Unlike their parent team, the Detroit Red Wings, the Grand Rapids Griffins are in a tight playoff race in the American Hockey League’s Central Division. Fighting for another consecutive playoff appearance, Grand Rapids is relying heavily on their veteran leadership combined with the growing abilities of the youngsters. Detroit has stressed the importance of the playoff experience for the rookies, and the Griffins are hoping to make that happen.
The playoff push is no small matter in the Central Division – as there is consistently a three to four-way tie, and the race is only getting tighter. With less than 20 games remaining in the regular season, Grand Rapids needs to see a massive push in production on all fronts.
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Though the entire team is performing well overall, there are a few players that have been consistently improving and contributing.
Joe Veleno has been a rockstar this second half of the season. He had a slower start than he anticipated but still is holding a minus-26 rating on the season. However, since his return from World Juniors, he’s been a powerhouse. He’s still not putting up as many points as I’m sure he’d like to see, but his efforts and physical growth have been promising.
He’s pushing much harder on rushes and has found a tenacious attitude. That tenacity has helped him develop into a strong player mentally behind the scenes as well. Winning gold with Team Canada definitely played a part in his second-half confidence, “It feels good… I’m still learning but I just think it was time to elevate my game a little. Having a good World Juniors it brought a lot of confidence…” he told me in a post-game interview.
Veleno has been spending quite a bit of time in special teams situations and is adapting very well. As the regular season draws closer to an end, he’s been playing with a heightened sense of urgency. For being very early in his development, he’s showing incredibly positive signs of maturity. When the Griffins make it to the playoffs, he will no doubt be the owner of a few post-season points.
Enough can’t be said for Givani Smith’s incredible progression as a player. He began his professional career a little hot-headed, but has since learned to control his mind. Aside from his mental growth, Smith has become a major contributor in front of the net. He’s quick to get to the puck and has gotten very strong working the trapezoid.
He’s been called up and sent down 10 times this season already by Detroit, which shows need for his style. His board play is a very important key to those call-ups and when he’s returned to Grand Rapids, he’s only gotten better. He’s also been steadily increasing his shots on goal and has been able to learn a more finesse style when required.
In his 21 NHL games so far, he tallied two goals and an assist which definitely helped a ton when returning to Grand Rapids. He’s always been a confident player and it’s becoming more evident as the weeks press on.
At least once a season I bring up how valuable Matt Puempel is to the organization. He’s in his seventh season as a pro and is one of the biggest veteran assets to the young forwards. Even with missing a handful of games due to injury, he’s managed to put up nearly a point per game this season – typical of Puempel with the Griffins.
Though he’s likely no longer considered a viable prospect for Detroit, as younger and more pliable players are coming up, he’s nonetheless deserving of a chance in my opinion. Entering into a crunch-time position in the season, he’s continuously fighting, shooting, and scoring. He’s typically on the top line in special teams situations which will be imperative to execute properly in order to secure a playoff spot.
Puempel has been a key piece in the development of many of the forwards, such as Filip Zadina and Veleno, thus far. As things get tighter, he is always a player that steps up to meet whatever demands are laid in front of him.
Every Point Counts
The AHL is in a place now in the season where every single point counts. The Central Division is always very tight and the Griffins are fighting for their lives right now. However, they have several players, like Veleno, Smith, and Puempel who are constantly adding force to every shift.
As long as each player continues to contribute, the Griffins could seal another consecutive playoff berth – but only if all parties keep stepping up. The playoffs will be critical for further development for the youngsters who have their sites set on Detroit and the NHL.
I am a Detroit Red Wings prospect journalist for Access Hockey MI covering the Grand Rapids Griffins and Toledo Walleye prospect development. Draft analyst for USHL hockey with the Muskegon Lumberjacks.