Red Wings, Griffins Ready to Move Forward After Simon Firing

The Hockey Writers

After eight seasons as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins‘ coaching staff, including five seasons as the team’s head coach, Ben Simon will not return to coach the team next season.

The Griffins fell short of expectations this season, finishing with a record of 28-36-8 and a last place finish in the American Hockey League’s Central Division. It was their worst finish since the 2007-08 season. The Griffins have not made the playoffs since the 2018-19 season. They have not won a playoff series since winning the Calder Cup back in 2017.

Despite this season’s struggles, Simon’s name will pop up throughout the Griffins’ record books.

  • He was an assistant coach on Todd Nelson’s staff during the team’s 2017 championship run.
  • His fifth season as head coach made him the team’s longest-tenured head coach. He compiled a record of 144-137-38, making him the second-winningest coach in franchise history.

But this season’s struggles were clearly disappointing, not only for the Griffins, but for their NHL affiliate, the Detroit Red Wings.

“It’s been a very disappointing year in [Grand Rapids] for us. We expected more,” Red Wings general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman said at his season-end press availability. Though he did offer the explanation that the roster was heavily depleted due to injuries at both the NHL and AHL level, it is clear now that injuries were never going to be a valid reason for Simon to retain his spot within the organization.

Ben Simon Grand Rapids Griffins
Ben Simon, Grand Rapids Griffins (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

For the first time since 2018, the Griffins are now in need of a new head coach. The person that lands the job will be responsible for guiding the next generation of Red Wings as the club’s deep prospect pool has begun to pour into Grand Rapids. Considering where the Red Wings are in their rebuild, this job comes with a ton of pressure to not only develop Detroit’s top young players, but to also restore the winning culture that the Griffins were once known for across the AHL.

Related: Griffins’ Ben Simon Is Falling Short of Expectations

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Luckily, they should have a number of quality candidates for the job, but the best candidate may already be within the

Dan Watson Seems to Be Leading Candidate

The Red Wings and their ECHL affiliate, the Toledo Walleye, have a deep history together, including the fact that Derek Lalonde, the Red Wings’ head coach, was the head coach of the Walleye for two seasons from 2014 to 2016. On his staff was a coach named Dan Watson, and that’s who took over head coaching duties once Lalonde moved on in the summer of 2016.

“Dan Watson is a remarkable coach,” Lalonde said. “He was my assistant for two years there. I’ve seen what he’s done since I’ve left there. That was a .500 team not too long ago. That’s a credit to Dan.”

This season, the Walleye have been much better than a .500 team. Their record of 45-19-7 placed them second in the ECHL’s Central Division and fourth in the league as a whole. After losing in the ECHL Final last season, Watson has the Walleye looking as good as ever and ready to avenge last season’s near-miss (it should also be noted that he also led the Walleye to the 2019 Final, though they lost that series as well.)

All in all, Watson has been on the Walleye’s coaching staff since the 2009-10 season. He has paid his dues at the ECHL level and, at just 44 years old, is a younger voice that should resonate with the young group the Griffins should have next season. He is also already familiar with some of the Griffins’ players as well as some players that hope to join Grand Rapids next season, including Detroit’s top goalie prospect Sebastian Cossa. It also helps that he has Detroit’s head coach in his corner, and that is especially important considering NHL coaches typically want to be on the same page as their AHL counterpart.

If you’re looking for the favorite in this race, Watson is your guy.

Griffins Should Keep Their Options Open

While Watson seems like the slam dunk option here, allow me to throw one more name up on the board: Pat Ferschweiler, head coach of Western Michigan University’s hockey program.

Under Ferschweiler, the Broncos have made the NCAA Tournament in both of his seasons as head coach, the first time in program history that that has happened. His 49 wins through his first two seasons is also the best mark in program history. Perhaps most impressive about his success with the Broncos thus far is the fact that he has done it without many NHL draftees on his roster.

Longtime fans of the Red Wings may remember Ferschweiler from his time as an assistant coach on Jeff Blashill’s coaching staff from 2015-2019. Ferschweiler was also one of Blashill’s assistants during the latter’s time as head coach of the Broncos during the 2010-11 season. That history with the Red Wings organization could pave a pathway for Ferschweiler to return to organization.

But, of course, there are far more worthy candidates to lead the charge for the Griffins than just these two. Would one of Lalonde’s assistants from this season (Bob Boughner, Alex Tanguay, Jay Varady) find a move to Grand Rapids appealing? Would a move like that allow for Watson to join Lalonde’s staff as an assistant?

Just like the Red Wings’ coaching search last year, expect Griffins GM Shawn Horcoff and the rest of the Griffins brain-trust to to take their time to make sure they get the right fit for this job. There’s no need to rush a decision like this. But whoever the next coach of the Griffins is, the expectation for next season has been made clear:

Win, and win a lot.

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