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Griffins coach Todd Nelson talks about Red Wings prospects, AHL playoffs

Grand Rapids will face Milwaukee in the first round for the second straight year

by Arthur J. Regner and Dana Wakiji @ArthurJRegner and @Dwakiji /

The Grand Rapids Griffins earned the second seed in the Central Division and finished sixth in the American Hockey League despite the Red Wings taking their top players throughout the season.

The Griffins will face the third-seeded Milwaukee Admirals in the first round for the second straight season. Last season, the Griffins swept the Admirals in their playoff series.

During the regular season, the Griffins went 7-5 against the Admirals, including 4-2 at Milwaukee. spoke to Griffins coach Todd Nelson on the eve of their first playoff game.

How would you characterize your year, especially toward the end of the season with the position the Red Wings were in, you were losing a lot of players to Detroit?

"I think consistency. If you minus the stretch where we had four guys called up and three guys injured, all key members to our team, that was the only stretch that we really faltered. We were pretty resilient as well. If we lost a game, we seemed to come back the next night and win. So those two words come to mind."

The Griffins' longest losing streak this season was four games and they were 15-6-0-2 in games immediately following a regulation loss.

You guys won 47 games, more than any other team in the Central Division.

"It was a great year. When we had guys get injured, some young guys stepped in and did great jobs. I think that's why we were pretty consistent. We have good depth on our hockey team. We were able to play a lot of the young guys, especially the last game of the year, just to see how they handled things and they did very well. So having that depth is really going to help us, especially if we go on a long playoff run."

Did you notice any difference in the guys who got some NHL experience? Did it help them in Grand Rapids?

"Anytime a guy comes back to us after getting a sniff up there, they play with a lot more confidence. I know it happened to me when I was playing. But the guys are certainly more confident, they're excited about what our team can provide in the playoffs. I think that's the biggest thing, it's not so much the skill set, it's just their confidence out there."

One player who always seems to have playoff success with you guys is Tyler Bertuzzi. What are you expecting from him?

"I'm hoping much of the same, to be quite honest. Tyler, he always seems to perform in the big stage, especially in playoffs. It's be sure nice if he could do the same thing this year. He's got a track record of doing so and based on his last two games, when he came back off an injury, he played extremely well. So he's trending in the right direction and right now I like what I see."

In 23 AHL playoff games the last two seasons, Bertuzzi has 14 goals and six assists. The 14 goals are the most among the team's active players.

Were you surprised that Nick Jensen came up to the Wings and earned a two-year contract?

"I wasn't surprised. That's a player that we talked about last year and there were questions posed to us as a staff, do you think Nick's ready. We said yes. Now that was later on in the season. Then if you remember, Nick didn't have the greatest of training camps. But he came to Grand Rapids, he worked on his game and when he was given the opportunity, we were really happy because we knew that with his skating ability, he would be able to survive up there and contribute. I think he took his game to a whole different level once he started feeling comfortable up there."

Ryan Martin is the general manager of the Griffins. How much interaction do you have with the Detroit organization?

"Ryan Martin has a good handle on it. So we always talk every day, especially after a game. We always offer him feedback about how the game went. As for Ken (Holland) and Blash (Jeff Blashill), they'll call me and they'll ask about a certain player, they'll say, 'Who's your best forward or who's your best defenseman right now?' Ken's always asking about the prospects, how are they progressing, so there's a lot of good communication going on."

Some players go back and forth between Grand Rapids and Toledo, is that so they can perfect their game before returning to the AHL?

"Sometimes there's different circumstances. Sometimes we send a guy there if he hasn't been playing here. A player's not going to get better by sitting in the stands. We want them to be playing games, we want them to be put in good situations down there in Toledo, situations where maybe they wouldn't play up here. For instance, a guy like Dylan Sadowy went down a few different times and he was able to play power play more consistently and Mike Borkowski was the same way. Sometimes it's just a numbers game. We don't like to carry a lot of players, especially if we're healthy. Because once again, we want to see guys develop and we know that playing hockey games certainly can help."

How have you seen Joe Hicketts develop throughout his first professional season?

"He's coming along nicely. I can talk about all our prospects. I like the way that they all developed. As for Joe, one part of his game that he had to clean up from the start of the year is sometimes he was trying to make plays where they weren't there, trying to maybe overcomplicate things. He got better as the season went on. So now we're not seeing those big mistakes like we were at the start of the year. At the start of the year, there'd be one big mistake and believe me, when he made a mistake, it was a big one. But he's learned to not force the game. That's just a sign of maturity and he's gotten a lot better with it."

Hicketts had seven goals, 27 assists and was plus-15 in 73 games.

You haven't had them for long, but what have you thought of Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski, two of the draft picks from last year?

"Hronek, he's played himself on the cusp of being in the lineup. He's not going to play (Friday) night. We're playing Milwaukee, they kind of have some grit to their game so we have to match that as well. But I have no hesitation putting him in. If we were playing a team that didn't have a lot of grit, he'd probably be in the lineup. I saw him, obviously he played more games than Dennis, but he got better and better. Every game he played he got better. So he's definitely on the right path. Then as for Dennis, it was just one game I was able to see him play. I think that maybe he was a bit tentative, but that's normal for a young kid going into their first American League game. That's the only game that I really saw him but Dennis, he's a smooth skater, he moves the puck like an NHLer, he snaps it really hard. These kids are so young, we have to kind of give them time to grow but I like what I see so far."

