By Jason Pearson, griffinshockey.com
As expected, the Grand Rapids Griffins felt the effects when their parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, traded goaltender Petr Mrazek to Philadelphia on Feb. 19. Jared Coreau, the AHL’s Goaltender of the Month for February, was happy to get another opportunity with the Red Wings, and Matej Machovsky, who was pacing the ECHL in goals against average at the time, was excited to get his first chance in the AHL.
Filip Hronek, the Griffins’ 20-year-old defenseman and Czech Republic native, was equally as pumped as Machovsky was – potentially even more so – that his fellow countryman was joining the team.
“I think he was much happier than I was because he was calling me right away, saying ‘yeah, we can hang out now,’” Machovsky, four years the senior of Hronek, said.
Having a Czech companion in Grand Rapids to finish off the regular season and during what will hopefully be a long playoff run is icing on the cake of what has proved to be an outstanding rookie campaign for Detroit’s second-round draft selection in 2016.
Hronek currently ranks in the league’s top-20 defensemen in points, goals, assists and plus-minus rating, and he’s on pace to post one of the top-three highest-scoring seasons by a Griffins first-year blueliner.
“I’ve been impressed with the way he’s learned the game, produced for us and how he’s progressed,” Griffins third-year head coach Todd Nelson said.
Hronek’s first full professional season and second year in North America began with its share of bumps, no different than a number of rookies across pro circuits. Scratched eight times in the team’s first 31 games, Hronek was filtered in and out of the lineup, partly attributable to inconsistent play and partly due to the Griffins’ roster listing eight qualified defensemen. Ryan Sproul was traded on Oct. 21 to bring the defensive lineup to a much more manageable number of seven, and as the season marched through its third month, Hronek developed a steadiness to his game play.
The 6-foot, 178-pound Hronek has been a mainstay in the lineup since Dec. 29, which aligns with Grand Rapids’ 20-6-0-2 record over that span and vault into position for a sixth straight Calder Cup Playoff bid. He’s spent considerable time throughout the year on the man-advantage, verified by 14 power play points, the most among team defensemen.
“After the trade for Sproul, he got an opportunity to get in the lineup on an everyday basis and he really took advantage of that,” assistant coach Bruce Ramsay said. “His work on the power play has become elite. He’s running the first unit right now and doing a great job. His defensive capabilities have grown.”
Hronek posted a particularly effective 17-game stretch from Jan. 12-Feb. 25, posting 15 points (5-10—15) and a team-best plus-14 rating.
“I try working hard every day,” Hronek said. “I think I’m getting better at things. Last couple of games, I’m getting better at everything.”
While he was only referencing on-ice activities, Hronek’s universal improvement includes adjusting to Grand Rapids and the English language. When his parents visited for two weeks in January, Hronek was more than happy to serve as their translator.
After finishing his only junior campaign with the Saginaw Spirit last season, Hronek joined the Griffins for the tail end of the regular season and the Calder Cup Playoffs, which ultimately culminated in him having his name engraved on the Calder Cup. His introduction to Grand Rapids was eased by the presence of Martin Frk and Tomas Nosek, two Czechs who have since moved on to full-time NHL jobs with Detroit and Vegas, respectively.
While he is the only occupant in his downtown apartment, Hronek certainly has not been left on his own to navigate through his first full North American pro season.
In addition to saying a sincere “everybody’s helped me a lot” during his rookie year, Hronek does allow that veteran defenseman Brian Lashoff has lent his time to him for video work.
“He wants to learn, I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Lashoff, a two-time Calder Cup champion with Grand Rapids who has 123 NHL games to his credit. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better, and if that’s something I can do to help him out then I’ll do it. We’ve been doing that for a lot of the season now and he seems to pick up on little things during the video sessions that we do. He’s gotten way better since the start of the year at playing in his own end and being a guy that we rely on for playing important minutes.”
Nelson points out that Hronek dressing as Conor McGregor for the team’s Halloween get together served as a great icebreaker with the newcomers to the roster, although the rookie’s wide smile and pleasant personality have aided his comfortability in the room the whole year.
No icebreaker was needed, however, for Hronek and Machovsky when the two first met at Detroit’s development camp in 2016.
“First time we met he was my tail, walking everywhere, ‘hey Macho, translate that,’” Machovsky recalled. “He was a second-rounder so he was in the spotlight and I was in a little different position being a free agent.”
Now the two Czechs find themselves in the same league, with Machovsky trying to establish himself and Hronek looking to polish off his first pro season.
“It’s fun to have a countryman here and he’s a nice guy. We play games together and if we hang out, he cooks,” Hronek said of Machovsky, flashing a familiar smile.