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September 22, 2010

by Kyle Kujawa

The defensemen who will likely comprise the Grand Rapids Griffins’ blue line during the 2010-11 season are shaping up to be a strong and promising force. The Griffins have added veteran experience, size, and two highly touted rookies to improve on their goals-against from last season, an area in which the team has nowhere to go but up.

During the 2009-10 campaign, Grand Rapids surrendered 265 goals, the most of any Western Conference team. Struggles in their own end led to a lot of high-scoring games and contributed to the team missing the postseason.

This season, that all looks to change with a more veteran and skilled defensive group. When looking at experience, the two most veteran defensemen combine for 1,053 professional games.

Signed by Grand Rapids over the summer, Greg Amadio returns to West Michigan after having been a member of the 2004-05 and 2005-06 Griffins squads. With him, he brings the experience of two straight Calder Cup championships with the Hershey Bears.

Also returning in a veteran role is Doug Janik, who signed a two-year extension with the Detroit Red Wings during the summer, including a two-way deal for this season. With the added depth in the Red Wings’ system, he will likely be the eighth blueliner in the Detroit fold and see time in Grand Rapids.

During his time at Red Wings training camp in Traverse City, Mich., Janik commented on his role. “We’re all looking to have a good camp here and see what happens,” he said. “We’ve got a few young guys who look really good and I think we’ll be better than last year.”

Janik is expecting himself to be better as well, after having surgery in the summer to repair a knee that had been slowing him down last season.

“Right after the season ended in Detroit, I got my knee scoped and did three or four weeks of rehab,” he said. “I feel better than I did last year.”

Filling out the team’s veteran core could potentially be Derek Meech, who suited up 230 times for the Griffins between 2004-08 and represented Grand Rapids in the 2007 AHL All-Star Classic.

Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek, who is responsible for molding young defensemen during their time in Grand Rapids, commented on the prospect of Meech starting with Grand Rapids. “That would be fantastic for us,” said Paek. “Just with that experience, and the compete factor that he has, it’s going to make him a great addition.”

Joining the seasoned veterans in the ranks of returning defensemen are a pair of third-year blueliners, Sergei Kolosov and Logan Pyett. Kolosov received experience on the big stage last year by representing Belarus in the Vancouver Olympics, whereas Pyett is looking to build on his standout sophomore season. He more than doubled his point totals (9-21—30) from his rookie year (3-11—14) and was the only Griffin to appear in all 80 contests.

Regarding his breakout season, Pyett said that confidence was the biggest factor. “Having played a year in the league made a big difference,” he said. “I was already accustomed to the size and speed of guys in the American League. I just stepped in with more confidence and jumped in the play more. The coaches were encouraging me to go and get more involved with that. Other than that, I just tried to improve my defensive play.”

Now a proven commodity in the league, Pyett will be relied upon for even more minutes and leadership.

“I want to be a steady contributor and more reliable in my own zone,” said Pyett. “I think as a third-year, I can come in and take on a leadership role to help the veteran guys out.”

The aforementioned veteran core will be pushed for minutes by a trio of younger players. In addition to Travis Ehrhardt, who is looking to build on a rookie season during which he notched five assists in 42 games, two highly touted rookies will be in the mix this season.

Brendan Smith, who was Detroit’s first choice (27th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, is expected to make his pro debut with Grand Rapids. Smith enjoyed a standout collegiate career with the University of Wisconsin, where he led the nation’s defensemen with 52 points (15-37—52) in 42 games as a junior last year and was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.

The second is a face somewhat familiar to Griffins fans, Brian Lashoff, whose solid amateur career culminated in winning a gold medal with Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championship. Lashoff has had late-season stints with the Griffins each of the past two seasons and feels he’s prepared for a full-time gig in the AHL.

“I think it’s going to be an adjustment, but it’s something that I’m prepared for,” the 20-year-old blueliner said. “Having those two stints the past few years is going to help me adjust to the style of play, and how big, strong, and fast the guys are.”

“I also worked with my brother and some pro guys in Connecticut,” he continued, referring to sibling Matt Lashoff of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I definitely worked to get a lot stronger this summer, and I put on a lot of weight.”

Not only will getting stronger over the summer benefit the 6-foot-3, 204-pound rookie, but so will skating around players who will likely be his teammates.

“Being able to play with Janik and veteran guys who have played a lot in the league before will be good for me, and also help show me what it takes to play a longer season,” said Lashoff.

The Griffins coaching staff and players alike expect that both Smith and Lashoff can be impact players from the drop of the puck on Oct. 8.

“You can see it through the prospect camp, and you really have to compete for a spot to play at a high level,” said Paek. “We’ve seen Lashoff play with us at the end of the season, but they are both great hockey players. They’re naturally talented and skilled, and we’ll fine tune them as the year goes on.”

Pyett was in a similar boat two years ago, when he battled all season against veteran players for ice time. This year, he knows that Smith and Lashoff will keep all of the veteran players on their toes.

“They’re going to be pushing the older guys for ice time,” said Pyett. “I think it’s going to be competitive, and people are going to have to be on top of their game. I think it’s going to be a great mix and we’ll see how things shape up. I think we have a really strong team, and there are great players here in camp. I’m really excited for it.”

Overall, the team is not lingering on last year’s numbers, and they’re ready to write a new chapter this season.

“It looks like we have a great group back there,” said Paek. “We’ve got some really nice young kids coming in that can skate and really move the puck, while the maturity of our second- and third-year guys is going to be fantastic.”

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