Hronek had one goal and one assist in 10 games while Cholowski did not record a point in one game.

I get asked this a lot, if a player signs with Grand Rapids, is he Grand Rapids' property or Detroit's property?

"Detroit signs him to the American League deal. But that player is not eligible to go up to the National Hockey League if called upon. Detroit would have to sign him to a National Hockey League deal. But the guys on National Hockey League deals, they're free to go up and down, obviously, if they're needed. The American Hockey League deals are the property of Grand Rapids, but Detroit signs them."

What about a two-way contract?

"A two-way contract is what you see the players on entry-level contracts. So a player like Joe Hicketts, it was the first year of his entry-level, that's a two-way contract where he'll make X amount of dollars in the National Hockey League if he plays and he'll make a lot lower pay in the American League, that's a two-way contract. The American Hockey League contract's basically a one-way contract just for the American Hockey League."

How do you guys match up with the Milwaukee Admirals, whom you've played a lot this season?

"We played them 12 times and every time, with the exception of maybe two or three games, the games have been really tight. They're a very good hockey team, I think they're well-coached. They got a lot of good pieces. They have skill up front, they have grit, their goaltending's solid. If our team plays our game, we should be fine. But it's going to be a battle. It doesn't matter which game it's going to be but every game is going to be a battle against them."

You have to believe, considering your record this year, that the Griffins can go on a long playoff run and contend for the Calder Cup?

"That's the game plan. You always get concerned with the first round, it's only a five-game series. You have to get off to a good start because if you don't, things can happen real quick. So it's really important that we get off to a good start. But I like where we're at right now. We should get Marty Frk back from injury here, I think within the week. That gives us everybody on the roster is healthy, which is outstanding. That was our goal is to get healthy before the playoffs, which we did. Like I said, if our guys play their game and execute our game plan, we should be fine. It's going to be a battle but our game plan is to win a Calder Cup. That's the bottom line. I think it's important for these young prospects to play these meaningful games. It's going to help them in the future."

What are the keys to getting past Milwaukee and advancing in the playoffs?

"Special teams are going to play a huge role, which it does. Our power play, it was the best in the league and the thing is, that has to come through. Our penalty kill was ranked, I think, 11th. We got a lot better as the season went on. But special teams are going to be key, we're going to have to have good goaltending from Jared Coreau. I haven't seen a team win a Stanley Cup with an average goaltender. The goaltender is key. Then from there, just playing good, smart hockey, play the game the right way, make sure that we're above the puck at all times, being on the right side of the puck. So the thing is the guys have been through this all year, we've worked on it all year, we just have to go out there and execute."

The Griffins led the AHL in power-play efficiency at 24.4 percent and were 11th on the penalty kill at 82.8 percent. The Admirals had the seventh-ranked power play at 20.6 percent and were ninth on the penalty kill at 83.4 percent.

What have you seen from Jared Coreau? He was progressing well and then it seemed the bottom dropped out.

"That happens a lot with younger goalies in their first stint. When Jared came back, there was rust on him. We kept on playing him, we were working him. Brian Mahoney-Wilson's our goalie coach and he does an outstanding job. We wanted to get him into a rhythm because he didn't play a whole lot when he was up there with Detroit so we got him into a rhythm and you could see his game getting sharper and sharper with every outing that he went out there. Based on what I saw in practice this week, he looks crisp out there and if we get him on a roll, our team can be pretty tough to beat."

Coreau was 19-11-3-2 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 33 games with the Griffins.

Griffins coaches are all over the NHL. You've coached in the NHL. What is it about Grand Rapids that their coaches often go on to bigger and better things?

"First off, I like the way that you think. I would love an opportunity to coach again in the National Hockey League. But I think when you look at Grand Rapids, with the affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Red Wings have an unbelievable reputation among their peers in the league. It's been the standard, let's face it. Anytime an organization goes 25 years in a row making the playoffs, that's exceptional. Obviously this year was a bit of a disappointment, but it happens. I think when you come to this organization and you work for the Red Wings, you're part of the organization. I think people take note, I think they know that Kenny Holland and management's done a great job over the last 25-26 years and you're associated with that. So I think that's part of the reason."

I hear that if you are in the AHL, Grand Rapids is the place to be because of the quality of life and how the city and western Michigan, you're close to Lake Michigan and it's a great environment?

"I agree. The city itself is fantastic, the downtown area is wonderful. There's a lot of things going on. You mentioned about being close to Lake Michigan, a lot of guys on our team I know like to fish and golf. So there's plenty of things for the guys to do here. Also, our fan base has been very strong. The guys like to play in front of our fans. It certainly does help when our fans come out and support us because it's pretty intimidating coming into this building when you have a full house. So when you look at it, it is a destination. I think it's one of the best places in the American Hockey League. It's a hockey town, people are knowledgeable. A lot of people here, many people are Red Wing fans and they're excited to watch the prospects play. There's a lot of good things going on here and that's why guys want to sign here. When free agents are looking, it's always a destination where guys want to explore and I don't see that stopping anytime soon."

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