Griffins Are Michigan’s Best Hope for Playoff Hockey

The Hockey Writers

It’s no secret that the state of Michigan is practically frothing at the mouth to see their teams not only have successful seasons, but do some damage in the playoffs as well. Led the Detroit Lions’ recent run in the National Football League’s playoffs, we’ve seen local and statewide media turn their attention to the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings as they continue their battle to end their seven-year playoff drought.

But just as the Red Wings were becoming the toast of Detroit, the team suffered an implosion at perhaps the most critical point of the season. As the month of February came to a close, they held the first wild card position as well as a six-point cushion on the next-closest team. Now that the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone, the Red Wings now find themselves holding on to the second wild card spot for dear life. The Tampa Bay Lightning, sitting in the first wild card spot, are starting to build a small cushion of their own, and the New York Islanders are breathing down Detroit’s neck as they sit one point behind the Red Wings in the standings.

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Despite all the excitement that was buzzing around Detroit a month ago, there remains a strong possibility that their playoff drought will continue and Little Caesars Arena will have to wait at least another year before it hosts playoff hockey for the first time. However, that doesn’t mean hockey fans across the state of Michigan are doomed to be bystanders once again as playoff hockey begins across North America.

The Grand Rapids Griffins, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Red Wings, are not only in a playoff spot, they are also second in their division and boast the fifth-best points-percentage in the AHL’s Western Conference. Barring an epic collapse to finish out the season, the Griffins will make the playoffs and might even have home ice advantage in the opening round.

Related: When Will the Red Wings’ Top Prospects Arrive in the NHL?

They may not be the hockey team that news channels across Michigan are focusing their attention on, but the Griffins’ success this season ultimately means a lot to the Red Wings organization, and it should mean a lot to fans across this state (and beyond).

Griffins Led by Future Red Wings

Much is made of the “young” team in Detroit. When players like Ben Chiarot, David Perron and Patrick Kane were brought in, the narrative was that they were successful veterans that were brought in to shepherd the team’s young players. However, outside of Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider (and Jonatan Berggren more recently), the Red Wings’ roster primarily consists of players in their mid-to-late 20s and others that are firmly in their 30s. Their average age is 28.7, and that puts them near the middle of the league. In other words, while they aren’t “old” by any means, if you characterize them as young, then teams like the Buffalo Sabres (25.1), Arizona Coyotes (26.1) and Montreal Canadiens (26.2) must be toddlers in the grand scheme of the NHL.

Instead, most of the Red Wings’ up and coming talent can be seen in Grand Rapids, such as Simon Edvinsson, Albert Johansson, Marco Kasper and others.

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

The young core that Red Wings general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman has methodically assembled since he took the job back in 2019 is the group that will ultimately shoulder the hopes of bringing the Stanley Cup back to the Motor City. To get there, that group of players will need to gain as much experience as they can as individuals and, perhaps more importantly, as a team. After all, the Red Wings’ younger veterans, such as Dylan Larkin and Michael Rasmussen, have limited to no playoff experience at any level since turning pro. The players in Grand Rapids pushing to secure a spot in the playoffs, in theory, won’t need to be surrounded by as many veterans because they will have experience with must-win games and closing out a playoff series.

The only way to get that kind of experience to live it, and right now the Griffins are in a better position to do so.

A Successful Season Is Still Obtainable

Ideally, both the Red Wings and Griffins will make the playoffs next month, and fans will be spoiled with two levels of playoff hockey after years of getting their fix from junior level teams like the Flint Firebirds and the Saginaw Spirit. That is not the benchmark for a successful season, however – at least not entirely.

Before the 2023-24 season began, both Yzerman and head coach Derek Lalonde were direct in saying that this isn’t a “playoffs or bust” year for the team. Instead, the benchmark was set at playing important games after the trade deadline and into the month of April. Though their recent losing streak put their playoff hopes in doubt, the Red Wings are still well-positioned to complete the objective set forth by their GM and coach. The final month of the season will be filled with games with both playoff implications and a playoff atmosphere that is near impossible to replicate.

As for the Griffins, Yzerman and assistant GM Shawn Horcoff moved on from coach Ben Simon at the end of last season because the team underperformed and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2019 (they haven’t won a playoff round since their 2017 Calder Cup championship as well). Under new head coach Dan Watson, they control their own destiny at this point in the season the same way the Red Wings did a couple weeks ago.

With a mandate from management to make the playoffs, Watson may point to the team’s parent club to remind his team that a comfortable situation can quickly become uncomfortable if they don’t grab hold of the moment. With just 15 games left on their schedule, a long string of losses would leave them little to no time to make up the ground they lost. This is the challenge to the prospects leading the charge in Grand Rapids: keep your foot on the gas or watch yourself fall behind.

The Red Wings have put themselves in a position where they must win more games than they lose in the final month of the season if they are to have any shot at making the playoffs; it wasn’t that long ago that a .500 record in the months of March and April would have been enough for Detroit, but that isn’t the case anymore. As for the Griffins, they have given themselves some room for error down the stretch, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to rest on their laurels.

But with a month left in both the NHL and AHL seasons, it seems like fans are more likely to see playoff hockey at Van Andel Arena than Little Caesars Arena. That’s okay, though, because the future of the Red Wings has never been built in Detroit. Since 2002, their future as been built in Grand Rapids, and it looks like that tradition is alive and well today.

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