While The Detroit Red Wings are struggling, the team’s AHL affiliates, the Grand Rapids Griffins have gone from strength to strength, winning the Calder Cup twice in recent years. Given the challenges currently faced by the Wings, is it time to look west to Grand Rapids and see if their season’s savior is waiting in the wings (bad pun)? Let’s take a look at the available talent sat waiting in the Van Andel Arena and play a little bit of Fantasy GM by moving some pieces around at every level, starting at the top, remember this is a just a bit of fun:
When Jeff Blashill left to fill the vacant head coach role in Detroit, former Griffins blueliner Todd Nelson was approached to fill the gap. Both lead the Griffins to Calder victory and although Blashill coached an extra season, both had very similar win percentages with the team (as of end of 2016/17). The question is of course, does Nelson deserve Blashill’s job with the big team?
At the start of the 2017/18 season, Blashill featured on many a website’s ‘most likely to get fired’ lists. While he’s not the entire reason the Wings’ performances have mainly been below par, it’s simply part of the game of sport that when results aren’t good, the head coach goes first. This is especially true when the GM goes and it’s worth remembering that Ken Holland‘s contract is up at the end of the season.
Faced with the dawning inevitability that Bashill is leaving the big team soon anyway, how does Nelson size up? The are definitely pros, he knows the franchise and the kids, he also has a little NHL experience having stepped in to replace Dallas Eakins on an interim basis in Edmonton. His team’s numbers weren’t exactly great, but this was a pre-Connor McDavid Oilers so interim performance can be excused. That aside; once bitten & twice shy so I’m going to take a pass on Nelson. Besides, he’s doing good things in West Michigan.
The Griffins’ Jared Coreau and Tom McCollum have both had ice time with the big team, but not recently, and neither really came out smelling of roses. But that’s a moot point, as neither surpasses the goalie tandem the Wings already have. Jimmy Howard is good enough to start and Petr Mrazek has slotted into the back-up role well enough. There are no other goalies (in the organisation) that I’d rather have.
There are three Griffins’ blueliners I’d call up; Robbie Russo, Filip Hronek and maybe Dylan McIlrath. Russo played 19 games in Detroit last season and failed to impress going forward. He has however been taking names in Grand Rapids and seems like an good replacement for Danny DeKeyser (sorry Gwen) or Xavier Ouellet. Both of whom are underwhelming right now and could do with a change of scenery.
Hronek, drafted in 2016, is currently impressing in his rookie season. At 6’0 and 178lbs, Hronek isn’t as big as traditional d-men, but that hasn’t stopped him racking up the points. Whether or not he’s ready for the NHL is a different question, but to my mind, he’s earned the opportunity.
Another option is McIlrath, but only just. The former New York Ranger and Florida Panther was picked up in a trade for Thomas Vanek and a draft pick. His contribution to the Griffins’ Calder Cup run is evident, but whether that can translate into being part of a successful Red Wings team remains to be seen. McIlrath’s previous NHL experience wasn’t amazing. Given how many shots Howard and Mrazek are facing though, he’s worth a call up but the dude really needs to cut down on the penalty minutes.
Dominic Turgeon and Tyler Bertuzzi have already played some hockey with the big team, and Bertuzzi already has a few goals to his name. Blashill needs to give these two as much ice time as possible to work out the kinks and show exactly how much potential they have.
A player who may be due another shot at the big time is Matt Puempel. There are questions over whether the winger, drafted by Ottawa in 2011, is ready or indeed capable of playing at the level the NHL requires. His prior stints with the Sens and New York Rangers gave just 15 points in 79 games. What’s not up for debate is how good Puempel is in the AHL. He’s currently the Griffins’ leading goalscorer and is more than a point-per-game player. Whether or not this can translate the the big league remains to be seen, although with the right line mates, I’d say he’s worth a punt.
Eric Tangradi starting playing NHL hockey in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it’s been just over two years since he last wore the Winged Wheel, and even that was for just seven minutes. At 28, it’s understandable why the left-winger hasn’t been top of the list but his AHL numbers are excellent and has the potential to be a good 4th liner.
My final contender for some ice time with the big team is Turner Elson. The undrafted centre has been knocking around the AHL for a few years and has only played one game in the NHL. That one game was with the Calgary Flames, where Elson recorded his only career point. A solid two-way player, Elson isn’t afraid to drop the gloves when the situation requires. Here he is scoring a Gordie Howe hat trick:
Barring any miracles, the champion-ship has already sailed for the Detroit Red Wings. While the team doesn’t understand the the word ‘tank’, it is time to look ahead and start drilling for some untapped potential. The Griffins won the Calder Cup for a reason, and it would be short-sighted for Holland and Blashill to not look inward. To check out the talent that’s already available within the franchise would be a smart move.
It’s unlikely that the future of team will be turned around by one or more of the current Griffins roster. However there are plenty of players who should be seen wearing red soon, and they might just save Blashill’s job.