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Griffins Watson Ready To Start With Team He Didn’t Pick

Grand Rapids facing Colorado Eagles in AHL opener on Friday



Dan Watson, Grand Rapids coach

As Dan Watson prepares to launch his inagural campaign as coach of the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins, top farm club of the Detroit Red Wings, he finds himself entering into a unique realm of the coaching world.

On the one hand, much like his players, he’s one step away from the NHL dream. At the same time, he finds himself in charge of a team he didn’t pick.

The AHL is the only hockey league where the coach isn’t the one choosing the roster. It is assigned to him by the parent club.

“That’s their job,” Watson acknowleged of the role the Red Wings play in determining which players are given assignment to Grand Rapids. “Kids get drafted, they go through that development process and then eventually when they’re able to turn pro, it’s what they do throughout camp. It’s day to day.

“Whether that’s the Detroit staff, they’re gonna have their opinions, and then the management side, they’re gonna have their opinions of what they feel is the best team that can be iced in Detroit. And then we’re gonna get everybody else. That’s why I say it’s real important that we know our players from top to bottom. It doesn’t matter who it is.”

Griffins Loaded With Red Wings Future

As they prepare to face Ivan Ivan and the Colorado Eagles in their AHL home opener on Friday at Van Andel Arena (7 p.m. ET), the Griffins are icing much of the hopes for Detroit’s NHL future. They include three first-round draft picks – defenseman Simon Edvinsson and goaltender Sebastian Cossa from 2021 and forward Marco Kasper (2022).

Nineteen players (forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Jonatan Berggren, Austin Czarnik, Tim Gettinger, Cross Hanas, Taro Hirose, Kasper, Amadeus Lombardi, Elmer Soderblom and Nolan Stevens; defensemen Edvinsson, Albert Johansson, Jared McIsaac, Wyatt Newpower, Brogan Rafferty, Antti Tuomisto, Eemil Viro and William Wallinder; goaltender Cossa) on the roster are under contract with the Red Wings, while five players (forwards Joel L’Esperance, Riley Sawchuk, Dominik Shine and Tyler Spezia; defenseman Josiah Didier) are playing on a Griffins contract. Twelve players are Red Wings draft picks (Berggren, Cossa, Edvinsson, Hanas, Johansson, Kasper, Lombardi, McIsaac, Soderblom, Tuomisto, Viro and Wallinder).

It’s the task of Watson and his staff to get these players ready to make that final step into the best hockey league in the world.

“We have to make players better,” Watson said. “We have to make sure that we’re doing the right things away from the arena, at the arena, because that’s what it takes.

“It’s hard. It’s hard to actually make the NHL. But we want to make sure that our guys are developing in the right areas, so when they get that call, they’re prepared and they’re ready. We want guys to have success, not take a step backwards. We want them so that if Detroit needs them, they’re ready to where they’re gonna help their lineup. That’s our job.”

Longstanding Relationship Between Watson, Lalonde

It certainly helps the process when the NHL coach and the AHL coach are on the same wavelength and that shouldn’t be an issue in the Red Wings organization. When Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde was in charge of the WCHL Toledo Walleye, Watson was his assistant coach.

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“We have a very good relationship,” Lalonde said. “We’ve worked together. I think we see the games similarly in a lot of ways. I just think he’s a really good coach. I’m glad he ended up being the guy after a very thorough search. He’s obviously excited for the opportunity.

“I find myself talking to him 4-5 times a week organically just about hockey. That relationship with Grand Rapids is important and I’m very comfortable with the relationship with Dan moving forward.”