3 Griffins Players Ready to Push for A Spot in the NHL

The Detroit Red Wings have gained a bit of a reputation for letting their prospects marinate in the American Hockey League (AHL) longer than the average team. Terms like “overripe” are sure to trigger more than a few Red Wings fans. Of course, terms like that were mostly thrown around during the Ken Holland era – an era that came to an end in the Spring of 2019 when the organization hired Steve Yzerman as executive vice president and general manager.

Nowadays, the terminology used to depict whether or not a player is ready for the NHL cannot also be used to describe whether or not a piece of fruit is ready to be eaten. In multiple press availabilities, Yzerman has simply stated that if a young player proves that the Red Wings are a better team with them in the lineup, then he’ll make sure that they are playing in the NHL. While that chatter usually revolves around players like Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno, the same can be said about other players that have made a name for themselves with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit’s AHL-affiliate.

These are players that may not have the same notoriety as some of Detroit’s other prospects, but are just as close or maybe have just as good a chance to crack the Red Wings’ lineup as a number of other players in Detroit’s system. A good push by any or all of these players would provide healthy competition in training camp and would ensure that the best players are the ones holding down roster spots in October. Let’s start with the player with the most NHL appearances to his name….

(LW) Taro Hirose

It wasn’t that long ago that I stated that Givani Smith and Taro Hirose were both ready to become full-time NHL players. While most people have Smith penciled in the opening night lineup, Hirose often finds himself on the outside looking in when you think of Red Wings prospects that are ready for a roster spot. You can attribute that to a number of things, whether it’s other prospects leapfrogging him, or veterans holding down the roster spots that he could theoretically fill. Despite appearing in just six games this past season, Yzerman gave Hirose a vote of confidence by re-signing the winger to a one-year contract before the 25-year-old could hit the open market.

Through 42 games in the NHL, Hirose has 16 points, including the two he collected during his six-game stint in Detroit this past season. While those numbers certainly aren’t anything to go nuts over, his advanced stats are a bit more eye-opening. In terms of his Corsi-For% at even-strength, he was second on the Red Wings with a 49.5% rate, trailing only Tyler Bertuzzi in that regard (though a small sample size definitely skews these numbers a bit.)

In terms of his expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) – a measurement that, based on expected goals-for versus expected goals-against, determines which team is expected to score more goals when player X is on the ice – he led the Red Wings this past season with a rate of 54.3% (per Natural Stat Trick). Essentially, the Red Wings got about half of the offensive chances, but were expected to score 54% of the goals while Hirose was on the ice last season. To that point, the Red Wings outscored their opponents 3-1 at even-strength with Hirose on the ice last season.

This past season with the Griffins, Hirose had 28 points (5 goals, 23 assists) in 29 games. Through 64 total games in the AHL, he has 10 goals and 55 points. He’s a pure playmaker that makes his living on the outside areas of the offensive zone, threading passes through and into the dangerous areas of the ice. The Red Wings’ stagnant power play could have really used a player like him this past season, and that could be the key to whether or not he makes the team out of training camp. The undrafted free agent signing out of Michigan State University likely needs a strong training camp, and he needs to put on some weight and iron out some inconsistencies, but the talent is there to make an impact at the NHL level.

(D) Jared McIsaac

Consider this entry my “dark horse” pick to surprise everyone and make the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp. Drafted 36th overall in 2018, the 21-year-old defenseman was considered one of the best defensemen available in his draft class. Since then, however, Jared McIsaac has struggled to stay healthy, missing a lot of time during the 2019-20 season, and again early on in the 2020-21 season.

Jared McIsaac
Jared McIsaac, Detroit Red Wings, Sept. 2018 (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

That being said, let’s take a quick look at the three players the Red Wings drafted before McIsaac in 2018:

  • Filip Zadina – locked-in as a top six forward for the Red Wings.
  • Joe Veleno – made NHL debut this past season; a favorite to join the Red Wings in a full-time role starting next season.
  • Jonatan Berggren – Yzerman name-dropped him as a player he expects to push for a roster spot in training camp.

All three of them are either in the NHL already or on the cusp of it. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that a productive summer could put McIsaac in a similar position.

On the other hand, it is important to note that McIsaac played a whopping 11 games throughout the 2020-21 season, with 10 of them coming with the Griffins. It would be fair to assume that he will have to battle through a bit more rust than the average player heading into training camp. Furthermore, while he didn’t look out of place in the AHL late in the season, he didn’t exactly burn it up the same way that Hirose has (mind you, defensemen have a different standard for “burning it up” in the AHL.) At the very least, this player seems destined to start his season in the AHL just to get back into the rhythm of playing the game often and at a high level.

If he looks good in training camp and then in the AHL to start the season, however, the Red Wings may very well add another 2018 draftee to their roster….

(C) Chase Pearson

Since taking over as GM of the Red Wings, Yzerman has made a point to add players with high character and a competitive attitude. Luckily for him, there were already a few of those players in place. In the case of Chase Pearson, the former captain of the University of Maine’s hockey team is a smart, two-way player that has a shot at cracking Detroit’s lineup next season.

Chase Pearson Detroit Red Wings Kevin Hancock St. Louis Blues
Chase Pearson, Detroit Red Wings and Kevin Hancock, St. Louis Blues (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Through 97 games with the Griffins, Pearson has 18 goals and 46 points. He really seemed to take a step this past season, however, as he recorded 22 points through an abbreviated 28-game season while playing in a variety of roles for Grand Rapids. The 140th pick of the 2015 draft has the makings of a Luke Glendening-type of player that can center the fourth line, play responsibly in a low-minute role and potentially even make a difference on the penalty kill. The soon to-be 24-year-old will find himself playing big-time minutes with the Griffins next season, or holding down the fort on the Red Wings’ fourth line.

If Pearson does not make the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp, that does not mean Hockeytown won’t see him at some point down the line. Given the sheer quantity of prospects the Red Wings have, it would make sense for the organization to get a good look at Pearson at the next level to see whether or not he can be a long-term bottom six piece. Expect to see him at some point next season as injuries inevitably eat away at Detroit’s depth.

Spots are Up for Grabs

It is far from a slam dunk that any of these three players will earn a roster spot out of training camp. In fact, there’s a really good chance that all three of these players will begin their seasons over in west Michigan in front of the fans at Van Andel Arena. However, a strong training camp and a good start to the AHL season could be all it takes for Yzerman and Co. to give these players a long look at the NHL level.

One thing is for certain: with these players, as well as the many other prospects the team expects to bring to training camp, competition for roster spots should be at an all-time high during Yzerman’s tenure. These players will have to prove that the Red Wings are better off with them in the lineup, and that is no small task. If you want to make a name for yourself in the NHL, you have to be able to rise to these types of challenges.

We’ll see in a little over a month if these players have the goods to force tough decisions before opening night.