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Red Wings relying heavily on Grand Rapids products

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- If there were a different option, the Detroit Red Wings would take it.

Instead, thanks to a spate of recent injuries, their current roster looks similar to the one the Grand Rapids Griffins won the 2013 Calder Cup with in the American Hockey League.

Heading into a game against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings are down eight players from their regular lineup, including captain Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disc in his back).

Stepping into the gaping lineup holes will be guys like center Joakim Andersson, rookie center Riley Sheahan, rookie center Luke Glendening and rookie forward Tomas Jurco.

"We have lots of really good hockey players out right now, but we're lucky that we have a good team down in Grand Rapids with lots of good players," said Andersson, who joined the Griffins last spring for their Calder Cup run, after Detroit was eliminated from the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. "We won the [AHL] championship down there and there's a lot of guys who want to show they can play in this League. There's a good opportunity right now."

That's putting it mildly.

Along with Zetterberg, Detroit is also missing goalie Jimmy Howard (knee sprain), forward Johan Franzen (concussion), forward Justin Abdelkader (concussion), forward Gustav Nyquist (groin), forward Darren Helm (shoulder), rookie defenseman Danny DeKeyser (shoulder) and one of their two big free-agent signings this past summer, forward Stephen Weiss (groin).

Nyquist was the latest to leave the lineup, after being held out of the morning skate on Tuesday. After starting the season in Grand Rapids, Nyquist played the past 13 games for the Red Wings and filled in nicely for other injured players.

Now even he's day-to-day.

"Yeah we’re getting a lot of [flare-ups] right now and that’s unfortunate, obviously," Nyquist said. "But it gives other guys an opportunity. We’ve called up a lot of guys now from Grand Rapids and they’ve been doing great down there, so hopefully they can help the team win [against Anaheim]."

Indeed, the Griffins are leading the AHL again under the guidance of coach Jeff Blashill, who spent the 2011-12 season as a Red Wings assistant. Grand Rapids is on top of the league's Midwest Division and doing it with prospects again leading the charge.

A contingent of them is now in Detroit, where they hope to keep winning together.

"It definitely helps you feel more confident and comfortable when you're in the locker room and you see some familiar faces," Sheahan said. "I think one of the biggest reasons we won last year was because we were a close team. We had a lot of chemistry. All the guys in here, who played for that team, were all pretty close. That definitely translates onto the ice."

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock agreed.

"I think winning helps you, being elite at any level helps you," he said. "When you win the Calder Cup with a bunch of veteran players it’s one thing, but when you win it with kids, like we did, I think that means we have good players. Are they going to be high-end players? I don’t know the answer to that. We’re going to watch."

Jurco and Sheahan will be watched closely.

Jurco, who turns 21 on Dec. 28, impressed Babcock in his NHL debut during a 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning this past Sunday. He had 11 goals and 27 points in 26 games with the Griffins, living up to the hype after Detroit selected him with the 35th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft.

Sheahan, the 21st pick in the 2010 draft, had six goals and 14 points in 23 games for Grand Rapids.

Each has good size, which Babcock hopes to see utilized against the Ducks. Jurco will again line up at left wing on the top line with center Pavel Datsyuk and right wing Daniel Alfredsson, and Sheahan will center the fourth line between Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson.

"We put Jurco the other day with [Datsyuk] and we’re going to give Sheahan an opportunity, and if he grabs it he’ll get it and keep it," Babcock said. "In [preseason games] he spent a lot of time thinking instead of just playing. We’ve talked to him. He’s played well in the [AHL]. He’s been their best player there the last little bit and we expect him to come in and do what Jurco did and take over."

If so, it'll be the latest example of the Red Wings' developmental system paying dividends. Blashill's familiarity with Babcock and the Red Wings' systems has helped Detroit's rookies make the transition smoother, something not all NHL franchises can do.

"I think it really helps," Babcock said. "[Blashill's] a really good coach. I talk to [him] maybe four times a week, and we talk about all the players. When I have all these kids, I ask him who should play with who, because he knows them better than I do. It’s a real good situation. I don’t know how many teams could do it, but I thought it was a real good way to help us out."

This season has really put that theory to the test.

The Red Wings have dealt with multiple injuries to lineup regulars almost the entire way, with every position on the ice affected. It has forced them to abandon their usual "overripe" approach with top prospects and adopt a quicker process.

"I knew those guys were going to come up here eventually, but it was maybe sooner than maybe even they expected," said 23-year old forward Tomas Tatar, who has six goals and 13 points in his first full NHL season. "[It was] sooner than a lot of people expected, but it's good for them."

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