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Oct. 7, 2011

by Kristi Page  -
The Grand Rapids Griffins are anxious to kick off the 2011-12 season on Saturday in Rockford. Head coach Curt Fraser returns for his fourth season behind the bench, sitting just three wins behind Danton Cole (116) for winningest coach in franchise history. After a long offseason that saw several key players depart, the Griffins entered training camp with the Detroit Red Wings last month with many unanswered questions. Now that the opening night roster has been assembled, Fraser says that the players are ready to drop the puck on the new season. The team practiced at Van Andel Arena all week in preparation for the upcoming year, with their sights set on Saturday's tilt against the IceHogs.

After the first full week of practice, Fraser took some time to talk about offseason changes and how the team is preparing for their upcoming challenges.

How do you feel after having your first week of full team practice?

We have been waiting for this since the beginning of the prospect’s camp in Traverse City. The prospect’s camp in the summertime with all of the young guys was excellent, and it carried over to camp in the fall which was very, very good. We tried a lot of new things that hoped would help our team this year, and we learned a lot. The Red Wings camp this year was just like we hoped it would be: all of our guys that have been here got a chance to play a ton. They all did a real good job contributing to some good wins for the Wings, and it was excellent to watch. But now, it’s fun to have the guys here in Grand Rapids; we have a much better team than we’ve had the last two years. The first year I was here, we had a real good team, but Detroit called up two guys at the end of the season, we lost five guys to injury on a long road trip. [Joakim] Andersson came over from Sweden on a holiday, and he ended up playing and being our best player. With Detroit being beat up and missing pieces the next few years, it was tough, but this year we have the pieces in place that we need to win. We are excited for the start of this year, and it was great to get on the ice with the guys this morning.

What would you like to see improvements on this season?

Obviously, I think our goaltending has to improve. Joey MacDonald was supposed to be here last year for the entire year, but Osgood was hurt so we lost him. I think our goaltending is shored up now. [Jordan] Pearce is coming off of a real good year last year, and our defense, having added Garnet Exelby, with Smitty (Brendan Smith) coming back for another year, and [Brian] Lashoff and [Travis] Ehrhardt have found their stride this year, too. Defensively, we will be much better, and our goaltending will be much better. Up front, with guys like [Gustav] Nyquist and Chris Conner, who played in the NHL last year, we’re very good. And then the kids that we have added, like [Landon] Ferraro and [Willie] Coetzee, have all come off real strong camps in Detroit.

Who in particular are you impressed with after training camp?

I think Andersson looks real strong, and Nyquist – who we only had for a handful of games at the end of the last season – wasn’t a finalist for the Hobey Baker last year for no reason. He’s a real, real good player. Coetzee has found his step now, Ferraro looks strong. [Trevor] Parkes has been a real nice find for us; he’s been here a couple years in the prospects camp and looks very, very good. Lashoff and Ehrhardt have worked through a couple years with us, and they’re set to step up. Joey MacDonald, Pearce, [Tomas] Tatar and [Francis] Pare are set to have great years. Someone I haven’t talked about much is Jamie Johnson. He came in last year from a different organization, and he had a little of a tough time adjusting to our style of play. This year, he’s kept in great shape and now he knows all our systems. It’s going to be much easier for him to do a great job for us this year and contribute to the success of our team.

What are you doing differently this year than previous years?

We tweaked a couple of our systems and changed our foundation a little bit, but hopefully it will give us the structure we need. We are going to be much faster than we have been the past two years; you’re going to see more of a team that likes to attack a lot more. We’re a lot more aggressive and assertive on the puck, and our kids that have been here for a couple years now are more mature; now they know what is expected of them. They are turning into pros and know it will make a huge difference on the play of the team on the ice. It’s amazing that every year you start with eight or nine new, young kids who we’ve worked with at the prospect’s camp for two or three years. When they get here now, it’s much easier for them to adapt and work their way into the lineup and contribute. Right now, we’re excited, we’re looking for a great season out of everyone here, and it’s going to be fun. I think people love it, I know I am very impressed with our group, and hopefully they’ll do the same for the people of Grand Rapids.

How is the team looking overall?

I always like our group. We’ve got some great kids; I love working with them, and I love watching them play. But we’ve always missed pieces; we’ve never had a guy who could put up 80 or 90 points. We’ve never been five or six deep on defense, where you could put anybody up against anybody. In goal, we always have young guys but, other than Jimmy Howard, they’ve never been able to find their step. It’s been hard. This year, those have all been taken away. Now, we have good goaltending, a good defensive, and we’re real strong up front. We have key players like Conner, Nyquist , Pare and Tatar, who could all put up 80 or 90. I think we have a lot of upside and a real opportunity to be very, very good this year.

Do you think this team is deeper this year than last year?

Yes, much. Detroit, the last two years, has had many injuries up top, and they don’t take our second and third line players – they take our best players. It’s tough on them to lose their good guys, and really hard on us to lose ours, and we’ve had a tough time replacing them. We lost players for 19 days up in Detroit. This year, Detroit shored it up; they’ve got some depth up top. With [Jan] Mursak, [Cory] Emmerton, [Fabian] Brunnstrom, [Mike] Commodore, [Ian] White and [Ty] Conklin in goal, they’ve added some depth. Hopefully they’ll stay away from injury, which will allow us to keep our guys in place and not lose as many bodies as we did the last two years. We are much deeper, and we have an opportunity now to put five or six guys in Toledo (ECHL), so we won’t have to go shopping around to find players to replace our guys. If you play Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you lose a guy in the third period of Friday night’s game at 10:30 at night, who are you getting to come in on a Saturday to help out? Nobody. You end up playing short, and then somebody else gets hurt, and you’re two guys short. It was very, very difficult the last two years, but this year it will be easier. We have guys in place within a couple of hours, so hopefully everything will work out good for all three teams this year, and we’ll all enjoy a lot of success.

With Jordan Pearce and Tom McCollum all returning for another season, and Joey MacDonald down to start the year, are you more confident in goaltending this year?

Absolutely. McCollum is a good young goaltender, and so is Pearce. We need somebody to step up and take charge and Pearce won that job last year, and ended up logging a ton of ice time and playing more than he ever has in his life. But he put up wins and, if we can get Tommy to that point, we’d be real deep. Joey MacDonald is going to give us the stability in goal now that will help those two kids get better just by him being here. As long as nothing happens in Detroit – because Joey is more than capable of going up and doing a good job for them – I think we will be better in goal. In the American Hockey League over the last three years, the biggest change in the league has been goaltending. Everybody’s good at goal. We haven’t been for two years, and I think we have a really good opportunity to take that on with Joey, Pearce and Tommy.

Looking ahead to tomorrow night’s game, do you think the team is ready?

Oh yeah. One bad thing about this league is that it’s nice to practice all the time, practice a lot, but the players want to play hockey and for the first two or three weeks, we aren’t going to play a lot of games. But they are more than ready and excited about getting started here and getting off on the right foot.

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