The 2008-09 season can best be described as a success for the Grand Rapids Griffins. After missing the playoffs in 2007-08, the Griffins bounced back and made it to the second round of the post-season.
This season, the team has lost several key players, and is replacing them with a mixture of veterans and AHL rookies.
The Griffins’ forward corps didn’t lose too much depth, but they did lose several high-end players. With Darren Helm and Ville Leino making Red Wings roster out of training camp, players from within the system will have to play bigger roles. Center Justin Abdelkader has stayed up with the Red Wings for now, but once Helm returns from injury, Abdelkader will likely be sent back down to center the first line.
Additionally, Cory Emmerton, Mattias Ritola, Francis Pare and Jan Mursak will need to play bigger roles on the team. Mursak, in particular, will look to bounce back after a dismal 2008-09 rookie season in which he had just nine points in 51 games. The free-agent signings of former Toronto prospects Jeremy Williams and Kris Newbury could create some healthy competition from within.
Another new face is Swedish winger Dick Axelsson. Coming into his first year of minor pro hockey, the 22-year-old has been touted as an offensively gifted player with work ethic issues. If he can allow his skill level to take over, and leave the off-ice issues behind him, Axelsson could put together an impressive year. He has played the last three years in the SEL.
Also of note is Slovak winger Tomas Tatar. After impressing the hockey world with his play at the 2009 World Junior tournament, the quick and talented Tatar went on to have a very impressive training camp with Detroit. In a rare move, the club allowed him to stay with the Griffins instead of going to play in the OHL for his first year of North American hockey. He can play nine games there and still be sent to the OHL later. But should Tatar continue to impress the Wings’ brass, he can carve out a permanent spot in Grand Rapids.
With Jonathan Ericsson moving up to become a full-time player in Detroit, Grand Rapids essentially lost its best defenseman. Combine that with the loss of several free agents by Grand Rapids, and the team is left with just three defenders from the 2008-09 season — Jakub Kindl, Logan Pyett and Sergei Kolosov.
To make up for the departure of talent, Detroit signed veteran defensemen Andy Delmore and Doug Janik. Additionally, the undrafted Travis Ehrhardt and Sebastien Piche were signed to entry-level contracts out of the WHL and QMJHL, respectively.
In order to be effective, several defenders, foremost Kindl, will have to step up. Kindl, a former first-round pick, is in his third year pro and needs to earn a look in Detroit.
The blend of veteran and young talent should allow the skills of the younger players to blossom and mentor under the experience of Janik and Delmore.
After four seasons of having Jimmy Howard between the pipes, Grand Rapids has a new goaltending tandem. In his sophomore season, Daniel Larsson will likely see the lion’s share of time in net. His 2008-09 season went rather smoothly at the beginning, only to have injury and conditioning issues at the close of the year. Larsson will push to have a full solid year, while fending off rookie goaltender Thomas McCollum. The 2008 first-round selection started the team’s first game and gave up only one goal.
Additionally, the off-season signing of college goaltender Jordan Pearce gives the Red Wings organization something they’ve lacked recently — goaltending depth. Pearce will likely spend most of his season with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.