Grand Rapids Griffins 21-22 Season Primer|
A tale of two teams...
By Jason Kasiorek
October 9th, 2021
As training camp and the preseason winds down, the middle portion of the Parents Wigs prospect pool remains very much in flux. The junior players have been sent back to CHL ranks, the AHL players have been farmed out to Grand Rapids, and the clear NHL'ers are preparing for the start of the season. This year's bubble group of skaters who are stuck between the NHL and the AHL is large, varied, and depending on the direction the parent club wants to go, will cause large changes into the team that Grand Rapids ices on opening night. If Lucas Raymond, Joe Veleno, and Jonatan Berggren don't make the cut and are assigned to the AHL, the Griffins, on paper, should have a prolific offensive team. If the youth movement takes hold, and names like Carter Rowney or Mitchell Stephens come down, things would look much different.
Between the Pipes
In goal, the Griffins should have a very strong presence in veteran Calvin Pickard and newcomer Victor Brattstrom fighting for starts. Picard has been a strong AHL netminder for several years as well as proving a capable fill-in at the NHL level. Brattstrom was very impressive in the prospects tournament and looks like he is ready to strut his stuff in North America.
On the blueline, Captain Brian Lashoff returns for his 13th season and remains one of the top defensive defensemen in the AHL. He is joined this season by reigning Eddie Shore award winner (Top AHL Defenseman), Ryan Murphy. Murphy is an offensive defenseman, who sees the ice and skates like a forward. He is capable of running a powerplay and had terrific one-on-one moves moving the puck out of the zone. Former Griffin Dan Renouf is the third veteran in this group of defenders, returning after winning a Calder cup in Charlotte and spending NHL time in Colorado. Renouf is a two-way defender who is safe in his own zone, but can provide some offense, he also plays a physical grinding game and isn't afraid to drop the gloves if necessary.
Donovan Sebrango, taking advantage of a change in the rules will begin his second year of pro hockey, despite being young enough to still be playing in the OHL. He remains a work in process, but his game has improved in leaps and bounds since the start of last season, and he brings a physical presence to the Griffins blueline. Wyatt Newpower, a new addition this season is a classic late bloomer, signed as a free agent after a surprising season in the AHL last year. He has shown flashes of being able to play a large two-way role and will need to continue building his resume. Jared McIsaac is returning for another season after a brief audition last year. If he can remain healthy, he could be one of the top defenders on this club. A series of injuries have derailed the 2nd round pick, but he remains a talented and versatile player and perhaps the best NHL prospect of the bunch.
Also expected to be in the mix this season is veteran Luke Witkowski, though it remains to be seen whether he will see most of his shifts on the back end or upfront on the wing. 'Witter' brings leadership and a policeman's presence to the lineup, replacing departed fan favorite Dylan McIlrath. Rookie Seth Barton rounds out the projected defensive corp. The two-way defender is a fluid skater who can move the puck well and has a good all-around game. He has untapped offensive potential to grow into but may have a hard time cracking the lineup regularly.
Looking at the forwards, veteran Turner Elson returns and should provide energy and hustle and 10-15 goals in a top-six role. He is joined on the left side by Kirill 'The Thrill' Tyutyayev a diminutive rookie forward who played in Belarus last season and turned heads in the prospect's tournament. Tyutyayev is an off-the-radar prospect with a flair for the offensive side of the game and the ability to create plays from nothing. Dennis Yan, a speedy winger was brought in as a reclamation project, he was a high draft pick by Yzerman with the Lightning that hasn't panned out yet. He should help the penalty kill and provide some mid-lineup scoring, especially if he can regain the touch he had in the QMJHL. Patrick Curry rounds out the players assigned to GR on the left side, though it is easy to see him being moved to Toledo after the final cuts. He was a semi-regular with the Griffins last season and showed off a hard-nosed game that belied his small stature.
On the right side, AHL All-star Riley Barber should drive a lot of the scoring, coming off an impressive short season showing last year. He notched 20 goals in 32 games and with a more talented cast surrounding him should top his career-high mark of 31. The offense dries up considerably after Barber, with Jonathon Martin, Dominik Shine, and possibly the aforementioned Witkowski. Martin is a big physical player with good hands around the net, but his skating and hockey sense keep him from being an impact player on the scoresheet. Shine brings speed, grit, and physical play in spades as a forechecking buzz saw. His offensive totals never seem to equal his effort.
Up the middle boast several returning players in Kyle Criscuolo, Chase Pearson, and Tyler Spezia. Criscuolo is ostensibly the number one pivot, though he is better suited for the second line. The veteran pivot puts up 40 points a year and plays a responsible two-way game. Pearson challenged for a spot in Detroit and lost out in a numbers game. Billed as a defensive center with great size, Chase posted nearly a point per game last year and if he can keep that up could take over the #1 slot. Spezia brings speed and tenacity in the bottom six and can play in all situations, even showing off a bit of offensive touch at times. Hayden Verbeek is a speedy center who has shown flashes of playing at a higher level, but hasn't been able to find his consistency yet. Provided he can carve out a regular spot in the lineup, he should bring energy and pace while anchoring the penalty killing unit. Finally, newcomer Kevin Lynch is a strong defensive center, with great face-off prowess who does the little things needed to win games. His offense has never materialized the way it was expected, but he kills penalties, blocks shots, crashes and bangs, and provides consistent veteran dependability.
On the Bubble
As noted above, what Detroit decides to do both for their roster this season will have a big effect on the Grand Rapids roster. In a best-case scenario for the Griffins (and worst-case scenario for Detroit), none of the kids stick in the NHL. That would see a high-octane infusion of offense to the roster in the presence of Joe Veleno, Lucas Raymond, Jonatan Berggren, and to a lesser extent Taro Hirose. Hirose is the most likely Grand Rapids bound and while he doesn't score much, his vision and deft passing are difference makers on the powerplay. He is capable of piling up points at a point-per-game pace. Joe Veleno looks NHL ready, but a return to the AHL could pave the way for a dominant performance at both ends of the ice. His steadily improving scoring prowess continues to be secondary to his skating, strength, and defensive presence.
Winger Lucas Raymond is a pure sniper and has scored pretty regularly in the prospect's tourney and preseason games he has played in. While he still has some adjusting to do to the North American game, he should put up some gaudy numbers as a rookie especially with the man advantage. Berggren could slot in at center or on the wing and based on his numbers in Sweden and his play in the early going could be a huge offensive catalyst. If Veleno, Raymond, and Berggren all were sent down, they would be an attractive number one line that would be the envy of many teams. The last likely player to be farmed out is Carter Rowney. Carter has spent most of the last five seasons in the NHL as a grinding physical fourth liner, but at the AHL level has proven capable of providing around 20 goals while playing that style game and would be right at home as a physical two-way winger.