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AHL Notebook: Peaks and valleys in Grand Rapids

Griffins seeking consistency in first season under Todd Nelson

by Patrick Williams @pwilliamsNHL / NHL.com Correspondent

Grand Rapids Griffins fans might have been left dizzy after the first four months of the American Hockey League season. 

After a 2-8-0-1 start, a franchise-record 15-game winning streak sent the Griffins soaring up the AHL standings. They also mixed in another franchise record in winning 14 consecutive home wins. Losses in six of seven games closed out the second half of January.

As part of that up-and-down march through the season, Griffins coach Todd Nelson admits there was an adjustment period for him and his players after he replaced Jeff Blashill this past summer. Blashill headed to the Detroit Red Wings after back-to-back 46-win seasons in Grand Rapids. 

In came Nelson off a stint with the Edmonton Oilers as an interim coach. Nelson arrived as the new face in an organization that had won a Calder Cup in 2013 and reached an AHL conference final last season. 

"I think what it really came down to was that we're a whole new coaching staff, and these [players] have been together for two or three years," Nelson said. "So it was almost like we were the stepdads coming in." 

That transition proved difficult. The Griffins, a Calder Cup favorite before the season, lost eight of their first nine games. Opponents outscored them 28-11. 

It was not until mid-November that the Griffins began to show signs of life. 

"I think it just got to a point where the guys accepted us," Nelson said. "We found common ground. I had to tweak a few things that I did, and they had to tweak a few things. Just like anything, you have to earn trust and respect for guys to buy in. 

"They didn't know a lot about me, and I didn't know a lot about the players, so in order to push the right buttons, I have to get to know the players. You have to communicate well and build that player-coach relationship. I really firmly believe that is where [coaching] is going. It's based on relationships with players. 

"Being a good communicator is key. I think the biggest thing is earning their trust and earning their respect, but it's a two-way street." 

Nelson has been in the coaching game since 2001-02 after a 12-season playing career. He brings a decidedly new-school approach to player communication with a new generation of players. 

"I break coaching down to arts and science," Nelson said. "Science is all of the technical stuff, the systems, are you going to 1-2-2, 2-1-2, left-wing lock, whatever. That's always interchangeable. 

"But the system work doesn't matter unless the art part of it [works], getting guys to play your system, play it well and go through the wall for you. So I think the arts part of it is a lot more important than the science. 

"It really comes down to getting your guys to go through the wall for you." 

ON THE ROAD 

If the San Antonio Rampage are to begin to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race, they will need to win on the road this month. 

The Rampage, last in the Pacific Division, started an 11-game road trip Saturday with a 4-3 loss against the Texas Stars. 

AT&T Center hosts an annual rodeo competition that puts the Rampage on the road each February. The trip this season will span 23 days and take the Rampage to six different cities. 

Injuries with the parent Colorado Avalanche have decimated the San Antonio roster after a promising start. The Rampage began the season 5-0-1-0 and had a 9-1-5-0 record on Nov. 21. But an 11-20-2 record since then has sent them tumbling down the Western Conference standings. 

NOT IMPRESSED 

With wins in 15 of 18 games and holding the AHL lead by 15 points, Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe probably is not in line to receive much sympathy from his 29 peers manning AHL benches. 

But consider Keefe to be rather unimpressed with his team. 

After a 6-2 road win this past week, Keefe had this to say: 

"I thought we played maybe 8-10 minutes of good hockey. It was enough for us to win the game. It's still not even close to where we think we need to be or where we're capable of being." 

A concern for Keefe, who is in his first season in the AHL after a successful Ontario Hockey League stint with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, is that a lineup brimming with talent allows the Marlies to stray from sound systems and structure, yet still win. That is not a sustainable long-term approach conducive to winning in the Calder Cup playoffs. 

"I have a lot of concerns that [talent] masks problems," Keefe said. "I can't remember the last time we played good hockey. We're getting by, and we're either getting lucky or we're hiding some underlying issues with the fact that we have skilled people that make plays and [score]." 

AHL GAME OF THE WEEK 

Having lost three games in a row, the Portland Pirates start a seven-game road trip this weekend. An excellent December and January helped to push the Pirates to third place in the Atlantic Division, but they face the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first of back-to-back games at Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday. Injuries and NHL recalls have slowed the Penguins lately as well; they are 3-6-1-0 in their past 10 games. The teams split a two-game series at Portland on Jan. 22-23. 

