Wings prospect Russo rises with all-star performance

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

As the Red Wings increasingly seek improvement from young players, several Griffins may impact training camp and a few others began their professional careers late last month. Today, a look at defenseman Robbie Russo’s impressive first season as a professional.

After sweeping the Milwaukee Admirals, the Central Division champions, the Griffins begin the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs at 7 p.m. Thursday versus the Lake Erie Monsters, in Cleveland.

Grand Rapids — The Red Wings are looking for offensive defensemen, a spark for the transition game that used to launch their potent offense, a quarterback for a power play that lagged in three of the past four seasons.

In the NCAA and in his first season as a professional, Robbie Russo produced points from the blue line.

Russo, 23, was the second-leading scorer in the nation among defensemen for Notre Dame one season ago. As an American Hockey League rookie this season, the 6-foot, 190-pound right-handed shooter led Grand Rapids’ defensive corps with five goals and 34 assists in 65 games.

His league-leading plus-minus rating of 47 tied for the highest in the minors in 23 seasons. And, he was named a second team All-Star and to the all-rookie team.

Scouts project him as second-pair defenseman with offensive impact.

His first regular season as a pro is a success.

Playoff hockey, with Grand Rapids beginning the second round after sweeping Milwaukee, is another step.

Training camp in September in Traverse City will be a yet another.

“I think it’s gone really well for him,” Griffins coach Todd Nelson said. “Anytime a first year player comes into this league there’s an adjustment period, and I thought Robbie adjusted very well and I saw more confidence in his game as the season went on.”

A full career with the Fighting Irish under coach Jeff Jackson provided longer preparation than many minor league players need. But the Wings believe Russo benefited.

“The thing that makes him good and why he’s doing so well is he’s got great poise with the puck,” said Nelson, who was interim coach at Edmonton last year for half the season. “He’s able to find options on breakouts, so he keeps his end clean with that.

“One thing that’s getting noticed with his plus/minus in this league is plays very good positional hockey, where he never puts himself in a bad spot.

“He plays a simple game. He jumps up in the rush when needed, but he’s just playing solid hockey with us.”

Russo said he well aware his skills can match the immediate needs of the Red Wings — if he can lift his performance to the NHL level.

The Wings believe he can. But, like so many prospects, it is not known if he will.

“I think I’m an offensive defenseman,” Russo said. “That’s part of my game. That’s kind of the role I want to fill. I definitely try to focus on making plays and hopefully that leads to points, and so far it has. So, that’s good.

“Creating offense from the back end is a pretty tough thing to do. So I think everyone’s kind of looking for that.”

The native of Westmont, Ill., in suburban Chicago, Russo played youth hockey with the Chicago Mission, which plays Metro Detroit teams like Little Caesars, Compuware and HoneyBaked.

Russo also spent two years in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. In 2011, he was captain of the United States under-18 team that won the World Championship.

During his first season in Grand Rapids, Russo said, he was uncertain in his expectations.

“I definitely like playing a lot more games. You know, that’s the fun part. Schedule is different and travel is different, so you’ve just got to get used to that.”

He said he has focused on both parts of his game, offense and defense. But he also said he understands his role.

“I think the offensive part, you can never have enough, right?” he said. “You always want to score more goals.

“And you definitely focus on making plays because it gets tighter and tighter as the year goes on. So, I think I’ve focused on that a lot.”

Space is even tighter in the playoffs.

In the first round, Russo managed one assist in three closely-contested games against Milwaukee, the Central Conference champion.

In considering his prospects, Russo is a bit small.

“He doesn’t play small,” Nelson said. “I don’t think size is an issue.

“Obviously, we all want to see a 6-5 defenseman in the (NHL) that can move well. But Robbie compensates for his size and with his intelligence, his hockey IQ.”

The bigger issue may be speed, and Russo says that will be his emphasis in training this summer.

“I think for him to make the jump up into the next league, he’s going to have to get a bit quicker with his foot speed and his high end speed,” Nelson said. “It’s the only thing I can see, right now.”

A player can gain that speed with a summer of “pounding his legs all summer and working extremely hard on it,” he said.

Jiri Fischer, director of player development for the Wings, said the issue should not obstruct Russo’s development as the club continues to seek answers on the blue line four years after the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and five after Brian Rafalski.

“I don’t think that it’s an issue,” Fischer said.

“I think we’re all pleased with the way he transitioned into pro hockey. The way he plays, it does reflect in his stats, it’s very efficient. It shows his maturity, too.

“For guys like him to be that high in the NCAA scoring last year and to be available (as a free agent), we’re really glad that he’s here.”