July 15, 2013
by Kyle Kujawa - griffinshockey.com
It’s a reality that all AHL fans deal with every summer: spend a long season getting to know your team, but see many depart in the summer due to NHL graduations, veterans looking for new opportunities and spaces needed for the arrival of first-year pros from throughout the parent club’s system.
The Griffins’ 2013-14 roster promises to look very familiar to most fans, as it returns four key veteran pieces, including Jeff Hoggan and Triston Grant up front, as well as a host of young players who emerged as future stars in Tomas Jurco, Landon Ferraro and Riley Sheahan. Fans even got to know two of the potential newcomers in Calle Jarnkrok and Teemu Pulkkinen, as they joined the team after their season in Europe concluded.
The team’s blueline, though, is another story. Four of the seven defensemen who skated for the team in the Calder Cup Finals are expected to move on: Danny DeKeyser and Brian Lashoff are penciled in to Detroit’s lineup, Chad Billins signed an NHL contract with Calgary, and Brett Skinner is currently a free agent after adding a boost to the team’s blueline when signed midseason.
The returns of veterans Nathan Paetsch and Brennan Evans, as well as Adam Almquist, a trio that will undoubtedly eat a lot of minutes, but the next three spots are up for grabs. There is no shortage of applicants either, with five first-year pros in the mix in addition to two returnees who are looking for full-time work.
Among the candidates for a full-time roster spot this fall are a trio of highly-touted 20-year-olds from the major junior ranks in Ryan Sproul, Richard Nedomlel and Xavier Ouellet.
“I thought I did a really good job this season,” said Ouellet of his year with the QMJHL’s Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. “I had the bad injury on my ankle, but it’s part of hockey and I was able to get back on the ice. I’m really proud of what I did.”
Born in Bayonne, France, where his father Robert played eight seasons professionally, Ouellet is a dual citizen and was selected to play for Canada at the World Junior Championships this season, a team that has to make tough roster decisions every year. For comparison, Sproul, a fellow first-year, was among the final cuts, and he went on to be named the OHL’s most outstanding defenseman and the CHL Defenseman of the Year.
“It was really a big honor,” said Ouellet. “I was so happy because it was a goal I had for a couple years. Realizing that goal was a dream come true and a true honor for me.”
Like Sproul, billed as an offensive defenseman with an elite shot, and Nedomlel, a 6-foot-5, 231-pound physical and mobile defenseman, Ouellet brings considerable hype into his first professional season. But he sees that competition is tough, and knows that being a high draft pick (48th overall in 2011) doesn’t guarantee him a roster spot next season.
“I need to keep getting stronger and work on my explosiveness,” Ouellet said.
If the Griffins are looking for a little more experience for next year’s group, they’ll have options there as well. Also in the mix are Alexey Marchenko, a 21-year-old defenseman who has played parts of four seasons professionally in the KHL, and Nick Jensen, a first-year pro who will be 23 before the start of next season.
“If I stayed in Russia, I’d be playing there for two more years and the Red Wings might not have given me a contract,” said Marchenko, who was always vocal about his intentions to play in North America after the Red Wings drafted him in 2011. “My dream is to play here with great players like Pavel Datsyuk. If you even have a little chance to be here, you have to try it. That’s my opinion, and that’s why I’m here.”
Marchenko had the chance to skate with Datsyuk, as the Red Wings star played with CSKA Moscow during the NHL lockout. The KHL is often regarded as the best European league in the world, but Marchenko knows that he has a ways to go to adjust to the AHL, especially in terms of the smaller ice surface.
“It’s always interesting to learn something new, and it will help me a lot in the future,” he said. “I think the smaller rink is better because it’s more intense. You have to think a little bit faster than on a big rink, which makes it more interesting.”
The Moscow native did visit Grand Rapids for a few weeks at the beginning of the team’s playoff run, skating in several practices and bracing for potential culture shock in moving across the world for next season.
“They have a great team and a great group of guys,” said Marchenko. “If I don’t understand something, everyone tries to help by speaking to me and showing me what to do. It was great to see how they work and to feel the atmosphere at the rink.
“I don’t think I will [have trouble adjusting to North America] because my wife will be here, too,” he continued. “It wouldn’t matter if we were in Grand Rapids or in Africa. You are together and helping each other, and I think your teammates will always help you in any part of the world.”
Like Marchenko, Jensen didn’t see any game action with the Griffins after finishing his junior season at Saint Cloud State University, but he did serve as a “Black Ace” all the way to the Calder Cup victory on June 18.
“It was a special experience,” said Jensen. “It was pretty amazing watching them on their journey to win the Cup. They were really welcoming when I got there, and when they won I felt just as big a part of it as anyone.”
Although he turns pro after a plethora of accolades in his junior year – All-WCHA First Team, WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and NCAA West First Team All-American – Jensen knows he needs to keep improving in order to not get stuck in the defensive logjam.
“College is a very intense game, but this is the next step up and guys are bigger and stronger, so I have to build strength,” he said. “Besides that, just defending. You want to be able to score as a defenseman, but there’s no point in playing defense if you can’t defend. I talked to Coach Blashill and Coach Paek, and they emphasized they wanted me to improve my passing too. I agree, and I’ve been working on it, so hopefully I can dial that in by September.”
Jensen also earned experience on the national stage, helping his school to their first-ever NCAA Frozen Four appearance. Although they were dispatched by Quinnipiac, the nation’s top team during the regular season, the Rogers, Minnesota, native knows he did his school proud.
“Losing in the semifinals was heartbreaking,” Jensen said. “After the sting went away, we looked back and were really proud of what we did, going the furthest that Saint Cloud has ever been. There are a lot of good guys who have been through that program. We’re definitely on the right path, and last year’s group was one of the biggest stepping stones they’ve had. I’ll always have the memory of being on that team.”
Not to be forgotten, second-year pro Max Nicastro and third-year pro Gleason Fournier will make their cases for regular spots in the lineup, having spent the bulk of the season on the Griffins’ roster. In addition to six playoff games, Fournier skated in 30 regular season games with the team, while Nicastro played 25, partially limited due to a pair of injuries.
“Injuries aren’t the best to deal with in your first year, but that’s out of the way now,” said Nicastro, who was also practicing as a Black Ace in preparation for potential playoff action. “But I’m happy to be here. I learned a lot this first year.”
He now faces many of his fellow Black Aces as competition for minutes, but after going through the system for a year, he knows what to expect this time around.
“It was definitely as hard as I thought it was going to be,” he continued. “It’s a tough league, and it’s hard to make the lineup. I thought I played decent. I know I didn’t play a lot, but that just comes with time and experience.”
In addition to spending some time with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, Nicastro had a lot of time to work after Griffins practices with the coaches and visiting Red Wings staff, including Chris Chelios. Chelios often praised Nicastro this season as someone to watch, as his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame is ideal for the pro game.
“Chelios and I really get along,” said Nicastro. “We see eye-to-eye with each other, which is really good. We talk a lot, and he’s just been a really good mentor to me. It’s been truly nice to have him down here.”
There are certainly many possibilities for how many of these players will see ice time with the Griffins come the drop of the puck in October, but as Jensen pointed out, the competition will mean a better product on the ice.
“I think all the guys coming in have that hard-working ability,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to watch, and it’s going to result in a good team as well.”