After Tumultuous Start to Season, Martin Frk Deserves Another Look

Tuesday night, the Grand Rapids Griffins were playing catch-up. In their Calder Cup clinching game, the Syracuse Crunch kept pulling ahead by a goal every time the Griffins tied the game. The Griffins entered the third period trailing the Crunch 3-2. Within minutes of the opening puck drop, Tyler Bertuzzi tied the game at 3 off a beautiful no-look pass by Martin Frk. Almost ten minutes later, Frk wired a shot from the point and beat Crunch goaltender Mike McKenna for the go ahead goal and the Griffins’ first lead of the game.

Frk’s goal would eventually go down as the game winner, capping off a tumultuous season for the 23-year-old winger.

At the start of training camp in 2016, Frk knew that this was his chance to make the Red Wings. Coming off of a strong 2015-16 AHL campaign where he put up 44 points in 67 regular season games (and an additional 4 points in 4 playoff games), he was no longer waiver-exempt to start the 2016-17 season. That meant he either had to make the Red Wings opening night roster or be sent back to Grand Rapids and risk being picked up by another team on the waiver wire.

The Red Wings didn’t make it easy for him, picking up Frans Nielsen and Steve Ott in free agency in addition to extending Drew Miller and Darren Helm in the offseason. He was also competing with Grand Rapids teammates Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, and Tyler Bertuzzi for a roster spot. As it would turn out, Athanasiou was the only youngster on the opening roster (he was a healthy scratch). Mantha and Bertuzzi were returned to Grand Rapids without consequence (they were still waiver exempt at the time) and Frk would be exposed to the waivers along with Teemu Pulkkinen. Neither player would clear, as it turned out, with Pulkinnen being snagged by the Minnesota Wild and Frk being claimed by the Carolina Hurricanes.

Frk, impressively, took the whole thing in stride, thanking the Detroit Red Wings organization and commending their staff at all levels. This is not an easy thing to do for a 22-year-old on the fringe of making the NHL. His AHL stats were good and he had a strong preseason where he put up three points and a plus-1 rating in four games. He also had strong fan and media support as most saw his strong shot and savvy passing as an asset the team needed. Alas, there was a bottleneck of wingers and somebody had to go. 

He could have been angry and bitter at the Red Wings organization for not giving him a fair shot at cracking the lineup. But he wasn’t. Instead, he chose to see the positive: in Carolina, he’d be on an NHL roster. Unfortunately, this didn’t last for very long. The Hurricanes gave him a fair shot. He played two games in October against the Edmonton Oilers and, of course, the Detroit Red Wings. Against the Oilers, Frk took one shot on goal and was a minus-1. Against the Wings, he had no shots on goal and he was a minus-2. He played a total of 16:40 over the course of both games and registered a 43.48 on-ice 5v5 Corsi-For percentage.

His performance wasn’t good enough to convince the Hurricanes that he should be a regular. Once again, Frk was exposed to the waiver wire and, once again, he was claimed off the waiver wire. In a strange twist of events, it was the Red Wings who claimed Frk back and re-assigned him to the Grand Rapids Griffins.

At this point, Frk has been told twice in the span of a month that he’s not good enough for a regular roster spot on an NHL team. That could breed feelings of anger, frustration, and bitterness. Not for Martin Frk, though. Once again, the young pro took it all in stride.

This type of character can take a person a long way, but ultimately, to make the NHL, it requires skill and hard work. At this point, after being turned down by two NHL clubs and re-claimed by the Wings to play in in the AHL, Frk had an uphill battle. And boy did he fight like hell.

This season in Grand Rapids, Frk led the team with 27 goals, which was also good for 8th in the league, and ranked 4th on the team with 50 points in 65 games (top-50 in the league). This is a 0.77 point-per-game rate, which is a 0.11 improvement over last year. To cap it off, Frk netted 5 goals and 10 assists in 16 playoff games en route to scoring the game winner for the Calder Cup. That’s a 0.94 point-per-game rate in the playoffs, which was good for 5th on the team behind linemates Tyler Bertuzzi and Tomas Nosek.

Unlike his linemates, Frk was never called up to Detroit through the regular season. If he did, he’d have to be sent back through the waivers where the Wings would likely lose him again. To that effect, it was good that Frk stayed in Grand Rapids as he was integral to their Calder Cup victory.

Now that the season is over, though, everybody gets a blank slate. While Frk’s name is never dropped by Ken Holland in interviews about potential prospects who can make the team, he’s definitely one of the players who deserves another look. He’s proven that he can produce at the AHL level, he can play the powerplay, and he has a good attitude off the ice. While the work of a professional athlete never ends, Frk will have to push a little harder than most to be recognized.  

If Frk were to crack the lineup, this seems like the year to do so. With Drew Miller’s contract expiring and the Red Wings likely losing a forward in the upcoming expansion draft, there are a couple of spots open for some Griffins to make the jump. He’ll be competing with Nosek and Bertuzzi, two players who were even more impactful in the AHL playoffs, but were supported by Frk’s playmaking abilities.

He’ll have to be impressive in training camp because his NHL window is closing fast. Already, he can’t be sent back to the minors without being exposed to the waivers and, at 23-years-old, he’s at risk of becoming an AHLer for life. This could be his last chance. It became clear that he’s earned it as the final seconds ticked down in game six of the Calder Cup Finals and his goal went down as the game winner. If nothing else, he’ll always have that.