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Next Wave On The Way
Detroit's youth movement leads to restocking...
By Jason Kasiorek

After an up and down year last season, ending in a surprising second round playoff showing, the Griffins fulfilled their mission. They graduated several players straight into the Wings lineup on their way to the Stanley Cup finals for the second straight year. Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Ville Leino and Justin Abdelkader all played large roles in the NHL postseason. Joined by Griffins starter Jimmy Howard, the quintet all began the 2009 roster in Detroit. Add to this the complete turnover in veterans, and Grand Rapids found itself in need of some serious restocking.

Luckily, Detroit had several players waiting in the wings in the form of Dick Axelsson, Travis Ehrhardt, Sebastien Piche, Thomas McCollum and training camp standout Tomas Tatar. The club then added veteran leadership in the form of former AHL top defenseman Andy Delmore, steady Doug Janik and ex-Marlies Jeremy Williams and Kris Newbury. Training camp tryout Brad May was added at the last minute to add a little more punch and experience.

The Forwards:

This should be the real strength of the club. Mattias Ritola returns, healed from the shoulder injury that cost him most of last season. A responsible two-way winger who can put up points, Ritola is knocking on the door in Detroit. Ritola is joined by Newbury, a long time Griffins nemesis, who had a good training camp despite his perceived lack of conditioning by Coach Babcock. The feisty center should average a point per game and provide some grit to the lineup. On his right will be Jeremy Williams, a sniper with a major league shot. Williams is very reminiscent of NHL’er Jason Williams with his offensive game.

The second line features three returnees from last season looking to recapture the magic that made them the Griffin’s best line for large parts of the season. Evan McGrath should continue to improve his offensive totals playing alongside the offensive wizardry of Frankie Pare and the hustle of Frankie Lemieux. Pare showed off another gear in his skating stride in camp, correcting one of the few knocks on him last year.

Second year man Cory Emmerton is being counted on to pick his game up and deliver on some of the promise that has surrounded him since his draft year. The lanky center has improved his skating again over the off-season and is starting out with two good wingers to take advantage of his passes. Captain Jamie Tardif is ready to bounce back from an injury-plagued season, and after a summer of getting into NHL shape, should be on track for a break out season. His combination of grit, physical play and goal scoring is a rarity in this organization. Rookie Dick “Hat Trick” Axelsson had a disappointing prospects tournament, but there is no denying his raw skill. If he can keep his head in the game, the speedy left winger could vie for AHL rookie of the year.

The Griffins depth, showcased with the speedy John Vigilante penciled in as fourth line center should pay benefits down the road. Vigilante could easily play on the second or third line with most AHL teams, and should be capable of playing an energy role while still putting up points. He starts the season with Jan Mursak on his right and a rotating cast of wingers on his left. Mursak wants to forget his rookie season, and build off a heady performance at the annual prospects tournament last month. A nice mixture of speed, skill and grit, Mursak could benefit from playing with the like-minded Vigilante.

Rounding out the forwards are veteran pugilist Brad May, playing himself into shape for an audition in Detroit, defenseman turned forward Paul Crosty a 6’2 monster on skates who brings a physical presence, and banger Mike Walsh, starting his fourth season with the Griffins. Rookie Tomas Tatar, the story of training camp, remains on the roster, but unless he has an incredible start will likely find himself assigned to the OHL by the end of the month. The stocky forward has displayed poise and skill beyond his years, but Detroit is usually very slow to develop prospects, and believe he would benefit more from playing huge minutes in junior hockey than from limited time as a pro.

The two wildcards up front are Justin Abdelkader who took advantage of a Darren Helm injury in camp to make the opening night roster and defensive forward Ryan Oulahen, out until after the first of the year with a hip injury. Abdelkader, a budding young power forward has the skill and physical size to be a game changer. He is expected to return in the next few weeks, a huge addition to the lineup both on and off the ice. Oulahen’s story is much less clear. The veteran forward suffered a gruesome injury last season, and his recovery time keeps being extended, leaving his return in doubt.

The Defense:

This area may be the team’s Achilles heel. With only three returnees from last year’s blueline, this group will certainly have a different look. Ace Jonathan Ericsson graduated to Detroit, the streaky Garrett Stafford headed to Texas; Brett Peterson retired, while Jason Jozsa, Tom Galvin and PJ Atherton were not retained. Sergei Kolosov returns and really looks comfortable. The defensive defenseman should have a strong season playing with newcomer Andy Delmore. Delmore is a powerplay monster in the AHL, and is capable of posting a point per game. His defensive game leaves a bit to be desired which is a common refrain with several members of this crew.

Jakub Kindl is looking for a breakout season, as the organization believes he is ready for primetime soon. If he has it in him, he certainly did not show it in the prospects tournament or the pre-season. He is paired with veteran Doug Janik who should provide a defensive conscience for the young Czech. Logan Pyett is another young defenseman who is hoping to improve on a rough season, and he has plenty of pressure behind him with Sebastien Piche and Travis Ehrhardt fighting for ice time. Pyett was a renowned offensive defenseman in junior, but could not generate much in either zone last year. Piche was the top scoring rearguard in the QMJHL last season, and has looked good in training camp and the early going. Ehrhardt bring a more physical edge, but is also a good puck mover and agile skater.

In the Net:

This trio has the potential to be the best set of netminders this team has ever seen. Incumbent Daniel Larsson had a superb rookie season last year before injuries derailed him. He is fully healed and ready to begin his assault on the backup job in Detroit. An AHL all-star last season, look for him to be among the league leaders this season, and get his first playing time in the NHL. His backup will be wunderkind Thomas McCollum the Wings first pick in 2008. After a storybook junior season, he put on a show in TC and should only get better as the season goes on. Look for him to pressure Larsson for playing time the second half. Jordan Pearce may be the odd man out, but he has the makings of a blue chipper as well, and if anyone in front of him slips, he is poised to make the leap. The Notre Dame alumni will begin the season in Toledo (ECHL).

Front Office:

Coach Fraser returns for his second season behind the bench, joined again by Jim Paek. Fraser's upbeat coaching style and NHL experience should be able to take this club deeper into the postseason, while accomplishing the organization's aim of developing young players. Paek will have whis work cut out for him with this group of blueliners, but should be up to the task. GM Bob McNamara deserves a pat on the back for another good off-season of player procurement, and has a knack for finding the right pieces to fill holes during the season.