Brian Lashoff has been a reliable fixture on the Griffins’ blue line season after season.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
His teammates joke that he’s been playing in Grand Rapids for 20 years. And while his tenure with the Griffins hasn’t quite reached even half that amount of time, he indeed has been playing in the Red Wings organization for the better part of a decade.
Brian Lashoff has appeared in more regular season games as a Griffin than any player except Travis Richards and in more postseason contests than anyone but Nathan Paetsch. It’s easy to forget that Lashoff, now in his ninth season in Grand Rapids, is still only 27 years old.
The native of Albany, N.Y., signed with Detroit as an undrafted free agent defenseman at the age of 18 and made his pro debut for the Griffins late in the 2008-09 campaign. He tallied five points in six regular season games then added five more points in eight playoff contests, before returning to Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League for his final junior season in 2009-10.
Admittedly, he was not the player that he would eventually become. Now considered one of the most dependable defenseman ever to don a Griffins jersey, the young Lashoff was willing to take risks for the sake of points.
“Coming out of junior hockey, I was a little more of an offensive player, but I had holes in my game,” Lashoff said. “This is a good league that will expose those holes, so I matured a lot by playing with and against good players.”
Significantly, he learned the importance of positioning and how to pick his spots when it came to jumping into the offensive play. He learned that being steady in his own end of the ice was more critical than being flashy in the offensive zone.
“For young defensemen, the biggest thing is consistency,” he said. “You can throw up points left and right, but if you’re not consistently strong in your own zone, night after night, it’s going to take away from your overall game.”
Lashoff remembers living in the Courtyard Marriott hotel for the first couple of months after joining the Griffins. Eventually, he got his own apartment as he settled into his role as a young defender eager to learn whatever he could from the various veterans employed by the organization in those days.
“Guys like Doug Janik, Greg Amadio, (Garnet) Exelby and (Derek) Meech helped me out a ton when I was younger,” he recalled. “They showed me the way to be a pro, and when I got to Detroit the leaders there obviously taught me a lot, too.”
Lashoff was pressed into service with the Red Wings for the first time in 2012-13 after Jonathan Ericsson injured his shoulder. He ended up playing 31 games in Detroit during the lockout-shortened regular season, then appeared in three Stanley Cup Playoff games before rejoining the Griffins once the Wings were eliminated.
It would be the first of Lashoff’s two Calder Cups with the Griffins – both equally exciting but each quite different.
In 2013, his return to Grand Rapids helped bolster the Griffins’ defensive corps while the return of forwards Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson provided additional firepower to the team’s offensive attack.
The Griffins would eventually win the title by beating Syracuse in six games in the Finals.
“We were a younger team, but we had an incredible group of guys,” he said. “The playoff run itself was unbelievable. We faced a lot of adversity and had to play a lot of long series, but we were a very skilled team that worked hard. For me, it was fun to win it in New York because I had family there.”
The 2013 team was led by current Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, who was in his first season in Grand Rapids. “Our confidence grew as the season progressed,” Lashoff recalled. “We got better and better and really hit our stride entering the playoffs.”
Lashoff believes the seeds for last year’s championship were sewn the previous season, during head coach Todd Nelson’s first year behind the Griffins’ bench.
“We struggled for about a month but once we jelled, Nellie did a great job of bringing us together as a team,” he said. “As a team, we were a little older, but we had a really deep roster that could score and we had good goaltending, too. Again, we were really rolling going into the playoffs.”
Besides Mitch Callahan and then-captain Paetsch, Lashoff was the only other player still remaining from the 2013 Cup team. All three men felt a calling to help the team capture a second crown for the organization.
“It was a pride thing for us,” he said. “We really wanted to win with this group because we felt we could have won the previous year. Of course, a lot of things have to go right to win a Cup, but by the middle of last season, we felt we had the pieces to do it.
“It’s cool that we were able to do it with two different coaches.”
Lashoff feels extremely fortunate to have spent his entire pro career in the same organization.