WITH HONORS 

The AHL named Hershey Bears rookie forward Jakub Vrana its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. Vrana, 19, had three goals and four assists in three games; he has five goals and eight assists in 12 games in a season interrupted by wrist surgery that kept him out of the Hershey lineup for three months. The Washington Capitals selected Vrana 13th in the 2014 NHL Draft.   

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING 

Hershey forward Chris Bourque had a goal and six assists this past week to move past TJ Brennan for the AHL scoring lead at 51 points. … Stockton Heat forward Derek Grant has taken over the AHL lead with 23 goals. … Ontario Reign veteran Peter Budaj's 26 wins and 1.58 goals-against average lead all AHL goaltenders. Budaj added another shutout this past weekend and has a league-leading eight. His 38 games (of Ontario's 42 games) and 2,284 minutes are most in the AHL. … Of Hershey rookie Riley Barber's 14 goals this season, seven have come in his past six games. 

ON THE MOVE 

Providence Bruins goaltender Malcolm Subban is out indefinitely because a fractured larynx sustained Saturday in warmups. Iowa Wild goaltender Jeremy Smith, who had been on loan from the Boston Bruins, is on his way to Providence to replace Subban in a tandem with rookie Zane McIntyre. 

With Smith gone and Leland Irving injured for Iowa, the Wild are potentially left with a rookie pairing of Steve Michalek and Brody Hoffman. Michalek has played two AHL games, and Hoffman has spent the season in the ECHL. 

Marlies forwards Mark Arcobello, Richard Clune and Josh Leivo headed to the parent Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday. The Charlotte Checkers received defenseman Ryan Murphy on loan from the Carolina Hurricanes the same day. 

Several longtime NHL names have joined AHL rosters lately. Defenseman Yannick Weber is the latest Vancouver Canucks player to be assigned to the Utica Comets, where he'll join veteran forwards Chris Higgins and Brandon Prust. Calgary Flames veteran forward Mason Raymond returned to the AHL for the first time since 2007-08 with Stockton this past weekend. 

Texas is without forward Radek Faksa, who is on recall with the Dallas Stars. Faksa, a first-round pick in the 2013 draft (No. 13), has 15 goals and 11 assists in 28 AHL games. Grand Rapids forward Andreas Athanasiou joined the Detroit Red Wings this past weekend; he has eight goals and eight assists in 26 games with the Griffins. 

Portland captain Brent Regner made his NHL debut this past Saturday with the Portland Pirates after 431 AHL games. 

AROUND THE AHL 

Providence has a 13-game point streak (9-0-3-1). … A 12-game point streak (9-0-2-1) has pushed Hershey one point ahead of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the Atlantic Division lead (by points). The Bears have a five-game winning streak and have outscored opponents 22-5 in their past four games. They had a six-goal second period in a 6-2 win at the Binghamton Senators this past Friday. … An 8-0-1-0 streak has Ontario comfortably in first place in the Pacific Division. Their .714 point percentage is second-best in the AHL. … After a four-game losing streak, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have won six consecutive games. … Losses in eight of the past nine games for the San Jose Barracuda have coach Roy Sommer still stuck at 636 AHL coaching wins. His next win would push him out of a tie with Fred "Bun" Cook for the AHL career lead. … Rockford IceHogs goaltender Michael Leighton remains tied with Johnny Bower at 45 career AHL shutouts. … Portland added Nick Vitucci as an assistant coach. The position had been vacant since Scott Allen replaced coach Tom Rowe on Jan. 1. … The Manitoba Moose ended a nine-game losing streak with a win this past Saturday. They remain last in the AHL at 31 points. … Providence's Frank Vatrano has 17 goals in 16 games this season. … Four players had hat tricks this past weekend. Bracken Kearns (Bridgeport Sound Tigers) and Danick Martel (Lehigh Valley Phantoms) each had a hat trick in a 6-3 Bridgeport win this past Friday. Milwaukee Admirals defenseman Trevor Murphy moved to left wing because of injuries and illness; he had a hat trick and three assists in a 7-3 win at the Bakersfield Condors this past Friday. His six points were a game-high in the AHL this season. Hershey forward Travis Boyd's hat trick led the Bears to a 5-1 home win against the Phantoms this past Saturday. … Three more AHL players made their NHL debuts this past week; the season total is 85 players. 

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