending tandems in the AHL.

Coach

The Griffins missed the playoffs last season, which cost head coach Mike Stothers his job. This season, former Atlanta Thrashers head coach Curt Fraser will be behind the bench and his experience, combined with a solid leadership core and strong goaltending, should see the Griffins become a strong contender for the playoffs this year.