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How the NHL lockout affects the Griffins

The ongoing National Hockey League lockout will both benefit and hurt the Griffins during the upcoming season.
Brendan Smith

Brendan Smith /Mark Newman

Underwriting support from:
Gustav Nyquist

Gustav Nyquist /Mark Newman

Tomas Tatar

Tomas Tatar /Mark Newman

On Sept. 15, National Hockey League (NHL) owners declared a lockout, effectively cancelling pre-season training camps. On Thursday, the league cancelled regular season games through October 24

How long will the lockout last?

"Nobody knows," says Bob Kaser, vice president of community relations and broadcasting for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the top minor league affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. "Nobody has any idea how long this thing is going on for." 

Two things are clear, however. First, as long as the lockout continues, the Griffins, who play in the American Hockey League (AHL), are the best hockey team in Michigan. 

Second, the lockout has significant implications—both positive and negative—for the Griffins, who begin preseason play Saturday and whose regular season begins Friday, Oct. 12. 

The most obvious benefit of the lockout for the Griffins is that two players who were slated to play for Detroit this season—defenseman Brendan Smith and forward Gustav Nyquist—will be playing for Grand Rapids. 

The Red Wings were able to assign Smith and Nyquist to the Griffins because, according to NHL rules, they have not yet completed their minor league eligibility and are thus exempt from being claimed on waivers by another team.

Smith, 23, is a highly-touted third-year pro who played 14 games and contributed one goal and six assists for Detroit last season. Despite playing only 57 AHL games in 2011-12, his 34 points (10 goals, 24 assists) led all Griffins defensemen last season.   

Smith is Detroit’s top prospect according to Red Wings Central, and he is considered competitive to be a top-four defenseman for the Red Wings if and when the NHL season begins. He was a member of the 2010-11 AHL All-Rookie team and was a finalist for the 2009-10 Hobey Baker Award for the top men’s NCAA hockey player while playing for the University of Wisconsin.

Nyquist, 23, a second-year pro from Sweden, is considered Detroit’s second best prospect, ranked only behind Smith. He played 18 games for the Wings last season, scoring a goal and dishing out six assists. He also played in four playoff games for Detroit. 

Despite his extended time with the parent club, Nyquist still tied for the Griffins team lead with 58 points (22 goals, 36 assists) in only 56 games. He was named to the 2011-12 AHL All-Rookie team and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in both 2009-10 and 2010-11 while playing for the University of Maine. He was also the NCAA regular season scoring leader in 2009-10. 

Until NHL owners and players concur on a new collective bargaining agreement, Griffins fans can expect to enjoy Smith’s and Nyquist’s talents. Of course, the Griffins are not the only AHL team to benefit from NHL-level players with minor league eligibility, but the quality of the players Detroit is sending to Grand Rapids was enough to merit a mention in a Sept. 16 USA Today article discussing the larger phenomenon of such players being assigned to their respective AHL clubs. 

Although the lockout affords the Griffins the services of Smith and Nyquist, it also exacerbates the club’s already-problematic goalie situation. 

AHL teams generally carry two goalies on their roster, and often one goalie is a veteran player with some NHL experience to offer stability and balance the presence of a younger prospect. The Griffins currently lack such a stabilizing presence. 

This lack is because Joey MacDonald, the veteran journeyman goalie who split playing time between the Griffins and the Red Wings the past two seasons, is for 2012-13 on a one-way NHL contract and, according to NHL rules, cannot be assigned to the AHL before or during the lockout. (Players on two-way NHL/AHL contracts were able to be assigned to the AHL before the lockout, although players who had completed their minor league eligibility were subject to being claimed on waivers.)

MacDonald’s future with the Red Wings and Griffins was already tenuous. Having performed well for the parent club in both 2010-11 and 2011-12, boasting statistics that rivaled top Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, MacDonald was hoping to be the Wings’ regular backup goalie for 2012-13. 

But MacDonald’s recurring back injuries precipitated Detroit management’s decision to sign the highly regarded Jonas Gustavsson to back up Howard. Once again penciled in to start the season with Grand Rapids, MacDonald requested to be traded. Detroit management said it would try to honor MacDonald’s request, but no trade has taken place.

Detroit’s inability to assign MacDonald to Grand Rapids leaves the Griffins with three prospects, none of whom has yet proven himself to be a reliable AHL goalie. 

The Wings and Griffins have high hopes for first-year pro Petr Mrazek, 20, whom Red Wings Central ranks as Detroit's number four prospect.  The Czech Republic native excelled at the junior level while playing for the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League, boasting a 32-15-3 record with a 2.84 goals against average (GAA) and a .920 save percentage in 2010-11 and a 30-13-6 record with a 2.84 goals against average and a .917 save percentage in 2011-12, contributing to his team's division championship.

Mrazek was also named the Best Goalie at the 2012 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships while playing for the Czech Republic team.

Enthusiasm for Mrazek is tempered, however, by the realization that fellow goalie and former #1 draft pick Thomas McCollum had even stronger statistics at the junior level but has yet to perform consistently at the AHL level. 

