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Photo: Sam Iannamico

March 31, 2017

By Pete Wallner, MLive


GRAND RAPIDS - Todd Nelson, who took over the Grand Rapids Griffins in June 2015 with the unenviable task of succeeding Jeff Blashill, has carved out his own success as this year's team prepares for the postseason.

With nine games remaining in the regular season, the Griffins enter Friday night's home game against Charlotte at 43-19-1-4 and three wins from equaling the franchise high for a 76-game season.

Blashill's teams won 46 games twice, in 2014 and 2015. Anything beyond three wins would give the Griffins their highest win total since 55 in the 80-game season in 2007. The AHL went to 76 games in 2011-12.

The Griffins, who on Sunday clinched their earliest playoff berth in six seasons, are built to succeed with an overstuffed lineup of veterans and a core of prospects who have improved.

The team has also won despite a large number of call ups to Detroit, out of the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

Nelson, in the second year of a three-year contract, has been able to mold and then readjust throughout the season.

"We're held accountable to a standard but he's not a coach who yells, but will sit you down and let you know what's expected or needs improvement," said forward Mitch Callahan.

"He's pretty personable. I think any guy, from rookie to veteran can easily have a conversation with him. And, he's a former player so he knows how to handle the dog days of the year."

Blashill had a remarkable three-year run in Grand Rapids with a 134-71-12-11 record highlighted by the franchise's only Calder Cup Trophy in 2013. The other years, the Griffins reached the conference semifinals (2014) and conference finals (2015) before Blashill was hired by the Detroit Red Wings. His teams won the Midwest Division two of three years.

Of course, a championship trumps all. But Nelson has the Griffins in position heading into the postseason.

The Griffins currently lead the Central Division and, with overall standings now determined by win percentage, they have the second-best mark in the Western Conference at .679.

A year ago, after a 44-30-1-1 regular season, the Griffins reached the division finals (equivalent to the conference semifinals) before losing in six games to eventual champ Lake Erie.

The final games this season shape the attitude for the postseason, which begins the week of April 17.

"I think Nellie has done a great job of holding us to a championship standard all season so that whenever we play and we don't look that way, he lets us know," said defenseman Brian Lashoff.

Callahan and Lashoff have experience with both coaches, including with Blashill in Grand Rapids and Detroit.

"There's a level in practice that we're expected to meet and I think that translates into success during the games," Lashoff said. "Both coaches expect that."

"They are pretty similar," Callahan said. "They both hold guys accountable and that's a big thing. The only difference, I'd say, is perhaps a little more creativity we have here (in Grand Rapids). We go five forwards on the power play. That's not something you see every day.

"But they're both similar. Both love to win and they expect you to do the right thing and be a pro every day."