Grand Rapids Griffins 2011-12 season preview

By Brandon Peleshok
Photo: Tomas Jurco was the only Wings junior prospect who played in the pre-season. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

In recent years the Grand Rapids Griffins have struggled to find success and an identity. They have missed the playoffs for the past two seasons, unable to find consistency in terms defensive play and keeping the puck out of the net. With the loss of several key offensive players, the Griffins will also have to keep on eye on their scoring this season.

Going into the 2011-12 season, though, there is reason to be optimistic in Grand Rapids. After a few years of being stagnant in the standings, the Griffins seem to have a new identity as a team, paired with an injection of first-year pro players. They still have respectable scoring depth, and young players eager to fill roles on the team.

With seven players potentially participating in their first season of pro-hockey, in influx of youth could be just the thing to turn the Griffins around.

Forwards

Scoring depth has been a strong suit amidst Grand Rapids’ recent struggles, and a pack of rookie players and veterans alike will have to contribute to make up for the loss of Ilari Filppula (leading points scorer) and Jamie Tardif (leading goal scorer). Gustav Nyquist could be part of that answer, as he was the biggest story coming out of the Red Wings training camp this year. Nyquist played in four games of the Traverse City Tournament where he scored one goal and four assists. He then went on to do just as well in the pre-season, where he scored three goals and two assists in five games. Statistics aside, Nyquist looked like he fit right in with other NHL players, a sign that bodes well for his first year as a member of the Griffins.

Returning players Tomas Tatar and Francis Pare will likely take on a good chunk of the offensive load this season, while Joakim Andersson and Brent Raedeke‘s two-way ability will be relied on heavily. The door is also open to many first year players to make an immediate offensive impact. The likes of Landon Ferraro, Mitchell Callahan, Trevor Parkes, and Louis-Marc Aubry will all have a chance to contribute to the team in some capacity. The Griffins lack scoring depth up the middle, and the idea of re-uniting Ferraro and former Red Deer Rebels teammate Willie Coetzee has some possible offensive potential. Andrej Nestrasil, who will start the season on the ECHL‘s Toledo Walleye, also remains a possibility to take on some of the offensive load, should he get called up to the AHL during the season.

Grand Rapids will also be dealing with the losses of Cory Emmerton and Jan Mursak, who both made the Red Wings roster out of camp this year. The Red Wings signed veteran Chris Conner to add a scoring punch to the Griffins, while hoping that other vet players Jamie Johnson and Chris Minard can have better offensive seasons. If these three veteran players can chip in, the loss of key players from last season will be minimized.

There is also a slight possibility that the Griffins could add one more forward to their roster after Jan Mursak returns to the Red Wings from injury. The 14th forward spot on the Red Wings will be up for grabs, with the likely candidates being Cory Emmerton, Jan Mursak, and Fabian Brunnstrom. If someone is not moved off the team, one of those three players could join Grand Rapids in the unlikely scenario that they are able to clear waivers.

Defensemen

Defense was perhaps Grand Rapids’ biggest weakness during the 2010-11 season. Losing Derek Meech (who was arguably their best defenseman) to free agency only compounds this problem. The Griffins will look to Brendan Smith to take on a bigger role this season. Smith had an impressive rookie season with Grand Rapids last season, scoring 12 goals and 20 assists over 63 games last season. He will have to cut down on the penalty minutes (124) though, and a play a more disciplined game overall. Playing on the edge landed Smith in trouble during the pre-season, as a hit on Chicago Blackhawks prospect Ben Smith landed him a five game suspension, in addition to the remaining games of the pre-season at the time. Smith can return to the Grand Rapids lineup in late October, and the Red Wings will likely call him up to the team as often as possible to chip away at the suspension in the meantime.

