2017-18 Season Primer|
Calder Cup Champions kick off title defense...
By Jason Kasiorek
With the parent Red Wings Training Camp winding down in beautiful Traverse City, the defending Calder Cup Champion Grand Rapids Griffins are coming together to start their season. Several players from the championship squad have departed including Captain Nathan Paetsch and rookie speedster Kyle Criscuolo who will be plying their trade with the Rochester Americans along with blueliner Conor Allen. Fan favorite Mitch Callahan and backup net minder Eddie Pasquale signed with the Edmonton Oilers, while net minder Cal Heeter has landed with the Toronto Marlies. Several Griffins were in the mix for a spot in the NHL, but injuries have had a significant effect on that race. AHL playoff MVP Tyler Bertuzzi and sniper Evgeny Svechnikov both landed on the injured list, effectively ending their chance to make the Wings out of camp. Martin Frk has reportedly seized a spot on the opening roster and Ben Street or Matt Lorito could be joining him.
With several newcomers filling out the ranks for 2017-18, let's take a look at how the team is shaping up in the early going. Between the pipes the team has had a major shakeup, bringing in three new goaltenders for depth behind starter Jared Coreau. That of course is assuming that Coreau clears waivers and makes it back to Grand Rapids, which appears unlikely after a strong preseason. The scheduled backup is former Griffin Thomas McCollum who returns after a trade with the Calgary Flames. McCollum has proven to be a competent AHL goalie to fill in for Coreau and can also help with the development of #3 net minder Matej Machovsky. Machovsky will most likely be starting the season in Toledo, but could easily see some time at the AHL level. ECHL veteran Pat Nagle rounds out the quartet and should split playing time with the Walleye while providing some stability for the ECHL club.
The Griffins blueline has been retooled this season with the addition of much heralded rookies Filip Hronek and Vili Saarijarvi. It should also benefit from a full season of having big Dylan McIlrath in the lineup. Pairs during training camp have seen steady Dan Renouf with offensive wizard Filip Hronek, fearless Joe Hicketts with McIlrath, and veteran Brian Lashoff matched with rookie speedster Villi Saarijarvi. Robbie Russo is likely to see time in Grand Rapids and stay at home defender Patrick McCarron could also be pressed into service after an impressive camp, but is most likely slotted to the ECHL.
Up front the Griffins look to be returning a significant portion of their potent offense. Depending on waiver claims, the team should see Eric Tangradi (hobbled by a sprained knee in camp), Ben Street, Matt Lorito, Matt Ford, Tyler Bertuzzi and Evgeny Svechnikov. Newcomer Corey Elkins brings his offensive touch back to AHL from Finland, and a pair of speedy rookies in Luke Esposito and Dominik Shine will all be in contention for regular playing time. Projected lines from training camp look like a top 6 of Street between Tangradi and Svechnikov, and Lorito and Campbell flanking Axel Holmstrom. Formidable defensive forward Dominic Turgeon returns along with line mate (and probable captain) Matt Ford, joined by newcomer Turner Elson. Elkins has centered a line with Esposito and Sadowy on the wings. Mike Borkowski and Shine are in the mix for the last spots up front, while Zach Nastasiuk is probably looking to start the season in Toledo.
Tangradi - Street - Svechnikov
Lorito - Holmstrom - Campbell
Esposito - Elkins - Sadowy
Ford - Turgeon - Elson
Shine - Borkowski
Lashoff - Saarijarvi
Hicketts - McIlrath
Renouf - Russo
F Eric Tangradi - Tangradi was hobbled a bit by an injury suffered early in training camp, likely costing him an audition for the extra forward in Detroit. Provided he is healthy, the dominant power forward should be a key leader on the ice and room and could flirt with the 30-goal mark.
F Ben Street - Street was in contention for the last spot up front with the parent Wings, but if he does end up back in the AHL, he gives the team a high scoring number one center with a defensive conscience. Look for the veteran forward to be a key on the powerplay and lead the team in scoring again.
