Grand Rapids Griffins Bettering Their Championship Blueprint

Defending a championship in any sort of professional sports is difficult. Much is made of the “Stanley Cup hangover” for example, but the same sentiment doesn’t seem to transfer over to the AHL.  Two months into the Grand Rapids Griffins title defense of the Calder Cup they are actually leaps and bounds better than this time one year ago.

Deja Vu?

There are some striking similarities to the 2013-14 Griffins vs. the title winning team of a year ago. Last year’s campaign started with a opening home loss to Milwaukee by a score of 3-2 in front of a sellout crowd. One year and six days later the Griffins suffer a 3-2 loss to Milwaukee in the home opener of 2013-14. That game was also played in front of a sold out Van Andel Arena crowd.

The season thus far hasn’t been a mirror image of the last. Last year’s season began with three losses (one point total) and it took a rather impressive winning streak of eight games throughout the majority of November to get the team out from under .500. They would remain above the mark for the rest of the season. This year’s squad started the season with a couple of road wins and has never been under .500 but the team has already put up a seven game winning streak spanning from late October to mid-November. Not exactly the same, but still so far the resemblance has been rather uncanny.

The last bit of perceived deja vu stems from the team’s personnel. Many players remain with the team simply because they are developing prospects for Detroit. Names like Jurco, Ferraro, Almquist, and Callahan all fall in this category, due to the nature of the league being for developmental purposes this is seemingly no strange story to the AHL. The team’s core leadership staying intact though seems to be breeding success. Jeff Hoggan, Nathan Paetsch and Brennan Evans all returned wearing the same letters as last year. Triston Grant also remained with the team as an AHL veteran. All four are under contract through at least this year.

Grand Rapids Griffins celebrate
As of this writing the Griffins are on another impressive winning streak, five games and counting (Mark Newman/Flickr)

Better the Second Time Around

The Griffins seem to shake off any sort of notion of a Calder Cup hangover by starting the season with an 8-1 shellacking of Rochester. the doubters though had some fuel when the team’s record read 2-2-1-1. However the team seems to have found a winning groove and they’ve carried this feeling to a record of 15-4-1-1 after a little over 25% of the season played. That’s 13 wins in the last 15 played.

Their superb record so far has them leading the league in points percentage at .762, or to simplify averaging more than one and a half points per game out of two possible. Last year’s Kilpatrick trophy winner (AHL equivalent to the President’s trophy) Providence Bruins totaled 105 points for a percentage of .691. While it is fair to assume that a percentage like Grand Rapids has currently is a tad unsustainable, consider that when GR won their own Kilpatrick trophy in 2005-06 they scored 115 points in 80 games, a points percentage over .700 so it’s not impossible.

Even better for the Griffins are the development of star players, or as they’re seen in the NHL, future Red Wings. Tomas Jurco is currently a point per game player, after only garnering 28 points all season. So far he is only five points off last year’s total. Jurco now leads the team in points after Gustav Nyquist was finally called up to Detroit in November.

The goaltending tandem of Petr Mrazek and Thomas McCollum has also blossomed nicely. Mrazek came onto the scene last year and stole the starting job from McCollum with the help of the eight game winning streak previously mentioned. This year however both goalies seem to be splitting time. Mrazek and McCollum have each appeared in 11 games sporting near identical GAA and save percentage numbers (Mrazek 2.29, .918%; McCollum 2.28, .922%). Both are operating at better rates than last year’s totals.

Encore for the Grand Rapids Griffins?

There’s a lot to love about this Griffins team, they seem to be out to prove that one Calder Cup title isn’t all they are capable of. They are certainly dominating the AHL currently and if they keep it up will easily be a playoff favorite come April. Before we jump the gun however, there is a lot of hockey still to play both in the NHL and AHL so anything can still happen. With that in mind though dynasties are nothing new to the AHL, Hershey just recently won three titles in a five year span. Could Grand Rapids be nearing something as impressive as that? It’s something to keep in mind as Grand Rapids keeps racking up the wins.

Grand Rapids Griffins
Second year head coach Jeff Blashill’s stock seemingly gets higher and higher every time Grand Rapids gets a win (Mark Newman/Flickr)