GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – No stranger to western Michigan, Jeff Blashill is back in the driver’s seat as the new head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, who kicked off training camp this week ahead of the American Hockey League opener at Van Andel Arena next Friday.
The son of a former college professor, Blashill, who has held coaching gigs at three different colleges, has built his own reputation as a solid educator, particularly amount younger players.
The 39-year-old Blashill was an assistant coach with the Red Wings last season. In June, he accepted the leadership role for Detroit’s AHL affiliate.
Through the first three days of camp, the new coach likes the pace set by his staff, which includes former Wings’ stars Chris Chelios, Jiri Fischer and Chris Osgood.
“I think it’s been good to get going, and I think all of us, including the players, were anxious to get going,” said Blashill, who coached at Western Michigan University in 2010-11. “We’ve thought through a lot of planning up until this point and we needed to spent a lot of time as coaches to come up with a plan and I think the first couple of days have been good. Now we’re looking forward to continue at a high level.”
The Griffins will break camp following Friday’s scrimmage and then take to the road for a pair of exhibition games against Lake Erie in Toledo on Saturday, and at Yost Arena on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor on Sunday.
Familiar with just a handful of Griffins who were called up to Detroit at some point last season – guys like Gustav Nyquist, Brendan Smith, Riley Sheahan and Joakim Andersson – it’s Blashill’s intention to build a foundation for the young squad beginning with a winning attitude.
“I think there are certain things as a coach that you want to stand for, and you want to implement a mentality right away,” he said. “We’ll build more into particulars within systems, but there are certain things that we want to be about, and that’s the mentality that we’re trying to build here this week.
“Part of that is practicing hard and practicing fast and practicing at a high level, and our guys have done a great job of that so far.”
Blashill said that he hopes to know his line combinations and defensive pairings after the scrimmage. But with 37 players currently in camp, plenty of young players will have an opportunity to make the final roster this weekend.
“It will be an interesting process as a coach to see which guys are really taking steps and which guys are not,” Blashill said.
One player who has already caught the coach’s attention this week is Andersson, who finished his second AHL season with 21 goals and 30 assists last year.
“Andersson has been a great player down here, (and) ready to maybe take a big step, offensively,” Blashill said. “He’s somebody who does a lot of little things right, which will help him get to the NHL. But how good is he going to be once he gets there will be determined by what type of year he can have and can he really start to put up some big numbers, offensively.”
The Griffins’ offense should also benefit from the return of centers Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, who collectively scored 46 goals and each produced 58 points a season ago.
“I think there is some great potential up front,” Blashill said. “Obviously, Gus was with us for a period of time in Detroit last year. I think he has a chance to be a real impactful top-six forward in the NHL. Tomas Tatar is not here yet, but he’ll be back when our season starts. He’s been very successful at the American League level, and hopefully he has another big step.
“We’ve brought in some veteran presence with Triston Grant, who’s going to bring some toughness and whatnot. Then we have some young guys who have a chance to be real good players, so we’re real happy with our crop of forwards.”
Grant, 28, is a seven-year AHL veteran, who has totaled 1,266 penalty minutes with Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Rochester and Oaklahoma City.
Similarly with Nyquist up front, the Griffins will undoubtedly possess one of the best defenseman in the AHL with the return of Smith, who was slated to begin the NHL season in Detroit before the lockout hit. But beyond Smith, the Griffins are young with Brian Lashoff, Gleason Fournier and Adam Almquist returning from last season.
“The one positive for Brendan is that he can play down here, improve and get himself as ready as possible to be an impact player at the NHL level when the lockout ends without the pressure of worrying about being called up,” Blashill said. “I think that’s a real positive thing for him. So we’re expecting big things from Brendan and really putting himself in a position to be an impact player at the NHL level.”
The Griffins also have four goalies in camp, including Tom McCollum and Jordan Pearce, who had their struggles in the past. Rookie Petr Mrazek was arguably the best goaltender in last year’s World Junior Championship where he posted a shutout and a 2.49 goals-against average in six games, including a 52-save performance in a win over Team USA.
However, don’t expect Blashill to subscribe to the what-have-you-done-lately school of coaching when it comes time to decide on his goaltenders.
“Every year is a new year and in goaltending there are examples of that throughout the NHL, throughout all levels of hockey,” he said. “Each year is a new year, so whether you’re coming off a great year or coming off a sub-par year, that’s not going to matter when the puck drops on our home opener here. What’s going to matter is what happens from here on out.”
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