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Injuries key issue in Grand Rapids Griffins' ending postseason run


Detroit — It wasn't just the Red Wings who had a hockey season with no playoffs in the end.

The Wings' minor-league affiliate in Grand Rapids isn't playing this spring either.

The Griffins missed the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in seven years after a 33-35-6 season, good for seventh place in the Central Division. They finished with 74 points, and with a .487 points percentage, which determined the AHL standings this season. 

Texas (32-28-12, .528 win percentage) grabbed the final playoff spot, ahead of the Griffins.

“Obviously not the ideal finish we wanted,” Griffins coach Ben Simon said. 

So what ended the Griffins' playoff streak?

A long line of injuries, including losing both goaltender Calvin Pickard and top defenseman Ryan Murphy late in the season, were key losses the Griffins couldn't overcome.

Couple that with call-ups to the Wings, losses within the division, and the Griffins went 7-12-1 to finish the season, outside of the American League playoffs.

“Injuries were a big part of it, and depth caught up with us a little bit," Simon said. "Credit to the guys that did dig in and were here. I don’t want to take anything away from that, but our guys exhausted what they had. It just wasn’t good enough.”

Losing Pickard was costly.

Pickard was actually playing for the Wings on March 27, taking the place of injured Thomas Greiss, when Pickard was hurt, and replacing Alex Nedeljkovic mid-game March 27 in Pittsburgh.

Pickard was 21-16-5 with the Griffins, with a 2.58 goals-against average and .918 save percentage and was carrying the team's goaltending when he was hurt playing with the Wings.

Murphy's absence — he had 29 points in 53 games —  also coincided with the Griffins' late-season dive.

“When we lost Calvin Pickard, who is still top-five in the league in minutes played, (and) you lose Ryan Murphy, the reigning AHL defenseman of the year, some guys get called up (to Detroit), which is consistent throughout the league, so that’s not an excuse by any means, but it just didn’t happen,” Simon said.

During the seven consecutive years of making the playoffs, the Griffins won two Calder Cups (2013, 2017) and have provided the Wings with seasoned prospects who were developed and ready for the NHL.

Missing the playoffs didn't sit right for an organization that is used to the postseason.

“When you don’t make playoffs and you’re part of an organization that historically has made playoffs, it’s a little bit frustrating," Simon said. "It’s disappointing personally that it happens on your watch. You don’t want that to ever happen.

"We've done some good things this year for sure. But we have to obviously continue to evolve and continue to become better so that this doesn't happen again. 

Still, there were positives. Notably, the play of forward Jonatan Berggren, one of the Wings' top prospects.

Berggren's adjustment to North American pro hockey, and the success he had, were positive revelations. 

“From the first day of development camp to (last week), when he took off for Sweden, we’re proud of his development,” Simon said. “Jonatan as a new kid coming into a foreign country for the first time, adjusting to a different culture, city, coach, a different organization, and he had a heck of a year. He should be proud of that."

Berggren finished the season strong, earning AHL rookie of the month honors in April. Berggren had 20 points, including six goals, in 14 games and had seven multi-point outings. Berggren ended April with an 11-game point streak, with six goals and 13 assists (19 points).

There was no late-season promotion to the Wings, but there's every expectation Berggren will compete for an NHL job next training camp. 

"Our first and foremost priority down here is to develop. Some of our players developed very nicely this year," Simon said.

That also included defenseman Jared McIsaac, a 2018 second-round pick by the Wings.

After battling a series of injuries the past two seasons, McIsaac stayed healthy and flashed his potential as a two-way defenseman. McIsaac played 70 games, with 24 points (five goals, 19 assists).

Steve Yzerman, the Wings' general manager, announced at his season-ending press conference that he planned no changes in terms of the Griffins' coaching staff, noting the work of Simon and his staff under difficult COVID conditions, particularly early in the season.

Simon was appreciative of Yzerman's decision.

“Pro sports is cutthroat at times, and you can do an unbelievable job and feel like you’ve done as best you can, and things can change,” Simon said. “It’s good to hear they are happy with the development that’s gone on down here, but you can’t get complacent. As soon as you get complacent, that’s when people pass you by.”

The Griffins will begin preparation for next season in the next couple weeks

“We’ll take some time, reflect and see what we need to do to become a better group, a better team, a better staff,” Simon said. “We’ve done some good things this year for sure. We’ve got to obviously continue to evolve to become better so that this doesn’t happen again. We use this as motivation to come back next year better, stronger and hungrier.”

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan