The Detroit Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year despite a series of injuries that plagued them throughout the 2013-14 regular season. That accomplishment can be attributed in large part to the reinforcements provided by their American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Thirteen members of the 2013 Calder Cup champion Griffins have skated for Detroit this season, including impact players such as defensemen Danny DeKeyser and Brian Lashoff, and forwards Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, the latter of whom led the Red Wings with 28 goals. Several others, including Nyquist and forwards Tomas Jurco, Luke Glendening and Riley Sheahan, spent time in Grand Rapids again this season.
The Griffins and Red Wings, whose affiliation began in 2002, have fostered a model relationship between an AHL team and its parent NHL club.
"Detroit, with their history, is always a contender for the Cup," said forward Mitch Callahan, a third-year member of the Griffins. "With Grand Rapids, we've been a pretty dominant team since winning it last year. As a player, those are the teams you strive to be on."
"It's exciting for young guys like myself to realize how good they are with their prospects and how well they do with helping them on and off the ice," said 2013-14 AHL All-Rookie defenseman Ryan Sproul. "They draft well, and that just bodes to the team they have down in Grand Rapids."
Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist are among the impact players provided to Detroit by the Grand Rapids Griffins. (Photo: Mark Newman)
Nine Griffins graduated to make their NHL debuts with Detroit this season -- Callahan and Sproul included -- all while Grand Rapids remained a dominant force in the AHL's Western Conference, posting 99 points (46-23-2-5) and reaching the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs.
It's an impressive feat that earned Jeff Blashill the 2013-14 Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL's outstanding coach.
"We're at a great understanding of what our job is [in Grand Rapids]," said Blashill, who served as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit in 2011-12 before heading across Michigan to take over the Griffins last season. "I believe that it's twofold: One is to win hockey games for the Griffins and try to win a Calder Cup; 1-A is to develop our players, to maximize their potential and ultimately try to develop future Red Wings to help them win a Stanley Cup."
All told, 18 members of Blashill's 2013-14 Griffins squad were called up to play a total of 391 regular-season games in the National Hockey League, including Sproul's fellow AHL All-Rookie Team member Teemu Pulkkinen and Second Team AHL All-Stars Adam Almquist and Petr Mrazek.
"They don't rush anybody, and that's an example of why their prospects make careers in the NHL," Callahan said. "Seeing guys that I won the [Calder] Cup with help the Red Wings get to the playoffs this year, I think a lot of that goes on the coaching staff here that helped develop those guys."
Multiple injuries that left key Red Wings skaters -- including Pavel Datsyuk, Justin Abdelkader and captain Henrik Zetterberg -- sidelined at various points this season paved the way for recalled Griffins to step up for Detroit.
"I don't know if there's been a year where the depth of talent has had a chance to shine the way it has this year," Blashill said. "That we can still earn 99 points despite missing lots of players throughout the year, and for Detroit to make a great playoff push at the same time -- to me, it's shown how good of a job the Red Wings' scouting department has done."
For the Griffins' young players, witnessing their former teammates' success in Detroit has reinforced the organization's appreciation for development and hard work.
"I think they feel real happiness for the guys," Blashill said. "But just as important, I think they understand just how close they are, and what a fine line it is between where they stand today and their ultimate goal [the NHL]."
For Callahan and Sproul specifically, the added motivation derives from being able to watch on television as their former roommates Glendening and Sheahan skate with the big club just 160 miles away.
"Watching them motivates you more. To see how far off you are from playing in the NHL," said Callahan. "It's exciting to watch and I couldn't be happier for them."
"We watch every one of their games, so it's pretty cool for us," Sproul said. "There's obviously that jealousy factor where we'll support them 100 percent, but at the same time we also want to be there."
It's by sticking to his longtime mantra that Blashill seems to have found a balance between winning and development.
"I've always looked at it, in every job I've done, that they go hand-in-hand," Blashill said. "I basically asked our players to commit to us in terms of winning, and we'll commit to you to try and help you become the very best hockey player you can be.
"I believe if you develop your players through the course of a season, that at the end of the year you're going to be a way better team than you were at the beginning, even with the same pieces."
Blashill is confident that the revolving door between Detroit and Grand Rapids will continue to drive his players as they push for a second consecutive Calder Cup championship.
"They've seen firsthand how committed you have to be because of the work that guys like Glendening and Sheahan have done to get to the NHL and help Detroit win," Blashill said. "I think we've got a lot of guys that have an opportunity to, at some point, be NHL players, and we're very lucky that way."
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