By Jason Pearson, griffinshockey.com
Take the two faceoff circles on one end of the ice and rearrange them to form interlocking loops. The ensuing mental picture of a Venn Diagram will serve as the launching point for the comparison of a pair of Griffins rookies, Evgeny Svechnikov and Kyle Criscuolo.
Two of Grand Rapids’ 13 first-year skaters to suit up this year have taken markedly different paths to where they are now. But, the overlap of the two circles with an elliptical resemblance is what has helped the Griffins reach their fifth consecutive playoff berth and be a legitimate threat to hoist the Calder Cup for the second time in five seasons.
Begin with the contrasts on the outer edges.
One player, Criscuolo, is an undrafted forward who is skating on a one-year contract and joined the Griffins on an amateur tryout at the end of last season. The other, Svechnikov, is a 2015 first-round draft pick by Detroit who just this week delivered the shootout-winning goal in his NHL debut.
Criscuolo hails from the eastern shores of the United States and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from one of America’s oldest and most prestigious universities while serving as the fourth-ever two-time captain of Harvard’s hockey program. Svechnikov calls one of the southeastern-most points in Russia home and made his professional hockey debut three seasons ago in the country that was formerly America’s Cold War foe.
Criscuolo is listed at 5’9” and 175 lbs. and has all his visible teeth intact. Svechnikov stands 6’3” and 205 lbs. and has had to go the last six years of his life without a front masher, thanks to a friend’s inadvertent, errant stick in a backyard accident.
And finish with the similarities in the middle.
Behind Svechnikov’s 46 points and Criscuolo’s 40, the Griffins have two rookies with 40 or more points for only the second time in the franchise’s 21-year history, the other being in 2008-09 when current NHLer Justin Abdelkader and 2013 Calder Cup champion Francis Pare accomplished the feat. Through April 7, Svechnikov ranked fifth among AHL rookies in scoring while Criscuolo tied for 19th.
The two have benefited from seeing frequent time together on the same line over the course of the season, with Criscuolo centering Svechnikov on the right side. They have also spent time alongside one another on one of the team’s vaunted power play units.
Of Svechnikov’s 19 goals thus far, which tie for ninth-most in a single season for a Griffins rookie, Criscuolo has had a helper in five. Of Criscuolo’s 17 goals, which tie for 11th-most in a single season, Svechnikov has assisted on six.
The two established an understanding of each other’s games at the Red Wings’ development camp in Traverse City, Mich., in early July of last year and gained a bit more experience skating together at the prospects tournament held later that month in the same rink. Second-year Wings prospect Tyler Bertuzzi often filled out their line on the left side.
“He’s obviously just a really strong kid and he competes,” Criscuolo said of Svechnikov, or “Geno” for pronunciational ease. “He competes every shift. He can shoot the puck. We’ve developed a little bit of chemistry so that definitely helps.”
“He’s a really good player, that’s all I can say,” Svechnikov says, returning the marks on Criscuolo. “He’s so fast, so explosive. He’s smart, he’s always in the right spots and he can score really tough goals. I love to play with him and I’m sure he’ll have a great future.”
While the Griffins’ veteran leadership core is well-documented – and deservingly so – behind captain Nathan Paetsch and alternates Ben Street, Matthew Ford and Brian Lashoff, Grand Rapids has held a consistent reliance on its younger players, asking the rookies to contribute nearly 25-percent of the team’s offense. The Griffins played seven rookies all of 2015-16 and had already surpassed that mark by the 10th game of this season.
“We push each other in practice and after practice,” Criscuolo said. “When one guy is down, I think we have a big enough group that someone else will be able to pick them up. It’s a long year and there are ups and downs, but having a big rookie group I think has also helped off the ice with the adjustment to the pro lifestyle.”
Playing predominantly center in the second half of the season after seeing some time on the wing to open the season, Criscuolo has played all 71 games thus far. Striving for consistency on both ends of the ice, he has earned the trust of the coaching staff with his speed and play, enabling him to skate anywhere from the top line to the fourth line on a Griffins team that is overloaded with talented veteran and prospect forwards.
“I think right now my role is to provide depth and when the opportunity comes, to help out scoring,” Criscuolo said. “Being responsible at both ends is definitely a key piece of my game.”
Svechnikov notched a goal in the second game of the season but was also mired with a number of stick infraction penalties during the first half of the season. As the season approached the midway mark, the first rounder found a rhythm. He recorded a 12-game point streak from Jan. 20-Feb. 17 to mark the longest by a Griffins rookie and tie for the fourth-longest streak in club history.
Svechnikov is quick to credit his coaches and teammates and notes he was just playing with a lot of confidence.
“After 25 games I felt a lot better,” Svechnikov says. “I knew those goals and assists will come.”
Both players as well were brought to Grand Rapids by the Red Wings in the latter stages of the 2015-16 campaign, picking up key experience that would help unlock this season’s potential.
After Harvard was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Criscuolo joined the Griffins on an amateur tryout to conclude the season with the security of a contract for the following year. He made his AHL debut on April 2 and skated in a quartet of games.
“Those four games were invaluable, just understanding how the game works and it’s definitely a different style than college,” Criscuolo said.
Svechnikov’s major-junior career ended when Cape Breton lost in Game 7 of the QMJHL’s second round. He was added to the Griffins’ roster in mid-April and was thrust into a starting role when injuries struck the Griffins’ lineup in the Central Division Finals against Lake Erie.
“I was excited to get my first American League pro game and it was just exciting,” Svechnikov said. “I was just looking at the older guys and trying to learn as much as I could fast.”
Two paths can undoubtedly be filled with plenty of parallels. As the Griffins enter their last week of the regular season, they hope that one more similarity between these rookies – perhaps one that involves a trophy – can be added to the list.