GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Max Nicastro may be new to the Griffins and the American Hockey League this fall, but his history with his club’s new coach should ease the transition from college to the pros.
Nicastro, the Red Wings’ third-round (No. 91 overall) pick in 2008, played for the Chicago Steel in the USHL current Griffins coach Jeff Blashill was orchestrating a Clark Cup championship in Indiana.
“The coaches are really looking after me,” Nicastro said. “The guys have taken me under their wing, which has been real nice.”
Nicastro is one of four first-time pros that have joined the Griffins’ roster for the upcoming season, which gets underway Friday with the season-opener against the Milwaukee Admirals at Van Andel Arena.
But Nicastro’s non-traditional path to the AHL is something he’s often asked about. A southern California kid, his parents introduced him to hockey at a very young age. However, the brand of hockey didn’t include ice – at least not right away.
“One day my parents took me down to the roller rink right down the street,” recalled Nicastro. “They just asked my brother and I if we wanted to play. Next thing you know, we were in a league and playing in tournaments. It was fun.
“From there I started playing on the ice when I was 11 or 12, I think. I just transitioned and began playing center California ice hockey until I was 16 or 17, that’s when I moved away to play junior hockey.”
As his skills improved, Nicastro sought better competition in the Tier 1 junior league in the upper Midwest. Once in Chicago – under the tutelage of former Blackhawks defenseman and Steels coach Steve Poapst – it wasn’t long before Nicastro made huge strides in his development as one of the top young defensemen in the junior league. His best statistical season came during his second campaign in Chicago when he topped the 30-point plateau, which included a career-best nine goals.
“I know him as a player when he was a junior hockey player in Chicago, and it’s just a matter of getting better everyday,” Blashill said. “He and I talked about that today, and as long as he’s open-minded and continuing to learn, he’s got some great resources in Jim Paek and Chris Chelios and Jiri Fischer to learn from her, as well as the returning defensemen, I really think he can take those steps. He’s just got to have that focus on a day-to-day basis.”
The Red Wings think enough of Nicastro’s potential that they signed the Thousnad Oaks native to a two-year, entry-level contract in July. He’s a big (6-foot-2, 189-pounds), stay-at-home defenseman, who in three seasons at Boston University, produced 11 goals and 22 assists in 102 college games.
He also led the Terriers with 58 blocked shots during his sophomore season.
For now, as the AHL heads into its opening weekend, the Griffins seem to have settled on their 23-player roster, which includes Nicastro, who is battling for one of the last two defensive spots with Adam Almquist, Chad Billins and Gleason Fournier. With eight defensemen on the current roster, all four should get some playing time this month before a determination, if any, is made to send one of them to Toledo where they can get ice-time.
Widely considered a solid skater and puck-mover, Nicastro also has good instants and vision, which will only help him at this level.
“It’s about learning how to do all of the little things,” Blashill said. “Max is somebody who has a big body, has a heavy shot, has potential within his talent-abilities, and I know he was well-coached at Boston University, and now it’s continuing that learning process.”
Nicastro hopes to make an impression … quickly.
“I just want to do the best that I can,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll play as much as I can, but most of all I want to learn more and have that experience.”
The Griffins open the 2012-13 AHL regular-season with back-to-back home games on Friday against Milwaukee, and Saturday against the Hamilton Bulldogs. Both games are at 7 p.m. EDT. Tickets are available at griffinshockey.com.
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