McCollum, 22, had his third consecutive disappointing season with the Griffins in 2011-12, finishing with a 11-16-0 record, a 3.49 GAA and an .891 save percentage. His GAA was the highest of any AHL goalie who played 1500 or more minutes last season.

The Griffins’ third goalie, Jordan Pearce, who turns 26 on October 10, also floundered last season, finishing with a 3-8-1 record with a 3.68 GAA and a .871 save percentage. His performance was particularly disappointing in light of his comparatively successful 2010-11 campaign, in which he compiled a 20-15-5 record with a 2.89 GAA and a .908 save percentage.

Despite the Griffins’ absence of a proven veteran goalie, Kaser does not expect the Griffins to make any last-minute signings at that position. 

As things stand already, the Red Wings will have to assign one of the above trio of developing goalies to the team's secondary minor league affiliate, the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL. Signing a veteran goalie would necessitate the Red Wings sending two of their developing goalies to the Walleye, and Kaser believes Detroit wants Mrazek, McCollum and Pearce to get as much playing time as possible in the AHL.

“I don’t think [the Red Wings] envision having two of their still-prospects going to Toledo,” Kaser said.

The NHL strike also complicates the status of two highly regarded European players, Damien Brunner and Tomas Tatar.

Last month, there was expectation that Brunner, the 26-year-old Swiss forward whom the Wings signed during the offseason, would play with the Griffins in the event of a lockout. But Brunner’s Swiss team, EV Zug of the Swiss-A league, made clear that they had released Brunner from his contract only for him to play primarily in the NHL. Following Zug’s directive, Brunner returned to Switzerland after the lockout was made official, and he is currently playing for Zug.

The loss of Brunner is a heavy one for the Griffins. Brunner led the Swiss A-league in 2011-12 with 24 goals and 60 points while skating in 45 games. His play for Switzerland during the 2012 World Championships so impressed Detroit coach Mike Babcock that he tentatively slated Brunner for a top-six forward spot for the Wings.

Should the NHL season begin, Brunner may still play some games for the Griffins to help him adjust to North American hockey. But for the foreseeable future he will remain in Switzerland.

Tatar, a 21-year-old forward ranked by Red Wings Central as Detroit's fifth highest prospect, is also currently playing in Europe, competing for HK Dukla Trencin of the Slovak Extraliga.

Unlike Brunner, Tatar, who is under contract with Detroit through the 2013-14 season, has no known obligations to his European team, and he needed the Wings’ permission to play for Dukla in the first place. Wings management has stated that Tatar will play in Slovakia until the AHL season begins, but there has been reason to suspect that this plan may change.

"The plan is, when the American League season starts, he’ll come back,'' Wings general manager Ken Holland told MLive’s Ansar Kahn in a Sept. 19 article. Kahn also wrote, however, that “Holland said the organization will re-evaluate the situation” before the Griffins begin regular season play. 

Holland's comments sparked some concern among fans that Tatar would spend the the season playing in Slovakia.

Speaking on Tuesday, Kaser could not confirm that Tatar would return to Grand Rapids for the beginning of the regular season. Although he wasn't aware of any development that would prolong Tatar's time in Europe, he suggested that the financial incentives HK Dukla Trencin can offer might keep Tatar in Slovakia indefinitely.

"I haven't heard anything like that, but you never know," said Kaser.

Today, however, Tatar tweeted from Slovakia, "My last home game:) full house in PIESTANY. Great crowd.:)."  Although his tweet does not explicitly mention returning to Grand Rapids, it suggests that he will be doing so very soon.

Tatar's expected return is crucial for the Griffins. Last season Tatar led the team with 24 goals and tied for the team lead with 58 points, playing in all 76 games.

One final way the NHL lockout might affect the Griffins concerns fan attendance. 

One might speculate that with the Red Wings not playing, hockey fans would be more inclined to go see Red Wings prospects play for the Griffins and compete in the league that Kaser says is widely recognized as the top hockey league in the world behind the NHL.

History, however, does not indicate that an NHL lockout will necessarily bring more fans to Griffins games.

Randy Cleves, senior director of public relations for the Griffins, pointed out that during the last NHL lockout, when the entire 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled, Griffins attendance actually decreased slightly.

"I'm certainly not going to predict we'll get a bump because of the NHL being out," said Cleves. "A lot of people hear about the NHL lockout and assume we're not playing." 

Cleves suggested that the NHL lockout negatively affects hockey as a whole.

"A receding tide lowers all boats," he said, adding that the lockout hurts hockey's image. "It's not good for the sport and the awareness of the game."

Nonetheless, Cleves said that tickets for the Griffins' Oct. 12 home opener against the Milwaukee Admirals were selling at the same pace as previous years. He encouraged fans to come out and watch the Griffins at Van Andel Arena.

"Our doors are open for business, and we're looking forward to another great season," he said.

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This morning, Tomas Tatar tweeted "On my way to GR :)"

So we can plan on him playing opening night.

And I just received an e-mail from the Griffins confirming that Tatar has been reassigned to Grand Rapids and is scheduled to play opening night.  Good news indeed.