If you think the 2020-21 NHL season seems bizarre, just take a look at the AHL. First of all, not every team is participating as the Charlotte Checkers, Milwaukee Admirals and Springfield Thunderbirds have all opted out of the season. Second, the season will consist of solely divisional play, much like the NHL. Finally, there are no concrete plans for an AHL playoff tournament, with reports coming out that the Calder Cup will not be awarded this season.
So then what’s the point if there isn’t a championship to be won? Make no mistake, there’s a reason that general managers across the NHL wanted the AHL to hold a season, and put in the work to make it happen. That reason is development. With the pandemic limiting options for competitive professional hockey across the world, the NHL and its teams needed to ensure that they had another North American hockey league available for the prospects and and AHL veterans within their system.
The Detroit Red Wings are no different, and some of their top prospects are already getting ready to take the ice when the Grand Rapids Griffins begin their season on Feb. 5 against the Chicago Wolves. In anticipation of the AHL season beginning, the Red Wings made some roster moves in order to get their younger players prime playing time.
Of course, it doesn’t stop with these three. The Griffins have been a perennial threat in the Central Division since before they won the Calder Cup in 2013 and then again in 2017. They’ve maintained their competitive status through a healthy blend of quality AHL players and high-upside prospects playing big minutes. This season’s group is no different. Even though the Calder Cup seems out of the question, there’s still plenty to play for. There won’t be as many fans watching, but NHL executives will be, and that’s who determines whether a player stays or goes.
The Griffins’ offense is highlighted by a couple former first round picks, as well as a couple forwards that could play a role for the Red Wings depending on injuries and things of that matter.
The first of the former first round picks could very well be the Griffins’ top center this season. After playing in eight games with the Red Wings this season, collecting two points along the way, Rasmussen was sent to Grand Rapids with the hopes of playing big-time minutes in the AHL. If his play in the NHL is any indication, it appears the Griffins will have a big-bodied, two-way center at the top of their lineup that is hungry for more opportunity.
In 35 games with the Griffins last year, Rasmussen has 22 points while looking dominant at times early on in the season before being derailed by injuries. The challenge for the ninth pick of the 2017 draft is to continue the momentum he built up in the NHL this season and look like one of the best, if not the best player on the Griffins’ roster.
The other former first round pick is winger Svechnikov, who the Red Wings took with the 19th pick of the 2015 draft. The older of the two Svechnikov brothers has played in a total of 182 regular season games with the Griffins over the course of three seasons, and has 38 goals and 99 points to show for it. Injuries have plagued the 24-year-old throughout his professional career, resulting in his place in the Red Wings’ prospect pool falling into flux. This came to a head before the start of this season as he was placed on waivers by the Red Wings, and no team claimed him.
While the circumstances are certainly upsetting for the Russian forward, the objective remains the same: prove that he belongs in the NHL while staying healthy in the process. He should receive an ample amount of minutes somewhere in the Griffins’ top six, potentially even alongside Rasmussen. It’s clear that Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill doesn’t think much of him, so it’s his job to grab the coach’s attention with performances that give the NHL club no choice but to give him a proper look.
Signed in the off season via free agency, Barber is a five-year veteran of the AHL, most recently splitting time between the Laval Rocket and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last season. At 27 years old, he still has a lot of quality hockey left in him, and fans of the Griffins should expect nothing less from him given his track record thus far. In 283 regular season games in the league, he has 106 goals and 217 points with his best season coming during the 2018-19 campaign when he scored 60 points in 64 games with the Hershey Bears.
Barber is one of those guys that the Red Wings will almost undoubtedly call up to the taxi squad in the event that it needs more bodies. He fits into that same category as defenseman Dylan McIlrath in that he’s a young veteran that can fill a role while the team’s top prospects receive the lion’s share of minutes in the AHL. This isn’t a player whose jersey you’re going to buy, but he very well might feature in a handful of games for the Red Wings this season.
Other notable forwards: Turner Elson, Chase Pearson, Dominic Turgeon, Kyle Criscuolo
Much like Svechnikov, Cholowski is watching his Red Wings stock fall as the organization continues to see progress from many of their other defensive prospects. That being said, the 20th pick of the 2016 draft is still far from a lost cause, and you could make the argument that he belongs in Detroit is some capacity. Whether it’s because Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman and Blashill want him to play big minutes in the AHL, or because the native of British Columbia is destined for a fresh start elsewhere, the fact remains that the 22-year-old should play a big role for the Griffins this season.
Through 55 games with the Griffins spread out over two seasons, Cholowski has 25 points and is a minus-15. A stat line like that suggests that he brings high-event hockey with him when he’s on the ice, for better or for worse. The ideal outcome for him during his time in Grand Rapids is to round out his defensive game while also building on his considerable offensive tools. It’s probably not a good thing if he spends all season in the AHL; he needs to show that he belongs at a higher level of competition just like Svechnikov.
It wasn’t that long ago that Lindstrom was considered a legitimate candidate to make the Red Wings’ roster to begin this season. After all, he had a solid 16-game stint in Detroit to end the 2019-20 season where he collected a single point, but generally looked the part of a bottom-pairing defenseman in the NHL. Fast forward to today, and the young Swedish defenseman is set to make his North American season debut with the Griffins.
Through 45 games in Grand Rapids last season, Lindstrom had five points and registered a plus/minus rating of minus-12. He isn’t a defender that is going to light up the scoresheet like Cholowski. Instead, he’s going to give his team a calm presence on the back end that opts for the simple play more often than not. The 38th pick of the 2017 draft needs to repeat and even improve upon his play from last season in order to get another look in Detroit.
The 2020-21 AHL season will mark the beginning of McIsaac’s career as a professional hockey player, though it won’t be right away. The 36th pick of the 2018 draft was projected by some to go win the first round of that draft, so there was some level of expectation set once the Red Wings selected him. Since then, he’s run into some injury trouble, but has looked generally good when he has played. He shined the brightest during the 2020 World Junior Championship for Team Canada as he collected four points through seven games on the way to helping Canada secure their 18th gold medal in the tournament.
McIsaac, who turns 21 years old in March, has the makings of a middle-pairing, two-way defenseman in the NHL. He likely won’t be given a ton of minutes in the AHL early on, especially since he will be coming off of a shoulder injury, but the hope for him is that he proves he can handle more and more ice time as the shortened season progresses. With the amount of defensive talent in the Red Wings’ pipeline, it is imperative for the native of Nova Scotia to maintain his place on Detroit’s radar for the future. He won’t be expected to make waves this season, but he will be expected to show that he belongs.
Other notable defenders: Joe Hicketts, Donovan Sebrango, Brian Lashoff (newly-named captain of the Griffins)
Goalies: Kevin Boyle, Pat Nagle, Kaden Fulcher
This season, the AHL is very much a developmental league. In the spirit of that, the Griffins should see a healthy dose of their young players – players that have NHL aspirations. While the Calder Cup may not be awarded this season, future NHL roster spots could be, and you could argue that that is an even greater incentive.
The Griffins have the pieces necessary to excel as a team this season. A losing record will reflect poorly on the Red Wings’ prospects that they’re expecting to put this team on their shoulders. While the team in Detroit continues to rebuild (or as others might put it: lose) it’s up to the team 157 miles to the west to maintain the winning culture within the organization. Otherwise it could be a tough season for hockey in the state of Michigan.
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.