Rookie defender Russo a plus in Griffins’ climb up the AHL standings

By Sean Shapiro
Robbie Russo - Grand Rapids Griffins

Photo: Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman and Detroit Red Wings prospect Robbie Russo has turned in a productive AHL rookie campaign, posting five goals and 37 points in 60 games in 2015-16 (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)



Robbie Russo doesn’t have a good explanation for his outlandish plus/minus figure.

Through 59 games, the Grand Rapids Griffins rookie defenseman and Detroit Red Wings prospect is a ludicrous +46. No one else in the 30-team AHL has cracked +38, while Russo is on track to become the first player to finish the season above +40 since Andrew Bodnarchuk finished +43 for the Manchester Monarchs during the 2013-14 season. Russo could track down and top Arturs Kulda’s +47 for the Chicago Wolves in 2009-10 as the top AHL plus/minus mark of the past 10 years.

“I don’t have a good answer or way to explain it,” Russo said. “I guess I’ve just been fortunate this season.”

To be fair, Russo has made his own luck.

Russo was drafted in the fourth round (95th overall) by the New York Islanders in 2011 after a successful stint with the United States National Team Development Program (NTDP). He then embarked on a four-year career at the University of Notre Dame where he had 94 points in 142 career games.

During his senior season he served as captain for the Fighting Irish while also snagging second-team All-America honors. After his NCAA career ended, Russo didn’t sign with the Islanders and became an unrestricted free agent.

He was quickly scooped up by Detroit who inked the right-handed defenseman to a two-year, entry-level contract.

That move has paid off for the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.

Russo has established himself as one of the more reliable defensemen in the AHL. He has played on both the power play and the penalty kill, while he is third amongst rookie defensemen with five goals and 32 assists.

“He’s just so reliable,” Grand Rapids coach Todd Nelson said. “He makes quick decisions and doesn’t get rattled like a rookie or look like a rookie. I think that plus/minus number has grabbed him some attention from outside our locker room when he’s had attention within our organization all season.”

Russo’s performance this season has helped Grand Rapids surge up the Central Division standings. After a horrendous start back in October, the Griffins have found themselves with a 41-21-1-1 record in mid-March.

Grand Rapids has pieced together a pair of lengthy win streaks. Earlier, the Griffins won 15 straight games, while they recently had a 13-game win streak that was snapped by the San Antonio Rampage on Sunday.

“I think as a team, we really ride the momentum when we’re winning like that,” Russo said. “It’s a good group to be around. I think we have confidence from a streak.”

That success has turned Grand Rapids back into a trendy pick to reach the Calder Cup finals. While other potential favorites (Ontario Reign, Toronto Marlies amongst others) have pieced together strong seasons, no team has been able to put together win streaks like Grand Rapids.

That possibility excites Russo, and reaffirms his decision to sign with Detroit after finishing his career at Notre Dame.

“I think it was the right choice,” Russo said. “This is an organization that’s great to be a part of and they clearly understand how to run things. I’m happy to be here.”

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro