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June 9, 2014

by Alan Cross –

The Grand Rapids Griffins’ 18th season is in the books.

While the conclusion of Hockeytown West’s 2013-14 campaign didn’t yield any cup-hoisting déjà vu, it’s not to say that the Griffins didn’t achieve innumerable successes throughout the season.

“What I’d say in terms of success or failure is that our guys did an incredible job this season. I thought that they handled lots of different adversities,” said Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill. “Every year is a little bit different. We faced challenges this year that we didn’t face a year ago, and I thought our guys did a great job of handling those and continuing to excel.”

Among those new challenges was the Griffins’ revolving locker room door, which saw the long-term promotions of star prospects Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan. In all, 17 members of Blashill’s 2013-14 squad were called up to play a total of 329 NHL games, and 13 players from his Calder Cup championship team logged time in Detroit this season, helping the club extend its playoff streak to 23 consecutive seasons. Calder Cup champions scored goals in 15 of Detroit’s 16 games prior to clinching a postseason berth.

Despite their ever-evolving roster, the Griffins (46-23-2-5) managed to churn out an even better regular season record than their Calder Cup-winning campaign (42-26-4-4). And this was accomplished with the return of only four of Grand Rapids’ top 12 scorers from the previous year.

Another obstacle came in the form of major injuries, most glaringly the season-ending ankle sprain of Alexey Marchenko, as well as Mitch Callahan’s infamous slapshot to the mouth. Callahan returned to the lineup by Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, but his absence was certainly felt when he missed the final six games of the regular season. The Griffins ultimately dropped what would have been their second consecutive Midwest Division crown to the Chicago Wolves by a single point on the final night of the regular season, highlighted by a dramatic 4-3 shootout loss to the Lake Erie Monsters that same evening. Callahan (26 goals) was the second-highest goal scorer for Grand Rapids behind Teemu Pulkkinen’s 31 tallies.

That single point would have set the Griffins on an entirely different playoff path. But such is hockey and such is the league.

“Well, we’re certainly disappointed to not still be playing,” said Blashill. “When you have opportunities to be able to play through June, you want to do that. We felt that at the beginning and through most of the year that we had a good enough team to be able to continue to play.

“Now, we also have a great amount of respect for Texas, and we knew that they deserved the right to be considered the best team in the league going into the playoffs because they had the most points. So, we knew that was going to be a tough challenge.”

Blashill, in tandem with assistant coaches Jim Paek and Spiros Anastas, has helped turn Grand Rapids into an AHL powerhouse in his two short years in the driver’s seat. While all organizations experience an ebb and flow of radiant golden years, Blashill’s hand in the recent success of the Griffins is undeniable.

Ten of Blashill’s 2013-14 players made their NHL debuts this season, nine of who premiered with the Wings. The lone exception was Calle Jarnkrok, who debuted with the Nashville Predators after being traded alongside Patrick Eaves in Detroit’s David Legwand deal. In addition, the Wings’ season saw the rise of many former Griffins to Hockeytown glory, most notably forwards Nyquist, Jurco, Sheahan and Tomas Tatar.

In terms of prospect development, though, a distant flash of NHL stardom was observed on Grand Rapids’ blueline. The likes of Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet, Nick Jensen and Marchenko came into the season with high expectations, and they fully delivered. With the Wings in desperate need of a consistent defensive presence, the achievements of the Griffins’ back-end provide a future sigh of relief.

“I thought our young defensive core got significantly better throughout the course of the season,” said Blashill. “We had four first-year American League defensemen in our lineup against Texas. I think that any time you have young defensemen like that, you better be real good in order to have success. I thought that one; they’re real good, and two; they really grew as players. I think that group was real impressive.”

On June 4, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland took the next step toward securing the future of the organization by signing Blashill to a new three-year contract. By wiping out the remaining year on his previous contract, the new agreement effectively keeps Blashill in the mix through the 2016-17 season. With whispers of an eventual NHL promotion abound, the up-and-comer will remain in Grand Rapids to hone his head coaching acumen and continue to impact the next wave of talent making its way to Detroit.

“We’re going to start by making sure that we have a good base of American League guys and see what players are available to us at the beginning of the year, but we’d like to have that group be as deep as possible,” said Blashill. “I think that in terms of the continued development of our players, we’ll sit down with each guy and make sure that they understand the level that they need to continue to strive for.”

The success didn’t stop with the players and coaches. A proverbial cherry on top of the season was the dedication and passion displayed by the Grand Rapids community.

For the fourth consecutive year and seventh time in the past eight seasons, the Griffins increased their average attendance over the prior year’s total. Grand Rapids ranked second overall in the AHL in terms of regular season attendance, averaging 8,220 people in the stands of Van Andel Arena per night.

“I think it’s a great, great city and a city that deserves to have a team that’s competing for championships at a high, high level,” said Blashill. “I think that we’d like to continue that on. I think that the number of sellouts we had this year [eight] was great. Just the overall fever around town for the Griffins was great, and I expect that to continue into the future.

“We’re excited for next year. We obviously feel as though there’s good talent in the organization, and we think we’re going to work real hard all summer to make sure that we keep the standard that we’ve kept over the last two years, and that standard is high,” said Blashill. “We expect to meet it, and we’re going to work our tails off to do that.”

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