GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The shortened 2021 season was all about the good, the bad, and the ugly for the Grand Rapids Griffins. On their way to a middling finish in the Central Division with a 16-12-4 record, Grand Rapids played stretches of hockey that mirrored all three. A good penalty kill, at times bad goaltending, and downright ugly penalty killing. This upcoming season features a slew of intriguing, young faces that could turn the fates of the Griffins around and have them thinking of more serious competition in a division with more skill, a revamped blueline, and resiliency in net. There are strides to be made, but the talent is there for it all to come together. Here’s how Grand Rapids looks to build upon last year’s shortened season:
Last Season in Review
Season Record: 16-12-4 (3rd in Central)
Summary: Consistency, or rather the lack of it, was the story for the Griffins in 2021. Their tight-checking game made for a feast-or-famine story on offense, which saw the Griffins score goals in bunches or seldom, if at all. In the end, it saw to the team being about as average as possible, with as many wins as losses and as nearly many goals scored as goals allowed. Safe, but unspectacular. Fairly enough, the Griffins weren’t an easy team to play against and made opponents work for their opportunities to score on even strength – a trait that coach Ben Simon would like to see continue into 2021/22. However, for this team to succeed, their penalty killing must absolutely be addressed, especially with potent man-advantage units in a division that will take advantage.
Leading Scorer: Riley Barber (20G, 14A – 34 points)
Goals For: 96 – 19th in AHL
Goals Against: 97 – 12th in AHL
Powerplay – 21.5% – 5th in AHL
Penalty Kill – 74.8% – 27th in AHL
Ryan Murphy – Signed by the Red Wings this past offseason on a two-way deal, Murphy will look to come in and stabilize a Griffins blue line that saw several big names depart over the offseason. Last season, Murphy anchored the #1 spot on a talented Henderson team that finished first in a high flying, tough Pacific Division. Murphy not only led Henderson defensemen in points but provided a stabilizing force in the defensive zone for the Silver Knights.
Entering his tenth professional hockey season, Murphy provides a veteran presence on the back end that coach Ben Simon will lean on to lead his younger defensemen, such as Donovan Sebrango, by example and will look to pair Murphy with them to provide a direct mentorship under his wing.
Wyatt Newpower – Speaking of younger defensemen, here’s one that slipped past the rival Cleveland Monsters and right into the laps of the Griffins. Newpower, listed at 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, made a name for himself in clearing the front of the nets on the coast of Lake Erie, showcasing his acumen for it early for Red Wings and Griffins fans in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament in late September. Newpower will look to carry the momentum of his big hits and net-front battles to Grand Rapids, where he’ll be sorely needed to clear shooting lanes with the absence of fellow big body Dylan McIlrath moving on from the Griffins. Newpower has a grit and sandpaper edge to his game that Griffins fans are sure to fall in love with early on.
Kirill Tyutyayev – A diamond in the rough, Tyutyayev was selected in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL draft, falling entirely off the radar of most NHL teams. His draft position, his hometown (Yekaterinburg, Russia), and his slick hands have already drawn some distant comparisons to former Red Wing legend Pavel Datsyuk, and while this writer will be the first to let fans know to pump the breaks on those expectations, there is no denying Tyutyayev’s skill. Early on display also in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, he dazzled defensemen with his hands and, in particular, a fancy move cutting to the net in the tournament’s first game. Signing a contract with Grand Rapids this offseason rather than developing closer to home in Russia, Tyutyayev’s taking a more active approach towards making the big club by adapting to North American ice.
Listed at 5-foot-9 and just 146 pounds, there will certainly be concerns when going up against the intensity of an Iowa forecheck or having a 205-pound defenseman like Josh Healey stepping up at the blue line, but there are no doubts about the skill that Tyutyayev has to succeed at this level.
Dylan McIlrath – After five seasons in Grand Rapids, the big bruising defenseman has finally decided to move on, signing a two-way contract with Washington that will likely see him spend the season with the Hershey Bears. McIlrath patrolled the blue line during all five seasons in Grand Rapids with an imposing physical presence that came with big open-ice hits, bruising battles along the boards, and a booming slapshot that he wasn’t afraid to use. His presence will be missed, and while newcomers Murphy and Newpower will use their bodies to defend the net, it will be impossible to replicate the intimidation factor of a McIlrath coming down the train tracks on opposing players.
Dennis Cholowski – The former first-round pick spent parts of three seasons moving back and forth between Grand Rapids and Detroit before being plucked away by the Seattle Kraken in this offseason’s expansion draft. When operating for Grand Rapids, Cholowski was the definition of a powerplay quarterback, walking the blue line with the puck with authority and distributing with excellent vision into high danger opportunities. His brief 13-game stint with Grand Rapids last season still yielded ten points, and that kind of talent will be missed even for just a few games for a powerplay unit that ranked top five in the league in 2021.
Dominic Turgeon – Another name that has been around this organization for a long time, Turgeon spent five seasons in Grand Rapids before signing this offseason with the Minnesota Wild. He’ll likely factor in the lineup with division rival Iowa, where he’ll be operating under the same role that he spent half a decade in Grand Rapids – a tight-checking centerman that prides himself on his faceoff ability. While never putting up eye-popping offensive numbers, even in Major Junior, Turgeon’s game was more to keep the puck out of his opponent’s sticks – a role that is left with a bit of a question mark in this 2021-22 season as to who will take it over. It’s one thing to see a player like that leave, but then seeing them go to an interdivisional rival is a whole other problem for the Griffins to deal with.