F Evgeny Svechnikov - Once the towering sniper recovers from a neck injury suffered in the preseason, expect him to be an offensive force as he looks to push his case for NHL employment. He was impressive as a rookie and even more so in camp this fall. Svechnikov just needs a little seasoning to improve his consistency and confidence before taking his game to the next level.
F Matt Lorito - The speedy sniper was on the cusp of starting the season on the NHL roster. Should he end up back in Grand Rapids he should be good for a point per game and 25 goals. Lorito is a powerplay weapon and uses his superior skating to find openings to get the puck to the net.
F Axel Holmstrom - This could be a big season for the talented forward. He looks to be slotting in as the second line center and should see a lot of ice time in all situations. He looks like a veteran, impressing with his low panic point and is defensively responsible. The question will be what his offensive output will be at the AHL level over a full season. He has the talent to put up big numbers, but in his limited preview, has not displayed that yet.
F Colin Campbell - A big, banging energy forward, Campbell will probably bounce around the lineup providing energy and acting as the defensive safety valve for whatever line he plays on. He is a dogged fore-checker who has soft enough hands to make things happen with the pucks he steals. Campbell is also a key penalty killer and last minute player due to his all out effort and great vision.
F Luke Esposito - Esposito turned some heads with a strong prospects tournament and training camp, showing off his speed and playmaking ability. The rookie forward signed an AHL contract after graduating from Harvard last season following in former Griffin Kyle Criscuolo's footsteps. An interesting comparison as the two-way forward looks to have similar skill sets in his ability to carry the puck up ice through traffic and his defensively responsible game.
F Corey Elkins - A two-way energy player who plays with pace, Elkins is ideally suited to the third line, but the rangy forward should also see time as a key player on then penalty kill and has had success on the powerplay as well. After several seasons overseas, Elkins looked to be struggling with the ice size (lack of room) and the intensity of the North American game, but should round into shape and produce 10-15 goals.
F Dylan Sadowy - One of the most improved players on the ice in the prospects tournament and training camp. Sadowy looks to have used last seasons abysmal showing as motivation. The gritty goal scorer looked stronger and was playing with more intensity and engagement. If he can continue to work on bringing his shot to the net, he should break double digits while making an impact at both ends of the ice.
F Matt Ford - Expect the veteran winger to continue as a key leader on the team as he is likely to inherit the captain's ‘C' with the departure of Paetsch. Ford was a staple on the powerplay and still managed to be offensive productive despite playing on the 3rd and 4th lines. This season should be no different, and 15-20 goals would not be much of a stretch if healthy for the gritty forward.
F Dominic Turgeon - The Griffins ace defensive center should again anchor the 4th line as well as the 1st penalty-killing unit. He looks even stronger and faster this season, and coupled with his work ethic and instincts all signs are positive for another great season. The only thing that stands out is his offensive game, or lack thereof. It is clear he has the talent to play that game, but so far his focus has been directed to the defensive side of the game.
F Turner Elson - The defacto replacement for Mitch Callahan, Elson is a gritty, feisty banger who is capable of scoring some nice goals as well. Elson's game is predicated on his work ethic, willingness and leadership, all of which draw rave reviews. He has the ability to skate with good players and also to drop the gloves when necessary to protect them when needed.
F Mike Borkowski - A favorite of coach Nelson, Borkowski never stops hustling and won't be intimidated by anyone no matter how big. A defensive forward who plays with pace, the gritty banger is an impressive skater and a dogged fore-checker who always give 110% effort. He looks to be an extra forward starting the season, but like last year, expect that he will draw in at some point and get his games.
F Dominik Shine - Shine is a speedy smaller forward with great offensive instincts. He was very impressive in a late season audition last year and looked good again in the prospects tournament before dropping a bit during main camp. The hard working winger is capable of making plays at high speed and can take advantage of open ice to burn defenders. If he can get some ice time, he could put up some big numbers offensively and work his way into the top six.
