Grand Rapids — The Red Wings are no longer playing, but the Griffins are in the thick of the American Hockey League playoffs.
Heading into Game 1 of the AHL Central Division final against the Lake Erie Monsters on Thursday, players like Anthony Mantha, Ryan Sproul, Mitch Callahan and Tyler Bertuzzi are in a critical time of the season — and their careers.
Playoffs are proving grounds at any level of hockey. The action ramps up and performances must improve proportionally.
“This is very important for their growth,” said Todd Nelson, the Griffins coach.
“A lot of guys are maybe knocking on the door to make the club next year. The organization wants to see how these guys do in intense situations, and see how they perform.”
Forward Andreas Athanasiou, 21, rejoined the Griffins roster for the playoff push, and his slot in Detroit next season is likely secure.
Defenseman Xavier Ouellet, 22, is also a familiar player on the Wings blue line, and disappointed not to have more time on the NHL roster the past two seasons.
Less familiar faces are well along the way to the overly-ripe state general manger Ken Holland and staff describe as the preferred preparation.
Mantha played 10 games with the Red Wings, scored two goals and assisted on one before he rejoined the Griffins.
His two second-period goals against Milwaukee on April 26 provided the winner and a cushion against the Central Division champs as Grand Rapids swept it from the playoffs in the first round.
“I knew that I had to get my game up for the playoffs because that’s what playoff hockey is,” Mantha said. “Everyone needs to step up and do those little details even better than they do during the season.”
Asked about training camp, Mantha was all about first things first.
“It’s still far,” he said. “I mean, we’ve got a lot of playoff hockey to play here. It’s a summer of training, and obviously that’s the main goal of a hockey player is to make an impact and play in the NHL.
“So, we’ll see how next year goes and, right now, we’re thinking about playoffs.”
It was a bounce-back year for Sproul, who played in five of 16 playoff games in 2015. The 23-year-old is a third or fourth defenseman who can quarterback the power play.
“Overall, I think it was just relaxing and just playing my game, going back to what I did in juniors and being able to go out there and use my offensive abilities,” said Sproul, whose defensive positioning and skating have improved in his three years as a professional.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound, right-hand shot scored five goals with 19 assists in 66 games two years ago, and improved to 12 goals and 23 assists in 75 games this season.
Sproul had three assists against Milwaukee.
“I thought I had a really good season,” the Mississauga, Ontario native said. “I had a lot of trust from the coaches and thought I played really well.”
The Red Wings clearly need some playmaking on the back end.
“If I can have a really good summer again like I did last year and if that’s something they are looking for, then hopefully I can be the guy,” he said.
Callahan, 24, eventually might fill another need of the parent club: sandpaper.
Rugged, willing to agitate and protect, the 6-0, 195-pound Callahan’s offense improved during his five professional seasons. The stats and games played declined a bit this season due to offseason knee surgery.
But he still accounted for 19 goals and 13 assists in 62 games.
“I came off a major surgery coming into this season and so I got a little late start, and obviously breaking my jaw wasn’t beneficial either,” he said.
“But I’m pretty happy with the 19 goals.”
Callahan will benefit from a summer to train and compete for an NHL roster spot after the surgery prevented him from doing any lower-body work a year ago.
Asked if he realizes his style of play could fill a need in Detroit, the Whittier, Calif., native said, “I think they could use a guy like me, with grit and stuff. But at that the same time, nothing’s ever extended to somebody.
“So I’ve got to earn a spot, and hopefully this summer I can put myself in the best shape to try to have a chance to make the roster.”
He projects as a third- or fourth-line option.
Like his uncle Todd, Bertuzzi’s game is gritty. But he is unlikely to score quite as much.
Joining the Griffins late last season after the Ontario Hockey League, Bertuzzi starred in the 2015 AHL playoffs. In 14 games, he had seven goals and five assists.
Then, he had 12 goals and 18 assists in 71 regular-season games.
His offensive potential, high energy and physical style could make him a mid-level forward who is difficult to play against.
“It was my first full pro season,” said the 6-1, 190-pound, 21-year-old from Sudbury, Ontario. “I think I was happy with my effort, the points I got and our team effort overall.
“You know, it was a really positive year for me.”
Bertuzzi said he is looking forward to this summer where he will spend “every day in the gym, on ice, off ice, just getting better every day,” and the opportunity to participate in camp.