03/29/2014 2:12 PM -
Defending a Calder Cup championship presents a major challenge. After first qualifying for the playoffs, the Griffins will be poised to pursue the goal of winning the Cup a second time.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Winning a championship is never easy. Doing it a second time may be even harder.
Since the Calder Cup was first presented in 1938, there have been only nine instances where a team has successfully defended its title. The Grand Rapids Griffins are ready to face the challenge and become the 10th team to repeat.
Competing in the American Hockey League complicates the challenge. In its developmental role for the NHL, the AHL serves as a revolving door for talent, with players often traveling back and forth between the two leagues. Rosters change from one year to the next, making the quest to defend a championship all the more difficult.
The Griffins said goodbye to some key contributors after raising the Cup – Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson graduated to the Detroit Red Wings, Jan Mursak and Francis Pare are now playing in the KHL in Russia – but the organization welcomed the arrival of a number of promising prospects, including several young defensemen in Alexey Marchenko, Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul and Nick Jensen.
Some faces have changed, but the team is not materially different.
"You know the guys have the makeup to help us to do it again," said Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan, contemplating his team's chances with 20 games to go in the 2013-14 regular season. "We still have the same coaches, the same systems and much of the same personnel. We know we're not quite where we were last year. We still have some growing to do, but we still have time."
Nothing is assured. The Griffins must first qualify for the playoffs in order to get the opportunity to defend their Calder Cup championship. After a midseason malaise that saw the team taste victory only three times in 12 games, the Griffins reeled off seven straight wins heading into early March to stay atop the Midwest Division.
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The quest to defend the Cup began immediately following the 2012-13 season. The Griffins re-signed Hoggan and fellow veterans Nathan Paetsch, Brennan Evans and Triston Grant, while adding another experienced player in David McIntyre from the Houston Aeros.
Veteran leadership will be crucial for the Griffins during their playoff push.
"Last year was not only fun, but it was also a huge learning experience," Grant said. "It's an experience that can never be taken away, and it should definitely help us down the stretch this season."
"Being in the situations that we encountered last year will certainly help," Paetsch said. "We didn't win one easy round, but we had players who came up big for us in clutch situations. A lot of those guys are still in this room and hopefully they're going to help us going forward."
Experience often counts when it matters most. "You end up relying on those guys who have been there," Hoggan said. "Going in, we know what needs to be done," added Evans.
The key is to stay focused. Head coach Jeff Blashill and his staff are intent on making sure that the team keeps moving in the right direction. "Blash always preaches process," Evans said. "The better the process, the better the results."
After stumbling a bit to start the season, winning just twice in their first six games, the Griffins strung together their first seven-game winning streak to move into first place. For the most part, the team kept up its winning ways until mid-January when it lost its footing, in part due to the callups of Luke Glendening, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco to Detroit.
"Not many teams go through a season without ups and downs – it's very rare," Evans said. "We got into a bit of a slump. Trying to get the ship going in the right direction was a big concern, so it was nice to put that behind us."
"A couple of weeks ago, we might have taken a step back, but now we're back on track and heading in the right direction," Grant agreed. "We definitely want to go into the playoffs on a high note."
With the addition of so many young players, the Griffins were bound to experience some growing pains.
"Guys are growing on the ice, but we have the expectation that they'll take it upon themselves and become leaders," Hoggan said. "These guys are young, but you want them to take the bull by the horns right away."
When you're the defending champs, expectations are high.
"It's been a tough year because we've had so much (player) movement," Grant said. "We're fortunate to have a balanced group of young players and they're crucial. We have young guys who have been getting better since Day 1 and that's pretty neat to see."
Individual improvements, however, are secondary to the success enjoyed by the organization. A team wins a Cup, not individuals. Champions often exhibit an esprit de corps, a single-minded purpose to reach a solitary goal.
"Last year, from Christmas on, we had the same group of guys in the lineup and everyone bonded really well. We had that feeling, that vibe that we could have something special," Hoggan said. "This season, we've had guys going up and down, so it's something we're still working toward. Teams that win are those that are close on and off the ice. It's imperative that we build chemistry and unity."
