This has been a summer of change and excitement for the Detroit Red Wings. The roster received a facelift in free agency, and Derek Lalonde was named the team’s first new head coach since 2015. While there are many reasons to be excited about hockey in Detroit, there’s a team that plays approximately 160 miles to the west that Michigan hockey fans should be equally excited about.
The Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, are coming off of a disappointing season. They finished with a record of 33-35-8, placing them last in the Central Division. Since their Calder Cup championship in 2017, the Griffins have yet to win a playoff series, though the AHL playoffs were not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic. As the AHL affiliate of a rebuilding team like the Red Wings, reaching the playoffs is the goal each and every year as Detroit hopes to see their prospects develop and play in high-pressure situations that only the playoffs can present.
It wasn’t all disappointment for the Griffins last season, however. Winger Jonatan Berggren impressed in his first season in North America, setting a new franchise record for rookie scoring with 64 points – a number which also lead the team as a whole. Griffins fans also saw a full, healthy season out of defenseman Jared McIsaac. The club also retired the numbers of two key players in the franchise history: Michel Picard and Jeff Hoggan.
The Griffins’ 2022-23 season needs to be defined by more than just jersey retirements and solid individual seasons. Luckily, Grand Rapids is about to see an influx of talent added to the roster as some of the Red Wings’ most revered prospects are set to play in the AHL this season. These players could (and probably should) make the Griffins one of the most exciting hockey teams you’ll find in the state of Michigan this season.
Söderblom, Andreasson (& Maybe Berggren) Highlight Griffins Forwards
It’s no secret that the Red Wings like their players that come out of Sweden. Outside of Moritz Seider, all of general manager Steve Yzerman’s first picks in the draft have come from the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). But that bias towards Swedish players extends beyond the first round, and the Griffins’ 2022-23 roster should put that on full display.
Berggren, a second round pick in the 2018 draft, proved last season that his playmaking abilities would transfer over to the North American game. He was the Griffins’ most exciting player on an almost nightly basis, and it cannot be understated how impressive it is that he led the team in points as a 21-year-old. Now 22, the expectation is that he will push for a roster spot with the Red Wings. Despite his impressive AHL rookie season, the Red Wings’ spending spree in free agency probably blocks him from making the opening night roster, meaning it’s likely he’ll begin the season playing his home games at Van Andel Arena.
Should that be the case, he could form one-third of a potentially lethal top line along with two fellow Swedes.
Perhaps the most notable player expected to be added to the Griffins’ roster this season is towering forward Elmer Söderblom. Described by Red Wings top prospect Simon Edvinsson as a “mountain”, Söderblom is a 6-foot-8 winger who is coming off of a successful season in the SHL. The 2019 sixth round pick led all U22 SHL players in both goals (21) and points (33), all while playing a surprisingly skilled game for a player with his physical makeup. His acceleration has caught teams off-guard at various levels, and he’s almost immovable when he plants himself in front of the other team’s crease. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the North American game, but he has the potential to be a rare talent for the Griffins this season.
The final third of that potential top line is Pontus Andreasson, a 24-year-old undrafted forward that the Red Wings signed as a free agent back in May. With 38 points in 52 games last season, he finished second in SHL rookie scoring and, while he is on the older side of what people would consider a prospect, he looks like a player that may be something of a late bloomer. He has the skill to play with and complement Berggren and Söderblom, and he also has the skating necessary to get up and down the ice as the line’s center. Of all the players expected to be new additions in Grand Rapids, Andreasson is likely to be the biggest surprise if he can continue his success from last season.
Other forwards of note would be Taro Hirose, a player with 57 games of NHL experience who is entering his fourth full season in the organization, as well as Cross Hanas, a 2020 second round pick that is coming off of a strong season in the Western Hockey League (WHL). Both players bring an element of playmaking, and Hanas, specifically, could be one of the most skilled players on the roster if he sticks in the AHL.
Last season, the Griffins scored 2.75 goals per-game. That obviously wasn’t good enough, but with all the firepower they should have this season, their offensive numbers should get a needed boost.
Johansson, Sebrango Headline the Griffins’ Youthful Blue Line
On the defensive side of things, the Griffins allowed 3.16 goals-against last season, often relying on veteran goaltender Calvin Pickard to bail them out in the defensive end. This season, Pickard won’t be there anymore after the 30-year-old signed with the Edmonton Oilers after three seasons in the Red Wings’ system. This means that Grand Rapids’ defense will have to step up this season, and it starts with a player who seems to have put his name on the map in a big way over the last year.