F Zach Nastasiuk - Nastasiuk has a long road ahead of himself to earn a spot in the AHL and push for another contract with the Wings. The two-way forward has not been able to be an impact player above the ECHL, and was one of the first cuts in camp this year. It looks as if he will have to surge in the ECHL to get another look in Grand Rapids.
D Brian Lashoff - The safe, veteran defender signed a two year contract extension during the off-season showing how much the organization thinks of his game. He is one of the premiere defensive defenseman in the AHL and a capable fill in at the NHL level. The gritty defender uses his size well and pays with a bit of a mean streak, but his key attribute is his ability to slow the game down and efficiently make the right play.
D Vili Saarijarvi - One of the rookie blueliners looking to take a regular shift on the Griffins blueline, Saarijarvi is an undersized offensive powerhouse who never stops moving, playing with incredible pace. He also uses his smarts to play a solid defensive game, using good positioning and skating to make up for his lack of stature. The gifted freshman has been a standout at every level he has played, and should pile up points on the Griffins powerplay.
D Joe Hicketts - A thundering hitter with great defensive instincts, Hicketts built on a successful season in the AHL by turning in a great training camp and preseason. If he was just a bit bigger he would already be in the NHL, but his play is turning heads and it seems only a matter of time before he gets an opportunity. The stocky blueliner uses his great skating to move the puck up ice for scoring chances and also to hit like a freight train, often sending much larger opponents flying.
D Dylan McIlrath - McIlrath looks to be re-establishing himself as an NHL prospect with a strong post-season in Grand Rapids followed up by a good training camp and preseason showing. The mammoth defender showed off his defensive prowess, blocking shots in front and using his size and strength to move opposing forwards out of the slot. He will continue to play that game in the AHL while also providing a physical presence to make sure that the smaller players on the team are not taken advantage of.
D Filip Hronek - Hronek is not a stranger to Griffins fans as he has already had a stint on the blueline in a late season audition. He is a sublimely talented offensive defenseman, who sees the ice well and can skate like the wind. Sometimes he gambles a bit too much and gets caught, something he has been working on, but may cost him playing time early. He has already shown the ability to be an impact player in short stretches in the AHL and if he can keep a regular shift, should have a strong showing.
D Robbie Russo - Russo had an up and down year last year, spending time in the NHL before having a dreadful post-season. He didn't stand out in training camp and is certainly looking over his shoulder at some of the young players stacking up behind him. That being said he is the player most likely to be the first call on defense for the parent club at this point in the season. At the AHL level he is able to put up points and can move the puck up ice and out of trouble, something he should continue to improve during his time in the AHL.
D Dan Renouf - Renouf had to be disappointed in being in one of the first rounds of players cut from camp. The hulking defender got better as the season went on last year, and was probably hoping for a longer look with the parent club. Renouf is mobile and skates well, using his reach and size to strip opponents of the puck and turn it back up ice.
G Jared Coreau - After a Calder Cup Championship and a solid pre-season, it looks less and less like Coreau will clear waivers to be assigned to Grand Rapids. He looks to have shored up a couple of areas in his game and played much more efficient and less scrambly. If he returns, the Griffins remain the odds-on favorites to win another championship, if not things look much different.
G Thomas McCollum - McCollum returns to the organization for his 8th season, and depending on how things shake out could play anywhere from AHL starter to the ECHL. He is a known quantity and his easy-going demeanor makes him a good veteran to work with Coreau and Machovsky.
G Matej Machovsky - Machovsky had an up and down camp, and really just needs to play some games in a North American size arena to get his game back on track. At times he looked very good, and will hope to challenge for playing time at the AHL level.
G Pat Nagle - The veteran netminder should be the starter for the Walleye, where he has proven to be a very good netminder at the ECHL level. He also has shown he can fill in at the AHL level when needed. He gives the Griffins some stability doe to the unsure situation with Coreau.