Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Next Generation

For a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, the Detroit Red Wings reportedly would be seeking help in the off-season with hopes of returning to the playoffs in 2017-18. They'll need to start rebuilding their roster, but they may not have to go far to do so as the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins completed another successful season by winning the Calder Cup over the Syracuse Crunch in six games. There were many contributors in Grand Rapids' victory over these AHL playoffs, and there has to be smiles in Detroit's front office knowing that the next generation is on the verge of cracking their NHL roster.

There have been a lot of changes at both the NHL and AHL levels in the Red Wings franchise. Jeff Blashill was promoted to the NHL level after Mike Babcock left, and Todd Nelson took over in Grand Rapids after he was fired by the Edmonton Oilers in 2014-15 after 46 games. Nelson's move to Grand Rapids has seen him win 44 and 47 games in two seasons, twice making the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs only to capture the trophy this season. While the Griffins finished in second-place in the Central Division this season, Nelson rallied his team to sweep the Milwaukee Admirals 3-0 in the opening round, down the Chicago Wolves 4-1 in Round Two, and knock off the San Jose Barracuda 4-1 in the Western Conference Final.

In six full AHL seasons as a head coach, Nelson has only recorded less than 40 wins once - 2013-14 with Oklahoma City when he posted 36 wins. Nelson literally is an AHL legend at the age of 48 as the win tonight allows him to join Bob Woods and Mike Stothers as the only three people ever to win Calder Cups as a player, as an assistant coach, and as a head coach. The fact that Detroit has a coach of Nelson's experience and tenure in Grand Rapids speaks volumes to the preparation that the next wave of Red Wings will experience. Nelson makes the Griffins a much better team, and that will pay off for Jeff Blashill at the NHL level.

Tyler Bertuzzi may have shown the best growth in this playoff run as the left winger was named as the Jack A. Butterfield trophy winner as playoff MVP. He had a fairly decent regular season with 12 goals and 25 assists in 48 games, but his nine goals and ten assists in 19 playoff games showed some real clutch play. Had this been the regular season, there's a good chance that Bertuzzi would have been scratched with a badly infected cut in his hand from a fight in the previous game in Syracuse. However, Bertuzzi remained in the lineup for Game Six and ended up scoring the third Grand Rapids goal. That goal, incidentally, was his 23rd career playoff goal for the Griffins, erasing the mark set by Teemu Pulkkinen for most in franchise history. In 42 career AHL playoff games, Bertuzzi has 23 goals and 39 points - the same number of goals as he has in regular-season play despite playing 121 regular season games. Playoff performer? Uh, yeah, you could say that.

Martin Frk was another big reason for the Griffins' success this season. Frk, a restricted free agent this summer, has 27 goals and 23 assists in 65 games this season, but it seemed his lay fell off in the playoffs. What Frk did, however, was use the increased attention on him to find open teammates as he recorded five goals and ten assists in 16 games. Of course, no goal was bigger for the Czech star than the slap shot he took with 7:19 left in the third period that beat Mike McKenna to put the Griffins up 4-3 in Game Six. It's expected that Frk will compete for a roster spot with Detroit next season, and his skill set should have him around camp until the end.

Jared Coreau may find himself tending nets with Petr Mrazek next season if Jimmy Howard is on the move, and there's no reason to believe the Wings will take a step back with that duo in the crease. Coreau went 19-11-3 in 33 games this season with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage with a pair of shutouts. However, Coreau went bananas in the playoffs as he posted a 15-4-0 record, including a 10-0 record on home ice, with a 2.84 GAA and a .909 save percentage. Those stats may not wow anyone on the outset, but Coreau's resolve to be a starter at the professional level deserves some mention.

After being yanked in allowing five goals on twelve shots in Game Five, Coreau came back with another solid game. Coreau has done all sorts of extra training to assist his development including eye-coordination training and mental toughness exercises. The 25 year-old coughed up the puck on the opening goal to Syracuse's Yanni Gourde who deposited it in the yawning cage, and Coreau would need to battle back again. But Coreau drew on his training and his time with the Red Wings this season to find the determination to hang in there, and he helped Grand Rapids overcome three separate one-goal leads to backstop the team to the Calder Cup.

Finally, the one other player who had a major influence on this year's Griffins team was centerman Tomas Nosek. Like his linemates in Frk and Bertuzzi, he had a solid regular season where he scored 15 goals and added 26 helpers in 51 games. And just as his linemates did, Nosek caught fire in the playoffs with ten goals and 12 assists in 19 games. Nosek's maturity at 24 years of age began to show through as the Calder Cup Final began. After a Game One victory, Nosek spoke out after scoring two goals, including the game-winner, and stated that the Griffins had to be better if they hoped to win. Nosek put the team on his shoulders with three goals and five assists in the six games, and looked like he's prepared to take the next step.

Of course, I might be getting ahead of myself here. Let's not suggest that the Red Wings will be Stanley Cup favorites next season with the addition of four young players. None of these players are game-breakers on their own, but together they can certainly help Detroit find its way back to the playoffs. If Blashill is looking to add a little scoring, he has an entire line at his disposal that helped decimate four teams in the AHL. While some may say they're not quite ready for the NHL yet, I say the Red Wings should let the kids play instead of trying to fill the roster with lower-priced free agents if that's their plan. It makes too much sense for these players not to be in Detroit.

Congratulations go out to the Grand Rapids Griffins, the 2017 Calder Cup champions! Nelson, Bertuzzi, Frk, Coreau, and Nosek were big pieces of that success this year, and they could play a role in Detroit's success in future years if they continue to work hard. Winning at the AHL level, though, is usually a good sign that key players and coaches are ready for a new challenge.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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