Donovan Sebrango won’t stand out on the scoresheet, but he’ll impress whenever he’s on the ice. His no-frills, defensively-sound game earned him a premier role with Team Canada at the 2022 World Junior Championship (WJC) where he wore an ‘A’ on his sweater as one of the Canadians’ alternate captains. The 2020 third round pick has just 11 points in 96 career AHL games, but his objective isn’t necessarily to create goals, it’s to prevent them. If all goes well for him this season, he could be knocking on the NHL’s door by season’s end, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising if he gets his first taste of NHL action.
Joining Sebrango on the Griffins’ blue line will be Albert Johansson, a 2019 second round pick set to make his North American debut this season. Johansson led all U21 SHL defenseman in scoring last season (25 points in 52 games) and now he’ll look to translate his impeccable two-way game at the AHL level. He can make a difference at both ends of the rink, and there’s a somewhat decent chance that he’ll be a standout player for the Red Wings during preseason play. If he has a successful rookie season, that will go a long way towards improving upon the Griffins’ results from last season.
To be quite frank, the Griffins’ projected blue line for this season is very exciting. Grand Rapids’ defense should feature the likes of Jared McIsaac, team captain Brian Lashoff, Steven Kampfer, Wyatt Newpower and Eemil Viro, along with Johansson and Sebrango. There is also the possibility that Edvinsson, the team’s top pick in the 2021 draft, begins his season with the Griffins, though it’s expected that he’ll carve out a permanent role with the Red Wings at some point this season. Regardless of Edvinsson’s status, the Griffins’ defense should have an enticing mix of youth, experience and potential, and that should lead to considerable improvement on their defensive numbers from last season.
Olkinuora, Brattström Man the Fort in Goal
With the departure of Pickard, the Griffins are heading in a different direction in goal. The goaltending position could be one of the most interesting storylines to watch heading into training camp as Detroit’s top goaltending prospect, Sebastian Cossa, is eligible to be sent to Grand Rapids this season after completing his third season in the WHL. However, after an up-and-down season that saw Cossa win a WHL championship with the Edmonton Oil Kings, but then lose out on the starting role for Team Canada at the WJC, there seems to be an unspoken understanding that the 19-year-old may be better off spending one last season in the WHL before turning pro.
Assuming that is the case, the Griffins will rely on two European goaltenders this season, including Victor Brattström. The 2018 sixth round pick returns for his second season with Grand Rapids after an uneven debut season. The Swedish netminder had an 11-16-4 record last season along with a save-percentage (SV%) of just .894 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 3.32. While the overall picture isn’t great, there were moments throughout the season where he showed some real promise. At 25 years old, you would like to see him show the Griffins that he can give them quality starts on a consistent basis this season, especially with Cossa coming up the pipeline.
Joining Brattström this season is 31-year-old Finnish goaltender Jussi Olkinuora. After spending some time in the Winnipeg Jets’ organization, Olkinuora spent the last six seasons over in Europe, including stops in the Finnish Liiga as well as Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. But where you most likely recognize his name (if you do) is from his play with Team Finland during the World Championships this year. On his way to leading the Finns to a gold medal, he was named the tournament’s best goaltender, sporting a sparkling SV% of .948 and a GAA of 1.11. If he can carry that play over to Grand Rapids, the Griffins are going to be tough to score against, especially with a revamped defense in front of him.
Griffins Will Be Worth Watching This Season
If you live on the west side of Michigan, then you already know seeing the Griffins play is always a fun time at the rink. However, with all of the talent this season’s team should have, Grand Rapids should be a hockey destination for people throughout Michigan and beyond. The Red Wings’ roster continues to get better and better, but this season’s Griffins team will put the “Yzerplan” on full display. From a group of forwards that should be pressing for NHL jobs sooner rather than later, to a blue line that could be one of the most talented groups in the AHL, missing the playoffs this season is not an option. Ben Simon, who is entering his fifth season as the Griffins’ head coach, could find himself on the chopping block if Grand Rapids falls short again.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Griffins were known as a program that flourished in the regular season but never won the critical games in the playoffs. Since their Calder Cup championships in 2013 and 2017, that narrative has changed, and the 2022-23 Griffins have a real shot at cementing their place among the model franchises of the AHL. The Red Wings’ future will be on full display this season, and that’s a prime reason to follow along with the Griffins throughout this season.
Who knows, maybe they’ll make a fan out of you along the way, if they haven’t already.
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.