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Grand Rapids finding its way after a rugged start to season

Defending Calder Cup champ has used veteran core, new blood to hit late stride

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

Grand Rapids was a shell of the defending Calder Cup champion during the first two months of the 2017-18 American Hockey League season.

Grand Rapids, the affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, started 11-15-1-4 this season, including a stretch of eight losses in nine losses from Nov. 17 to Dec. 10.

However, a 21-7-0-2 run since Dec. 29 has undone the early damage and Grand Rapids (32-22-1-6) is fourth in the Central Division. A strong final month of the regular season can set them up for another playoff run in April.

Here is a look at four storylines surrounding Grand Rapids:


Finding his way

One player fighting through that early-season slump was forward Evgeny Svechnikov.

Expectations were high for Svechnikov entering the season. Detroit's first-round pick (No. 19) in the 2015 NHL Draft, Svechnikov has size (6-foot-3, 208 pounds), a 20-goal rookie AHL season, and a two-month playoff run last spring.

However, a neck injury before the season slowed some of that momentum. When he was healthy again, he headed to Grand Rapids when the team was attempting to find its own collective game. Through his first 27 games, he had five points (two goals, three assists). He has followed that with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in his next 25 games.

While his numbers have not matched his rookie total of 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists), his shot and intensity are among attributes that generate optimism from Detroit.

"I think he was fighting it before Christmas and probably putting too much pressure on himself," Grand Rapids coach Todd Nelson said. "After Christmas, he kind of cleared his head and came in and started to pick his game up."

That work paid off with a recall to Detroit on March 7.

"That's a great opportunity for him, and it's up to him to seize the moment," Nelson said.


New wave

A veteran flavor to the lineup has long been part of the recipe in Grand Rapids, but that is changing.

With the Red Wings retooling and stocking up on draft picks, strong AHL development will figure heavily into Detroit's future. However, NHL potential is already in Grand Rapids.

Rookie defenseman Filip Hronek headlines the young group, along with Svechnikov. Detroit selected Hronek in the second round (No. 53) of the 2016 NHL Draft, and he has transitioned quickly to the pro game.

"I think he has developed quicker than I expected him to," Nelson said. "He is gaining more confidence as we go."

As Hronek, 20, continues to add size (6-0, 178) and pro experience, he can eventually offer Detroit a right-shot option capable of running a power play. He is a key piece of the third-ranked Grand Rapids power play (20.9 percent). His 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 53 games place him second among rookie AHL defensemen behind Manitoba's Sami Niku.

Fellow rookie defenseman Vili Saarijarvi, 20, has also shown promise in limited action. A third-round (No. 73) pick by Detroit in the 2015 draft, Saarijarvi has time to develop physically (5-10, 178) and Detroit is taking a patient approach with him. He has split his season between Grand Rapids and Toledo of the ECHL and has 10 assists in 35 AHL games.

"Those two young guys are coming along nicely," Nelson said.


More seasoning

Detroit has three more young players with a championship playoff run on their resumes.

Forward Dominic Turgeon (6-2, 203), a third-round pick (No. 63) in the 2014 NHL Draft, continues to progress in his second pro season. Turgeon, 22, has 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 57 AHL games. He has played five games with Detroit this season.

Defenseman Joe Hicketts, 21, has overcome doubts about his size (5-8, 180) and being undrafted to create a place for himself in the organization. After an excellent rookie season, he played his first NHL game Jan. 22 against the New Jersey Devils. He has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 56 AHL games this season.

Robbie Russo (6-0, 196), 25, is second to Hronek in scoring among Grand Rapids defensemen with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 61 games. He played 19 games last season with Detroit.


Lessons learned

The AHL never stops throwing new challenges at teams and their young prospects.

That also goes for a team fresh off a Calder Cup championship. Those first two months of the AHL season delivered a blunt message for Grand Rapids.

Along with offseason personnel losses and injuries, Nelson had to deal with that challenge.

"We decided that the Calder Cup hangover went on a bit long," Nelson said. "We were always being reminded that we were champions, so it gets in your head. So, then we think that we can play the game easy, try to win easy. That's not the case."

Co-leading scorer Ben Street, who has 49 points (14 goals, 35 assists), tied with Matt Puempel, found it perplexing as well. It was not for a lack of awareness on the part of Street and his teammates to guard against a slow start after winning the Calder Cup, however.

"You know, as a player you're almost hyper-aware of that stigma," Street said. "Maybe we were trying too hard to fight it.

"We certainly didn't feel like, 'Oh, we have the hangover-type of feel.' But maybe that's a real thing."

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