GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - The Grand Rapids Griffins 2019-20 season begins on Oct. 5 against the Chicago Wolves, and the expectations for this year's squad are high.
After the Red Wings assigned 11 players to the Griffins on Sept. 29, the Griffins now have 26 players on their roster. Of those 26, five were first-round draft picks by the Red Wings: Michael Rasmussen (2017), Moritz Seider (2019), Evgeny Svechnikov (2015), Joe Veleno (2018) and Filip Zadina (2018).
The expectations surrounding those individual players varies, but ultimately they are there to help create a winning team and culture in the Griffins locker room.
What some of the Griffins forwards lack in experience, they more than make up for in talent. All eyes will be on Zadina and Veleno, two of the Red Wings highly touted prospects from the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
The Red Wings drafted the 19-year-old Zadina for what he could produce offensively. In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Zadina scored 82 points in 57 games with the Halifax Mooseheads, including 12 points in nine playoff games. With the Griffins last season, he had 35 points in 59 games, good for sixth in scoring on the team.
He was called up to the Red Wings near the end of the 2018-19 season and scored three points in nine games. Zadina showed flashes of high-end scoring, but it appeared adjusting to the speed of the NHL game didn't come as quickly as Red Wings fans had hoped.
Veleno was drafted in 2018 as someone who could create offensive chances and also play a strong 200-foot game. With the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL in 2018-19, he had 104 points in 59 games and 17 points in 16 playoff games.
This will be his first season with the Griffins, but in six preseason games with the Red Wings, he had three points — all assists. However, he should produce at a high level as he adjusts to the faster-paced game. He led all players with seven goals during the NHL Prospect Tournament last month and he finished with eight points.
Rasmussen played 62 games last season for the Red Wings and was, at times, overmatched by the speed and physicality of the NHL. He only scored eight goals and 18 points, but he had two goals in three games for the Griffins last year. Having a year of NHL experience should be beneficial to both him and the Griffins.
Svechnikov missed all of last season due to a torn ACL, but in two seasons with the Griffins, he's scored 51 and 23 points, respectively. Those numbers should increase this season now that he's more experienced.
Also a part of the forward's corps for the Griffins are veterans Chris Terry and Matthew Ford. Terry played parts of four seasons for the Carolina Hurricanes and one season with the Montreal Canadiens, and while he wasn't a top scorer in the NHL, he has been nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL. At the very least, he will provide veteran leadership for the younger players to learn from.
Ford has been the Griffins captain since 2017, and like Terry, he isn't going to light the lamp often but will be a great presence for the youngsters.
As a whole, the forwards for the Griffins should have a productive first three lines. There will an adjustment period for a few players, but they should score more often than last season.
Seider was the Red Wings' No. 6 overall pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft, and many were hopeful he would make the Red Wings out of camp. However, he's only 18 years old and still has a lot of time for development, both on and off the ice. But, he's 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds already, and for his size, he's a great skater.
The Red Wings could have sent Seider back to Germany for more development, but they feel he can help the Griffins and is good enough to play at the AHL level this season. He didn't make the Wings out of training camp because they weren't confident he would log consistent minutes, but with the Griffins, Seider should be playing every night.
Oliwer Kaski also has high hopes as a young defenseman with the Griffins. The 23-year-old Finnish League MVP was undrafted and signed to a one-year contract by the Red Wings, and he played the 2015-16 season at Western Michigan University before going back to Europe.
Former Red Wing defenseman Jiri Fischer said Kaski was one of the best defensemen at the 2019 World Championships. This season, expect Kaski to stand out as one of the Griffins best defensemen.
Joe Hicketts, Brian Lashoff and Dylan McIlrath all have NHL experience and will be helpful for Seider, Kaski and other young defensemen in their development. Lashoff had 14 points in 53 games for the Griffins last season, and throughout his career, he's played 127 games with the Red Wings since 2012.
Hicketts, a smaller defenseman, plays a physical game and can create good offensive chances. He's played 16 NHL games with the Red Wings, and in 64 games with the Griffins last season, he had 27 points. He's also a player who could be called up if the Red Wings are struggling with injuries.
McIlrath played parts of six seasons with the New York Rangers, Florida Panthers and Red Wings. The Rangers drafted him 10th overall in 2010 but he simply hasn't panned out to play like a 10th overall pick. As a big body, McIlrath also plays a physical game and isn't going to score much, but he's a force on the ice other teams will notice.
Also on the back end is Gustav Lindstrom, a 2017 second-round pick by the Red Wings, who will be in his first season with the Griffins. He helped Frolunda win the Swedish Hockey League Championship last year, and he won a silver medal with Sweden in the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Finnish defenseman Vili Saarijarvi will also be on the blue line for the Griffins. he had 16 points in 70 games last season, and the second-round pick should produce more as he gains more experience.
The defensemen the Griffins have might be their best asset this season. Young prospects like Seider, Kaski and Lindstrom should learn a lot from veterans like Lashoff and McIlrath, and if their development is faster than expected, they might be in Detroit sooner rather than later.
It's yet to be determined if there will be a starter or a backup goaltender, but the two on the roster are Filip Larsson and Calvin Pickard. With the University of Denver last season, Larsson shined as one of the nation's top goaltenders. In 22 games, he had a 1.95 goals against average (GAA) and .932 save percentage (SV%). In Division I hockey, his GAA was 11th overall and his SV% was sixth.
Pickard has played five NHL seasons with four different teams, mostly in a backup role. He has a career .908 SV% and 2.93 GAA, and he competed for the backup role with the Red Wings in training camp that ultimately went to Jonathan Bernier.
Having Pickard in Grand Rapids with Larsson is a smart move because this will be Larsson's first professional season. Pickard has been around for a while and played at the highest level, and he will be able to show Larsson the ropes.
It's possible Larsson will struggle to start, but once he settles in, he could be one of the best goalies in the AHL. Going from the collegiate to the professional game is no easy task, but as a sixth-round pick in 2016, Larsson has defied the odds before.
Other headlines from 13 ON YOUR SIDE:
- Grand Rapids named No. 1 minor league market
- Griffins' 2019-20 season decal going up on Van Andel Arena
- Grand Rapids Griffins announce jersey design contest winner
- Griffins release 2019-20 schedule
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