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NHL Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings AHL Prospects: 10 Storylines From First Half Of Season

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Detroit Red Wings AHL Prospects: 10 Storylines From First Half Of Season

Detroit Red Wings AHL Prospects: 10 Storylines From First Half Of Season
Ed Szczepanski - USA TODAY Sports

The first half of the 2013-14 season was one that saw the Detroit Red Wings make the move to the Eastern Conference, and battle to stay competitive while dealing with a rash of injuries. The inability of players in Detroit to stay healthy has forced the team to lean heavily on its American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Last season, the Griffins brought home their first-ever Calder Cup championship and with most of their core players back for this season they are once again off to a great start.

With so many of their players making frequent trips to Detroit, it could have been expected that the Calder Cup hangover would hit the Griffins especially hard. That has not been the case so far, and at the halfway point of the season the Griffins actually had a better overall record than the previous season. They have managed to stay at or near the top of not only their division but their conference as well, while juggling constant roster moves and the arrival of several NHL veterans who cleared waivers.

Five Griffins players have made their debuts for the Red Wings in the first half of the season, and a look at the roster for Detroit’s Jan. 21 game against the St. Louis Blues found seven players who had also played for the Griffins this season. All told, 16 players on that same roster have played in Grand Rapids, as the importance of a strong minor league system continues to be vital to the Red Wings’ success.

Here is a look at 10 of the most compelling first-half storylines for the Griffins, as their players strive towards being the next generation of stars to take the ice at Joe Louis Arena.

Jonathan Katje is an NHL featured columnist for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter or add him to your circles on Google Plus.

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Coaching

Jeff Blashill
Tom Szczerbowski - USA TODAY Sports

After leading the Griffins to a Calder Cup championship as a rookie head coach, it would have been understandable for things to drop off for Jeff Blashill this season. That hasn't been the case, as he has fought through constant roster changes, balanced playing time for veterans and rookies, and found a way to get great effort from players many had given up on. At the halfway point, the Griffins boasted a better record than last season, and they have been at or near the top of the Western Conference almost the entire season. Blashill will serve as head coach for the AHL All-Star team next month when they face Farjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League in the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic.

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Early Struggles For Martin Frk

Martin Frk
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2012 top draft pick Martin Frk was part of an incredibly successful Halifax Mooseheads (WHL) team last season, scoring 35 goals and putting up 85 points in the regular season. He had another 13 goals and 33 points in 17 postseason games, but has struggled to duplicate that success at the pro level. After struggling early on, Frk was sent down to the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL, where he managed five goals and 13 points in 15 games. He has looked better since returning to the Griffins he has looked better, but he still has managed only one assist in 19 AHL games.

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Mitch Callahan Emerging As Scoring Threat

Mitch Callahan
Nick Turchiaro - USA TODAY Sports

With all of the top-tier offensive prospects in the Red Wings organization, it's quite a surprise that Mitch Callahan leads the Griffins with 16 goals. A sixth-round pick in 2009, Callahan was known for his physical play in the early part of his pro career, but a focus on offense has been paying off for him in a big way. With the season only half over, his totals in goals and points are already both career highs, and with his entry-level contract expiring at the end of the season he's certainly making a strong case to stick around.

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Alexey Marchenko Named To AHL All-Star Team

Alexey Marchenko
Jerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports

While he wasn't the most anticipated arrival among Griffins rookie defensemen, Alexey Marchenko has been one of the most impressive. A seventh-round pick in 2011, Marchenko has two goals and 14 points and has been one of the most reliable players in the defensive zone. He was the lone Griffin named to the AHL All-Star team, and he made his NHL debut for the Red Wings on January 4th.

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An Influx of NHL Talent

Jordin Tootoo
Rick Osentoski - USA TODAY Sports

Due to a crowded roster in Detroit, a handful of players with significant NHL experience were sent down to the Griffins this season. Cory Emmerton has scored 10 goals and has 19 points in 31 games, Patrick Eaves scored four goals during an eight-game stint with the team, and Jordin Tootoo has three goals in nine points through 23 games with the Griffins. Injuries in Detroit have allowed Emmerton and Eaves to return to the Red Wings, while Tootoo continues to be a fan favorite in Grand Rapids due to his fearless physical play.

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Multiple NHL Debuts

Adam Almquist
Rick Osentoski - USA TODAY Sports

Through the halfway point of the season, five Griffins players had made their NHL debuts for the Red Wings. Three were members of last season's Calder Cup championship team, and combined the five players have appeared in 38 NHL contests this season. Alexey Marchenko, Adam Almquist, Xavier Ouellet, Tomas Jurco and Luke Glendening all saw NHL action for the first time this season, and Jurco and Almquist netted the first goals of their careers.

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Talent-Rich Group of Young Defensemen

Xavier Ouellet
Tim Fuller - USA TODAY Sports

The Red Wings defense hasn't been the same since the departure of Nicklas Lidstrom in 2012, but this year's Griffins roster hints at a brighter future. Four rookie defensemen are making big contributions this season, and two have already made their NHL debuts. Ryan Sproul, a 2011 second-round pick, has seven goals and 22 points, while 2011 seventh-rounder Alexey Marchenko was named to the AHL All-Star team. Former QMJHL All-Star Xavier Ouellet has four goals, and former college standout Nick Jensen has played 15 games after healing from a shoulder injury suffered during summer rookie camp.

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A New Wave of European Talent

Calle Jarnkrok
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The Red Wings have found success for many years now in drafting skilled offensive players from Europe. This season, Griffins fans are getting a chance to see the next wave of talent up close, as two of their 2010 selections are off to great starts as AHL rookies. 2010 second-round pick Calle Jarnkrok has 10 goals and 17 points, while 2010 fourth-rounder Teemu Pulkkinen is second on the team with 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists).

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New Offensive Leaders Step Up

Tomas Jurco
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With three of the heroes of last season's Calder Cup run - Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson - now in Detroit, there was a need for some of the Griffins' young players to step up. 2011 second-round pick Tomas Jurco has been leading the way for the Griffins in the first half, with 14 goals and 32 points. In 74 games during his rookie season, he scored 14 goals and had 28 points, so his production in the first half is a great sign of things to come. Pulkkinen and Jarnkrok are also among the team's scoring leaders, while Mitch Callahan and Landon Ferraro continue to make strong cases for new contracts over the summer.

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Stellar Goaltending from Tom McCollum

Tom McCollum
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With Mrazek in Detroit, the starting job in Grand Rapids has belonged to former first-round pick Tom McCollum. He wasn't even sure he'd be back in the Red Wings organization over the summer, but he has now turned in some of the most impressive work of his five-year career. With his next win he will match his career-high (18, set last season) and his 2.11 goals-against average is currently the third-best mark in the AHL.