“It’s nice to have been able to learn without bouncing all over the place,” he said. “It goes to show the strength of the Detroit organization and the type of people they’ve brought in who have helped me a ton over the years.
“Being with the same organization for so long has become a sense of pride for me. It’s been nice to be in the position where I’ve been able contribute in Detroit while helping to win championships in Grand Rapids.”
His situation has been the complete opposite from the career of his brother Matt, who is nearly four years older and was a first-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins. Matt spent much of his career bouncing from one team to the next, playing in the Tampa Bay, Toronto, New York Islanders, Arizona, Philadelphia and Colorado organizations in addition to Boston and stints in Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and Germany.
“When I was younger, I learned a lot by talking to Matt and hearing what he was going through as he was trying to find some consistency and stay in the NHL,” Lashoff said. “I thought he handled everything really well and he was strong mentally, so that was something I tried to follow. I tried not to get too frustrated if things weren’t going my way. I’ve always tried to stay even-keeled.”
Lashoff didn’t hesitate when he was offered the opportunity to sign a two-year contract extension with the organization last June.
“If I’m going to play in the American Hockey League, there’s no place I’d rather be,” he said. “Grand Rapids has become like a second home to me. Obviously we’ve had good teams, so that makes it fun.
“For me, the biggest thing now is to have the respect of my teammates and the organization. I want to be able to help the guys here and at the same time, if I’m called up, I want to be ready to play in Detroit. I enjoy being in this organization and hopefully I have a lot more years to play.”
It’s become a bit of Catch-22 situation for Lashoff. By helping Detroit’s top prospects, he is grooming players who could take a spot that might be his. He insists he has no qualms about filling the role of a mentor to future Red Wings.
“It’s been fun for me to transition to my current role,” he said. “Before it was all about making the NHL and staying there. While I still want to do that, I take pride in helping the younger defensemen and making sure they’re prepared as much as I can help.
“I still want to play in the NHL and I stay ready for that opportunity, but I also take pride in doing whatever I can to help young guys like Joe (Hicketts), Vili (Saarijarvi) and (Filip) Hronek. The best part is they’re young guys who want to learn. They watch video. They listen. So anything I can do to help them improve their positioning or strengthen their defensive game is a plus.”
While Lashoff helps guide the development of the Red Wings’ young defensive corps, the Griffins continue to benefit from the play of a steady defenseman whose experience remains invaluable in tight game situations.
“If Brian Lashoff makes a mistake, it’s noticeable because he doesn’t make too many,” Nelson said. “He’s always been steady. You know what you’re going to get. He’s a guy who sacrifices his body on the penalty kill by blocking shots and he’s a good leader. He’s not overly vocal, but he leads by example by paying the price on the ice. So when he speaks, people listen.”
Lashoff was recalled by the Red Wings last November and saw action in his 123rd NHL game. He has now played for the Wings in five different NHL seasons. “Any time you get the call, whether you’re young or old, it’s the same,” he said. “You get the butterflies – and that’s a good feeling.”
No matter the circumstances, Lashoff says playing in the NHL never gets old.
“Any time you get a chance to play up there, you’re excited, so you have to be ready,” he said. “Detroit is an Original Six team with a great group of guys, so it’s an amazing experience when you get to play in the NHL. I never take it for granted.”
Lashoff is also not making any assumptions in regard to the Griffins and their ability to return to the postseason, even if they are the defending Calder Cup champs. He feels the team’s fortunes are trending in the right direction.
“We’ve become more and more like the team that we expected to be when we started this season,” he said. “If we can continue to play as we have lately, we’ll be able to set ourselves up for another good run. But first and foremost, we’ve got to make the playoffs.”
He’s also excited that his girlfriend will now be closer to his side. Nicolina Clemente began looking for work in the Grand Rapids area after earning her PhD in biochemistry from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., last December.
From Lashoff’s perspective, things could hardly be better.
“Since coming here, the culture has been amazing,” he said. “Guys want to come to the rink and have fun. Playing in a city like Grand Rapids has been great. Of course, winning helps, too. But at the end of the day, I just like playing.”