Player promotions might seem detrimental in the short term, but they could prove beneficial in the long run. "We're lucky that this group of guys is so interchangeable," Grant said. "Everyone has seemingly played with everyone else, and it's easy to create chemistry when everyone gets along. It doesn't matter who you are playing with."
"One of our big strengths is our depth," Evans said. "From a team perspective, we have offense by committee. We don't have one or two guys with a million points. That's important in the playoffs, especially on the road when your opponent can match up against your top lines. Teams that are not deep tend to not go very far in the playoffs."
The fact that the Griffins put together their third seven-game winning streak into early March while Glendening, Sheahan and Jurco were playing in Detroit is a good sign. "It speaks volumes about our depth," Evans said.
Younger players have stepped up to the challenge. Mitch Callahan has set personal highs for goals, assists and points. Teemu Pulkkinen established a new franchise record for most goals by a rookie. Jensen stepped up his play after AHL All-Star defenseman Marchenko suffered a severe high ankle sprain that required season-ending surgery. Andrej Nestrasil was taking advantage of his increased ice time, doubling the point production from his first two seasons combined.
"All these guys have proven in the past that they're good hockey players," Nestrasil said. "Now it's all about opportunity."
If it's the veterans who provide leadership by pointing the prospects in the right direction, it's the younger players who have to rise to the challenge.
"It's all about winning," Nestrasil said. "If our line was producing points, but we were losing every night, it wouldn't work. So it's exciting that we're producing and we're winning. Now we've got to keep it going."
The Griffins' depth is also evident in the crease. Goaltender Tom McCollum has enjoyed a strong season, making the most of his opportunity to play in the absence of Petr Mrazek, who has been recalled by the Red Wings several times this season.
"With Petr going up, Tommy really got a chance to play and he's played really well for us," Evans said. "We're really confident with either of them in net."
"There's no question about our goaltending – we don't even worry about it," Hoggan agreed. “If they have an off-night, we know they're going to bounce back."
By mid-March, the Griffins were within a few points of having the best record in the AHL.
"The biggest thing is we want to keep playing good hockey," Paetsch said. "You don't want to get into the playoffs when you're not playing your best, and I think that's the key. First and foremost, we've got to clinch a playoff spot, but then you'd like to go in on a high."
When the Griffins close out the regular season in Cleveland against the Lake Erie Monsters on April 19, what will matter most is that the team will be counted among those that have qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
"We've had a successful regular season, but in the end that really doesn't mean much," Paetsch said. "It just means we're in the top 16 and that's all that matters. You saw what can happen last year. We didn't win the outright league title or anything, but we hit our stride at the right time. Hopefully we can do the same this year."
The experience of last season should be invaluable.
"Look at Syracuse last year," Evans said, pointing to the Griffins' opponent in the Calder Cup Finals. "They had a great team and they found themselves back in the finals because they knew how to win. They knew what it took and how hard it is.
"Things don't get easier in the playoffs, things get harder every single game."
For the younger players, it's an opportunity to play a role in a potential championship run.
"We hope they have that hunger," Hoggan said. "You hope they don't have the mindset that they saw what we accomplished last year and that's enough. You hope they think, 'I was here, but I want to be a bigger part of it. I want to have a bigger role.'"
"We have enough new guys who want to prove themselves," Evans said. "Success comes with winning. You see how many guys are with the Wings right now. [Ten members of the Griffins’ Calder Cup championship team were on Detroit’s roster as of March 12.] There are guys here who want to move up, and winning definitely helps that."
Others will want to prove last year was no fluke. "I'm so excited," Mrazek said. "We want to win it again."
Mrazek said he will approach the playoffs with the same intensity that he does every regular season game. It's that one-game-at-a-time mindset that allows a team to persevere through the possible pitfalls of the playoffs – the grind of back-to-back games, the nagging injuries, the taxing travel schedules.
"It's important for the vets to keep everyone on an even keel," Evans said. "In the playoffs, you don't want to get too high or too low. We have a lot of competitive guys in our room – they want to win and winning is the standard. Winning the Cup again is definitely something we aspire to."