2021-22 Schedule Breakdown
Grand Rapids opens up at home Friday night against the Rockford IceHogs. Early on, in October and November, the Griffins will reacquaint themselves with the Chicago Wolves, opening up the season series of 12 games with their rivals on Lake Michigan with four games in Van Andel Arena before the Griffins visit the Wolves at the end of November. Grand Rapids will also play the Milwaukee Admirals, returning after a hiatus in 2021, for eleven games throughout the season. Grand Rapids will also get two games against the Manitoba Moose every month until February, from which they’ll never see the Moose again unless they were to meet in the postseason.
Grand Rapids will also see a unique opportunity on its schedule to host two Pacific Division teams – the Bakersfield Condors and Ontario Reign. While the schedule is chock full of Central and North Division teams, these two opportunities provide fans with a glimpse of some heavily offensive-minded units coming into Van Andel Arena in February. The Reign comes in February 4 & 5, while the Condors visit on the 25 and 26th. Grand Rapids will repay the favor in late March with a long California road trip to visit Ontario and Bakersfield.
At the end of the season, the teams to watch out for in division will be Texas, Iowa, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The Griffins will see these teams a combined seven times in the month of April, implying massive playoff implications down the stretch. For a Griffins team looking to improve on a pedestrian 2021 campaign, these will be the measuring stick games for where this team is at as we’re coming home and into the postseason.
Top Storylines for 2021-22
The New Eurotwins: From Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to Jonatan Berggren and Kirill Tyutyayev. Okay, that might be a bit of an oversell, but this season Grand Rapids injects two young and skillful Europeans into its lineup with a hope to open the game up and kickstart the five-on-five offense. Berggren’s smooth skating and playmaking have been on display since his selection in the second round of the 2018 draft. While Tyutyayev’s game has gone a bit more under the radar, it will only be a matter of time before his name begins to draw attention to opposing game plans. More importantly, their presence will provide some depth scoring that the Griffins sorely missed in 2021. Both players are also making their North American debuts, so expecting immediate results would be unrealistic, but by the season’s end, you have to imagine they’ll have stepped up as feature Griffins.
Blueline turnover: With names like McIlrath and Cholowski departing, the Red Wings/Griffins have overhauled their defense from what it looked like to begin 2021. Sebrango will look to have a bigger role, perhaps alongside newcomer Murphy. The blue line is looked to be stabilized with veteran signings of Dan Renouf and Luke Witkowski, who adds an incredibly physical element to the Griffins defense and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves when the rough and tough Iowa Wild come to town.
A major question mark for this defense corps is Jared McIsaac, who was stretchered off the ice following a nasty hit in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament and whose health is in question going into this 2021-22 season. If he’s healthy, he adds another dynamic element to this defense that already looks much improved from its 2021 counterpart and will make it that much harder to put the puck in the Griffins net.
The Men in the Masks: Going into last season, it was figured that Calvin Pickard would likely be the primary option for a starting goaltender in Grand Rapids until Covid protocols led to Pickard spending the majority of the season on Detroit’s taxi squad. Instead, the Griffins went with a platoon of goaltending of Pat Nagle, Kevin Boyle, and Kaden Fulcher. The results, to be frank, left a bit to be desired. Only Fulcher was able to sport a save percentage over .900, with a .905 in seven games. With Nagle and Boyle departing and youngster Victor Brattstrom coming over from Sweden, Pickard would likely once again be declared the defacto starter going into the home opener against Rockford. By season’s end, it could be any of the three, or coach Simon could continue with the philosophy of a platoon of goalies. The improved blue line ought to help each goaltender to succeed, and anything better than the penalty killing that the Griffins had last season would at the very least build the confidence for the trio. There’s a fresh slate out in front of all three, and it’s anybody’s crease in October.
Prediction Sure to Go Right
The Griffins penalty kill will improve from last year. This is a bit of a cop-out, as there is only one direction for their unit to go from the numbers in 2021. That being said, with the turnover of defensemen that ought to help the goaltenders out and simply with the pride of a coach like Ben Simon, you have to expect this team’s numbers to improve to at least a mediocre level. As a young center like Chase Pearson can grow into a top penalty killer to replace Turgeon, these numbers will stabilize to where they should be. As cheap as this prediction may be, the truth is that this Griffins team is too talented to let their special teams anchor them down in the way that their penalty kill did last year. There’s no sugar coating it: it was ugly. Griffins fans should be encouraged that it will get better this season, however.
Prediction Sure to Go Wrong
Jonatan Berggren will lead the Griffins in scoring by the season’s end. This writer’s hot take is brought to you by the belief that Jonatan has the rawest talent of any forward in Grand Rapids, though he understands that oftentimes it can be challenging for rookies to break through for huge minutes to put away such lofty offensive numbers that can challenge a Riley Barber, especially in his first season on the smaller ice facing much more physical competition than he would on the larger ices in Sweden. Don’t put the house on it, but don’t be surprised if Berggren’s playmaking forces Simon to keep him on the ice in all dangerous opportunities, and the Griffins finally start cashing in on them on a more consistent basis.
How will the Griffins fare this season? Will they find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff bracket, become a victim of the league’s new playoff format, go deep in the playoffs, or win the Calder Cup? Let us know your thoughts.
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