Fellow prospects Logan Pyett and Brian Lashoff will look to have rebound years to bolster the defense as well. Pyett will be entering his fourth season as a member of the Griffins, and will be looking to bounce back after regressing during the 2010-11 year. Brian Lashoff suffered two separate injuries during the 2010-11 season, and will look to have a full and prosperous year. He is a talented defenseman who can fill some of the void left by Meech’s departure if he can stay healthy. Rounding out the defense corps, Travis Ehrhardt, Sebastien Piche and first-year player Gleason Fournier will all have a chance to crack the Griffins line-up as well as the season progresses.

The Griffins blue line will also be anchored by veteran players Doug Janik and free-agent signing Garnet Exelby. Both players will be counted on in defensive situations, namely on the penalty kill, as well as providing experience to the team and being a calming influence to their young defensive partners.

Goaltending

Goaltending is a bit of a shaky spot for the Griffins. Veteran netminder Joey MacDonald will take the reigns once again as the starting goaltender for the team. While he only played 20 games last season, it was due to being called up to the Red Wings in mid-January, where he finished the 2010-11 season. As the starter for Grand Rapids, MacDonald will be a calming influence between the pipes and likely see the most time of all Griffins goaltenders.

The back-up position is more of a question mark, though, as the spot was constantly in flux last season. Thomas McCollum (3.33 goals against average, .879 save percentage) began the season with the team, but when he faltered Jordan Pearce (2.89 goals against average, .908 save percentage) took over as the back-up. As MacDonald spent time in the NHL, the two netminders battled for starts, with Pearce posting the more impressive numbers.

Going into the 2011-12 season, the position is still a bit of a mystery. McCollum has already been sent down to the Griffins ECHL affiliate team, the Toledo Walleye. If Pearce can maintain the level he played at last season, it will be difficult for McCollum to crack the line-up. It is likely that the two netminders will switch positions during the year to get McCollum some AHL seasoning, but at this point it appears to be Pearce’s spot to lose.

Coaching

Curt Fraser returns in his fourth year as the head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins. Prior to coaching in the AHL, Fraser worked as the head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers for four seasons from 1999-2003. After that, he served as an assistant coach in New Jersey and St. Louis, as well as coaching the Belarusian national team. All in all, he has about 18 years of coaching experience at the international and professional levels.

Since taking over the reigns as the Griffins coach in 2008-09, Fraser has seen a second round playoff exit, followed by two seasons of missing the playoffs. Fraser is a strong offensive coach, as his teams tend to post solid numbers in the goals for category. He also works well with younger players, which should benefit this year’s new crop of players turning pro for the first season. Though, Fraser could be on thin ice with the team missing the playoffs the past two years, and a season of making the post-season will do wonders for his future with the team.

Prospects

Tomas Jurco stood out in camp this season, though probably not for the reason he had hoped. The Red Wings frist selection in the 2011 draft was only able to participate in two games of the Traverse City prospects tournament due to a hip flexor injury. Jurco went scoreless in both games, and looked a bit out of sorts, though it can likely be attributed to the discomfort experienced by his ailment. On a positive note, he was the only junior prospect for the Red Wings that suited up in a pre-season game. While he was not able to put up any points, he looked poised and was strong on the puck. The Red Wings obviously have faith in Jurco, as he was kept with the team the longest of any junior player before being sent back to the QMJHL.

Another player who stuck out was Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defender Ryan Sproul. Playing in all four games of the Traverse City tournament, Sproul was able to put up three goals, one assist and was a plus-three. The large-framed defenseman showed why his shot his highly touted, as he put his offensive skills on display. While he was sent back to his OHL team without playing a pre-season game, all junior prospects other than Tomas Jurco were sent home after the tournament.

Marek Tvrdon played at a high level during the tournament as well. The Red Wings took a bit of a chance when they drafted Tvrdon in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, as he only played in 12 games due to a shoulder injury. He was able to show off his talent in this tournament and justify their pick, as he scored two goals and an assist in three games.

Brooks Macek also had a strong camp, while prospects Xavier Ouellet, Petr Mrazek, and Alan Quine seemed to struggle at times.