The Grand Rapids Griffins, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, have enjoyed strong performances to start the season from some of the Red Wings’ top prospects. Simon Edvinsson (sixth overall, 2021) is leading all Griffins defenders with four points in eight games. Jonatan Berggren (33rd overall, 2018) is one of three players maintaining a point per-game pace in the early going. Sebastian Cossa (15th overall, 2021) has stopped 120 of 130 shots through four starts this season and is in the top-five of most statistics among rookie goaltenders in the AHL.
All is well in the Red Wings’ prospect pool, right? Well, not quite.
Forward Marco Kasper (eighth overall, 2022) has not taken the league by storm like some might have thought he would. The 19-year-old Austrian made some noise last season when he made his NHL debut with the Red Wings on April 2. Centering the team’s second line, he did not look out of his element against the Toronto Maple Leafs and, even though he did not record a point, he looked like a young player that could step into the NHL lineup this season and make a difference right away with his skill and physicality.
Instead, Kasper was assigned to Grand Rapids to start this season. The Red Wings brought in a slew of new forwards in the offseason, and there simply wasn’t a roster spot available for the team’s top pick in the 2022 draft. That wasn’t disappointing to most fans, however, because he was lined up to play big minutes in a big role with the Griffins.
Again, not quite.
Instead, Kasper has been stapled to the Griffins’ third line through the team’s first eight games of the season. Amadeus Lombardi, selected by the Red Wings over 100 picks after they selected Kasper, has held down the second line center position and has generally been more noticeable than the headliner of Detroit’s 2022 draft class. This then begs the question: should we be worried about Kasper, or is this the type of thing that will work itself out over time?
Kasper Hasn’t Been Noticeable
Through the first eight games of the season, Kasper has just one point, a goal scored on Oct. 20 against the Colorado Eagles. He hasn’t been generating a ton of quality chances, and there have been long stretches of time already where he just seems to float out on the ice without really making an impact. Despite playing primarily with Cross Hanas, another forward with skill and snarl in his game, they haven’t figured out how to consistently create and sustain pressure on the opposition. For what it’s worth, the third spot on Hanas and Kasper’s line has been filled by a rotating cast of players that includes, but is not limited to Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Shine.
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Perhaps the best part of Kasper’s game is his ability to make an impact in all facets of the game. As an 18-year-old playing over in Sweden, he impressed with his two-way abilities and his eagerness to be a thorn in the opponent’s side. So to see him look so vanilla in the AHL is somewhat jarring – what happened to that kid that was causing mayhem on one good knee against the Maple Leafs last season?
Kasper Has Trust & Will Earn More
It may not seem like it, but Kasper lining up on third line is actually a pretty glowing endorsement of his defensive game as well as his overall compete level. The third line is typically a dedicated forechecking line with a bit of offensive pop, and he has a skillset that is tailormade for that type of role.
With Taro Hirose, Tim Gettinger and others leading the offensive charge right now, the Griffins don’t necessarily need Kasper to step up offensively. Given where head coach Dan Watson has him lined up, it is probably safe to assume that the coaching staff wants Kasper to focus on making an impact in other areas of the game while also being economic with his scoring chances. The first and second lines are concerned with creating a volume of chances; the bottom two lines are typically concerned with wearing down the opponent and generating quality chances because of it. That Watson and his staff already trust Kasper to play those tough minutes is a telling sign that the coaching staff doesn’t feel they need to spoon-feed him opportunities.
That being said, it sure would inspire a lot more confidence if Kasper’s offensive totals weren’t near the bottom of the team’s stat sheet.
What Can Be Done?
It is clear that the coaching staff is trying to establish some chemistry between Kasper and Hanas. Despite their lack of success together, they do have skillsets that can compliment each other, but they really need to find some consistency in terms of their third linemate. A handful of players have seen some action on that third line, but none have really staked a claim to being a permanent fixture on that line.
Until the coaching staff is ready to move Kasper off of the third line, their top priority to get him going offensively should be to figure out who the third skater on that line should be. To their credit, they are obviously trying to find the answer, and it may not present itself until Watson and his staff shake up the lines even more. With a record of 3-3-2, it’s not like the Griffins are playing too well to shake things up.
Aside from finding the right lineup combinations, the coaching staff also needs to figure out how to get Kasper more comfortable in his new surroundings. After all, it is not a small thing for a 19-year-old European to play professional hockey in North America. Once he is more comfortable in his own skin as a member of this team, that should translate to him becoming more engaged and assertive in all areas of the ice. There’s a reason he went from being an absolute menace over in Sweden last year to being a passive observer early on this season, and the answer likely lies in his confidence level both on and off the ice.
Needless to say, this is a situation that will almost certainly require some time before it remedies itself. It is extremely rare that a player under the drinking age in the U.S. comes into the AHL and dominates right away – even players drafted with an early first round pick. When you consider that Kasper, who plays a man’s game when he’s at his best, is facing the fastest and physically strongest competition he has ever faced, it should be no surprise that he is struggling early on to assert himself. These are growing pains, and almost every professional hockey player goes through them.
But for the Griffins to get to where they want to go this season, they will need Kasper to find his game before the calendar flips to 2024. If Grand Rapids is going to return to the playoffs, they will need contributions from up and down their lineup; through the first three weeks of the season, that hasn’t been the case, and their record reflects that.
So is it time to panic about Kasper’s slow start? No, not yet. It is, however, time for him and the coaching staff to get to work and figure out what must be done to prevent this situation from spiraling into a problem. He’s a big piece of the Red Wings’ future and the Griffins’ present – he just needs a little more time to show it.