Last season, the Toledo Walleye (ECHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings) had a particularly stingy goaltending tandem. The duo of John Lethemon and Sebastian Cossa was able to frustrate opponents and put up eye-popping numbers, especially in the second half of the season.
Heading into the 2023-24 season, both Cossa and Lethemon have designs on playing at the next level. While both goaltenders played games in the American Hockey League (AHL) last season, Grand Rapids Griffins fans would be forgiven if they didn’t realize it. Cossa, a first round draft pick of the Red Wings back in 2021, played in three games with the Griffins last season, all of which came early on while he was still finding his footing as a first-year pro. Lethemon joined the Griffins late in the season after the team’s playoff hopes were all but erased. For one reason or another, neither goalie impressed during their cup of coffee with the Griffins, but both goalies expect to flip the script this season.
In order to do so, Cossa and Lethemon will find themselves battling each other for starts in Grand Rapids this season just like they did in Toledo last season.
Cossa & Lethemon Were Top-Tier Goalies in the ECHL
Dan Watson is the new bench boss in Grand Rapids this season after he was promoted following a successful six season run as the head coach of the Walleye. While he was hired on his own merits, he almost certainly owes some credit to his goaltending tandem from last season.
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Lethemon was last season’s recipient of the Nick Vitucci Goaltender of the Year Award, awarded to the ECHL’s top puck-stopper. The Farmington Hills native and former Michigan State Spartan posted an 18-1-3 record, a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.99, and a save-percentage (SV%) of .930. His promotion to the AHL late last season was as much as reward for his strong play as it was a necessary move to fill out the Griffins’ lineup.
When Lethemon wasn’t frustrating the opposition, Cossa was standing tall as a 20-year-old first-year pro. With a 26-16-1 record, Cossa was the main man in goal for the Walleye last season due, in part, to the young goaltender’s status as one of the most important prospects in the Red Wings’ system. The former 15th overall pick struggled through the first half of the season, but rebounded in a big way in the second half. He was named the Goaltender of the Month back in March when he posted a 6-1-1 record, a 1.73 GAA, and a .944 SV%.
With not much left to prove at the ECHL level, both Cossa and Lethemon are set to vie for playing time in the AHL. However, it won’t be just the two of them that are looking to earn starts with the Griffins.
The Alex Lyon/James Reimer Effect
When Red Wings general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman signed two goaltenders, Alex Lyon and James Reimer, in the offseason, the team’s depth chart in goal immediately came into focus. One of them would be the backup the Ville Husso this season, and the other would headline as the starter in Grand Rapids.
This of course means that Cossa and Lethemon will have to compete with which ever goalie assumes that starter role, assuming they pass through waivers unclaimed. Yzerman, Griffins GM Shawn Horcoff, and Watson will all want the best goaltender to play on any given night, but in a developmental league, it’s never that simple.
Cossa, whose very name is tied to the “Yzerplan” and the status of the Red Wings’ rebuild, is expected to hold down a regular role in the AHL this season. Given the draft capital Detroit invested in him, he needs to play, and he needs to play frequently – especially considering the position he plays. But what if he flounders out of the gate like he did last season? The step up from the ECHL to the AHL is not insignificant, and it’s possible that he struggles to find a rhythm while playing in tandem with the other goaltender. If he struggles, does he find his way back to the ECHL, where he can start consistently once again?
Depending on which way Cossa’s season goes in the beginning, Lethemon’s presence will be crucial. He has established himself as an elite ECHL goaltender, and he has seen 11 games of AHL action to this point of his career (he played in two games with the Ontario Reign during the 2021-22 season.) He can either be the dedicated backup in Grand Rapids, or the starter over in Toledo.
As we’ve seen through the preseason thus far, the best thing that can happen for the Red Wings is that their youngest players and prospects show that they’re ready to make an impact. That doesn’t have to be true solely for the team in Detroit, however. Certain players have already looked like they are eager to make a big impact with the Griffins this season, and that is also true of Cossa and Lethemon.
Lyon will most likely join them in Grand Rapids this season, and he should stabilize a position that hasn’t been a source of strength for the Griffins since before the turn of the decade. The best outcome for the Griffins and, ultimately, the Red Wings is that Cossa shows he has taken another step in his development and is ready to be in a tandem at the AHL level. The Griffins haven’t had a goalie with this much raw potential since Petr Mrazek led them to a Calder Cup championship in 2013, and their fans love to have a young goalie to cheer for. If all goes according to plan, Cossa and Lyon will form a Griffins tandem with high upside, while Lethemon provides insurance as a quality option down the depth chart.
But what is ideal only matters if it actually happens. Today, and through the rest of the preseason schedule, there is still a lot of work to be done, and a lot of decisions to be made. All Cossa and Lethemon can do is continue to work and continue to battle, just like they did last season.