Sept. 30, 2013
by Alan Cross - griffinshockey.com
A new era of Detroit hockey is dawning. Grand Rapids Griffins fans spend years watching the development of Red Wings prospects as they battle their way through the ranks of the American Hockey League. As recent Griffins players such as Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson, Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff spread their proverbial wings and soar to new heights, a new batch of talented prospects is emerging to take their place. So is the cycle of the AHL.
Earlier this month, the Red Wings conducted their annual training camp in Traverse City, where Detroit’s promising future was on full display. Amid a week of intense training, the Wings claimed their first-ever prospects tournament championship when they defeated the Buffalo Sabres 4-2. Through their victory, the players managed to make an impression on the watchful eyes from above, including those of Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill.
“There are going to be lots of demands on the young guys because they’re replacing some real good players that have moved on to the Red Wings, but I think it’s a very talented group and that’s shown by winning the prospects tournament,” said Blashill. “For four games, I thought that we outplayed the opponent, outshot them, and out-chanced them with a group that’s extremely skilled.”
The process of professional maturation is one of the more important objectives of any minor league affiliate. And therein lies one of Blashill’s main charges: develop the skills of emerging champions in order to secure the future for Detroit.
This season’s Griffins roster is bolstered with plenty of exciting players that fans may or may not recognize from years past.
Making his debut between the pipes this season is goaltender Jared Coreau, who spent last year with Northern Michigan University of the CCHA. Clocking in at a massive six-foot-four and 208 pounds, Coreau started in all 38 games for the Wildcats in his junior year and posted a 15-19-4 record with a 2.70 goals against average, a 0.919 save percentage and one shutout.
If size indeed matters, Coreau is sure to impress.
“He’s a huge guy so there’s not much net to shoot on when he’s in there. His skating is very good for his size,” said Blashill. “He has to continue to improve his game, but what I like about him the most is that his college coach, who coached in the AHL and NHL, says that he’s got the right mentality to continue to get better. I think that’s the biggest key.”
The Griffins’ blue line has been virtually reinvented from last year. Richard Nedomlel, who served as a “black ace” for Grand Rapids during the first round of the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs, brings an even bigger frame to buffer the Griffins’ back end. The largest player on the team, he stands at six-foot-five and weighs in at 231 pounds.
“Nedomlel is another big guy who plays very physical,” said Blashill. “He’s a fairly tough guy and he set the tone right away in the prospects tournament. He has good abilities and has really improved his feet over the past few years. He is someone we think has a chance to become a good player.”
Nedomlel’s size alone should give any opponent a cause for concern. However, the defenseman’s track record has proven that he’s also capable of producing numbers. He was Detroit’s 8th choice (175th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but before joining the Griffins he played defense for the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL. In three seasons with Swift Current, he played in 210 regular season games and amassed 84 points (17-67—84).
Two more defensemen thrown into the mix this season are Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul, who were drafted second and third, respectively, by Detroit in 2011. Last year, both defenders were named to the First All-Star Team for their leagues – Ouellet for the QMJHL and Sproul for the OHL - and Sproul also nabbed the OHL’s Max Kaminsky Trophy as defenseman of the year.
“I think Ouellet and Sproul are two guys who have high-end ability. They did a really good job against the other teams’ best players in the tournament, and we expect them to be able to step in and do a real good job this year.”
One of the most highly touted prospects this year comes in the form of forward Martin Frk, who had a tremendous 2012-13 campaign with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. Posting an astonishing 58-6-3-1 regular season record, the team secured both the President’s Cup and the CHL Memorial Cup. Frk’s accolades were abundant: he tied for second on the team in regular season points (35-49—84), tied for second in the league with postseason scoring (13-20—33) and opened the playoffs with a franchise-record eight-point game (5-3—8).
Whether Frk’s impressive resume assures him success while with the Griffins remains to be seen.
“He’s going to have to learn how to create the same offense from juniors in tighter areas with tighter checking, and that will just be a process. And for him to improve, he’ll have to just make sure that he doesn’t get too frustrated and stays with it,” said Blashill. “But he’s real highly competitive and he’s going to be a very good player. In the end, how quickly his adjustment will be, we’ll see.”
With a utility belt full of shiny new weapons, Blashill understands that results are not achieved through accolades alone. It’s about sticking to the process.
“You win it by getting better a little bit every day as a group and by continuing to improve as individuals,” said Blashill. “We’re going to follow the same format. The reason we were able to win last year is because both our vets and best players worked hard every single day. They set a tone that I thought followed through the season and then we got better collectively as a group.”