Oct. 17, 2011
After two seasons out of the AHL playoff picture, the Grand Rapids Griffins are retooled, toughened up and on a mission to emulate their parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, by marching into the post-season. Similar to the structure in Detroit where stability on the backend is the foundation upon which the team is built, the Griffins made a few key moves in an effort to shore up their defense for the 2011-12 season.
Chief among them was the addition of veteran defenseman Garnet Exelby. With 408 NHL games between Atlanta Thrashers and Toronto Maple Leafs under his belt, Exelby is a proven commodity known for physically erasing opponents from the game.
“We tried to level the playing field in the physical department in the past here, and hopefully it was effective for us. With Garnet here now we’ve leveled the playing field with one guy,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “It’s the way he plays, the way he competes on the ice – he’s tough. He’s got that edge to him and all the players in the league are aware of that.”
Fraser also points out that Exelby does a lot of things very well and is more than just a tough-as-nails defenseman. “He’s strong, blocks shots and does anything to win.”
Exelby echoed his coach when describing the overlooked aspects of his game. “I like to be a strong penalty killer and block shots. Any chance I can get to block shots and help the goaltender out I’ll do that. I always want to be a plus player; I hate getting scored on in any facet,” he said.
Exelby began his pro career 10 years ago with the Chicago Wolves, playing a season and a half with the AHL club before graduating to Atlanta. It was at that time when he first met Fraser, who was then coach of the Thrashers. While Exelby never played directly under Fraser in Atlanta, the coach knew they had a future NHLer in the system.
“We knew all about Garnet. At that time, we were a team just kind of growing slowly, and some of the young guys they didn’t bring in too fast. But I left and then Garnet became a big part of that team and was a very, very good player,” said Fraser.
“He played in a situation in Atlanta where the kids had to grow up fast and had to learn how to play the game real quick. It was probably tough to work through, but he did a good job for them. Now he’s moved around a little bit, but we welcome him with open arms here. He’s exactly what we needed,” Fraser added.
This will be Exelby’s third straight year with a new team, having played a single season for the Rockford IceHogs last year and Toronto in 2009-10. Yet, the new surroundings have not fazed Exelby. Veteran Griffins defenseman Greg Amadio observed that Exelby has seamlessly transitioned into the Grand Rapids locker room.
“I think it’s not that hard for him. He’s been around pro hockey for a long time, been in every situation. He’s got over 400 games in the NHL; he’s familiar with our league. This group’s only been together for a short time, but we’re coming together pretty quick and he’s doing a good job,” said Amadio.
While Exelby does bring physicality to the Griffins’ defense, he will also be counted on for his experience and leadership, as he replaces long time Griffin Jamie Tardif as captain.
“It’s always an honor. There are many great leaders in this locker room, and I hope we can all mesh together and share the load because I think that’s what a great team will do,” said Exelby of donning the “C” on his sweater in his first year with the club.
Exelby’s professional experience is a big draw for the Griffins. While the team has numerous players returning from last season, the average age of the squad is just over 24 years old and Exelby, along with fellow defensemen Amadio and Doug Janik and forward Chris Conner, will be counted on to lead the team both on and off the ice.
“Looking back, it wasn’t that long ago that I was one of the younger guys kind of looking to some veteran guys, trying to learn the ropes and figure out how to try and succeed in this game. Now I’m on the other side, I’m sort of the big brother in a way. It’s an exciting role for me,” said Exelby.
With a Calder Cup, won as a rookie in 2001-02 with Chicago, already on his shelf, Exelby knows what it takes to go the distance. It’s the one thing he hopes all his teammates get a chance to experience as well.
“I can’t think of any more valuable experience that I’ve had over the years than the 25 or so playoff games I played in that year. Just to be under that pressure of the game sevens, bouncing back after a tough loss, the travel, and going through that kind of grind with some teammates and guys who are pretty special to me, and to be successful and to close it out – it’s valuable experience,” said Exelby. “I would hope that every young player in here gets a chance to go deep. I hope they can win a championship, but to go deep in the playoffs at some point in their career and learn what it takes and what it’s going to be like.”
Just a step away from the playoffs last year, the Griffins will count on Exelby to help solidify the defensive foundation of a team that expects to be in playoff contention come April.
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