Will the Griffins face more pressure as defending champs? Paetsch doesn't think so.
"Everybody experiences pressure once you get into the playoffs," he said. "We have the kind of leadership that won't allow pressure to get to us. We showed that last year when we got to Game 7 (against Oklahoma City). There's no bigger pressure than a Game 7. We kept a level keel all the way through the playoffs, and I think it will be the same this year."
Grant said he is looking forward to the challenge of defending the Cup.
"Until you win a championship, you always end the season with that feeling of 'Oh well, better luck next year.' Now if we lose, we're going to be mad because we know what it means to win it all," Grant said. "If somebody steals your cake, you're going to be upset."
Hoggan, who won a championship as a rookie then waited 10 years before winning another, knows his next chance could be his last.
"As my career is winding down, I know you only get so many chances," Hoggan said. "We want to build on that legacy in Grand Rapids."
"It would definitely be nice," Evans said.
"I'm looking forward to the weather getting warm outside and having the opportunity to play into June," Grant said. "We're definitely excited about the sun coming out and the snow going away. We want to be playing hockey into May and June."
"I can't wait," Paetsch said. "You play hockey to get into the playoffs and win a championship. Last year was very special, but last year is over. It's going to be difficult to do it again, but obviously we're going to be ready," Paetsch said.
Calder Cup By the Numbers
2 – Calder Cups won by Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan (Houston in 2003, Grand Rapids in 2013)
3 – Consecutive Calder Cups won by the Springfield Indians from 1960-62, the only AHL team in 77 seasons to accomplish the trifecta
3 – Times that an AHL club and its NHL affiliate won their league championships in the same year, most recently New Jersey and Albany in 1995
5 – Record number of Calder Cups won during the playing careers of Bob Solinger, Les Duff, Fred Glover and Mike Busniuk
6 – Calder Cups won by affiliates of the Detroit Red Wings (Pittsburgh Hornets in 1967; Adirondack Red Wings in 1981, 1986, 1989 and 1992; Grand Rapids in 2013)
8 - Calder Cups won by Frank Mathers: two as a player, two as a player-coach, one as a head coach, and three as president/general manager
9 – Times that an AHL team has won consecutive Calder Cups, most recently Hershey in 2009 and 2010
11 – AHL titles won by Hershey, the most of any city or club
12 – Head coaches with more than one AHL championship, including Chicago’s John Anderson (2002 and 2008)
14 – Members of the Griffins’ 2013 championship team who’ve played in the NHL this season, including seven who made their NHL debuts: Adam Almquist, Chad Billins, Mitch Callahan, Landon Ferraro, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen
16 – Goals scored by Jack Butterfield Trophy winner (playoff MVP) Tomas Tatar during the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs, the third-most in league history for a single postseason
17 – Members of the Griffins’ 2013 championship team who’ve played for Grand Rapids this season
20 – Rosters of past champions that are featured on the plaques of the Calder Cup. The Griffins’ 2013 plaque will remain on the Cup until 2033.
24 – Height of the Calder Cup in inches
24 – Games played by the Griffins during the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs, two shy of the maximum. Also, the number of games played by Petr Mrazek, tying the AHL playoff record for a goaltender.
29 – Cities that have had their AHL member club win the Calder Cup
29 – Members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who have won the Calder Cup during their careers
35 – Weight of the Calder Cup in pounds
50 – Division champions who’ve gone on to win the Calder Cup, including Grand Rapids in 2013
100+ - Number of players and coaches who have won both the Calder Cup and Stanley Cup in their careers
143 – AHL-record playoff points tallied by former Griffin and two-time Calder Cup champion Darren Haydar, who also holds the records for goals (63) and assists (80)
159 – AHL-record playoff games played by former Griffin and three-time Calder Cup champion Bryan Helmer
1938 – The first year that the Calder Cup was awarded, to the Providence Reds for winning the second International-American Hockey League championship
2000 – Prior to Grand Rapids in 2013, the last time an AHL team played four playoff series without a single overtime game (Rochester)
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