After getting his feet wet in the professional hockey ranks in the ECHL with Toledo last fall, forward Luke Glendening earned lofty praise on the way to winning a American Hockey League championship this season.
Glendening started his pro career in Toledo in October and played nearly 30 games for the Walleye before earning a promotion to the AHL as he helped the Grand Rapids Griffins clinch a Calder Cup title on Tuesday.
The 24-year-old finished the postseason ranked sixth among AHL players and first among rookies in points with 16. He scored six goals to go along with 10 assists.
“I think I had an okay rookie year,” he said. “I still have a lot to prove. I can't sit back.”
The native of Grand Rapids, Mich., also helped lead his hometown team to its first title.
Glendening tallied 21 points in 27 games for the Walleye. He scored 14 goals and had seven assists. Glendening also was selected to represent Toledo at the ECHL all-star game in January. Instead of playing in the game, he was promoted to the Griffins on Dec. 17.
“I learned what it's like to be a pro in Toledo,” Glendening said. “It's about showing up every day. I think it was huge for me and my development.”
The right winger scored eight goals and had 26 points during the regular season for Grand Rapids after he was called up.
Glendening came to Toledo after a four-year career at the University of Michigan, where he was a captain for two seasons. He came to Toledo as an undrafted free agent assigned to Toledo by Grand Rapids.
He said Walleye veterans Kyle Rogers, Randy Rowe, and Phil Oreskovic showed him the ropes.
The forward caught the eye of Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock this season, who told Mlive.com that Glendening jumped out at him.
“Oh, he will play at the next level [NHL], for sure,” Babcock said. “He just knows how to play. He does things right, and he is an everydayer. When you are a coach in the NHL, that is what you are looking for. He competes real hard and he will challenge for a job in the National Hockey League in not too long.”
The 5-foot-10, 185 pound forward finished his career at Michigan with 70 points (31 G, 39 A). Glendening was named the CCHA's best defensive forward after the 2011-12 season.
Glendening scored his first professional goal while wearing a Walleye uniform on Oct. 27 at Trenton.
Toledo coach Nick Vitucci said he envisions Glendening becoming a third-line NHL player.
“He could also be a fourth-line checker or he could even bump up to the second line,” Vitucci said. “He plays so well away from the puck.”
He said Glendening reminded him of former Red Wing Kris Draper, a grinding-type player who could also produce offensively.
“He plays smart and he works hard," Vitucci said. "We knew he would put up good numbers at our level.”
Glendening, who also played at center for the Griffins, said it's humbling to hear such praise from Vitucci and Babcock.
“Obviously those are huge compliments and it means a lot coming from people who have been around the game a long time,” he said. “But there's still a lot of work to be done. They won't give away a spot up there. I have to be ready to work hard. Who knows if I'll ever make it. But I'll keep working.”
Vitucci said Glendening did not come to his team until late in Toledo's preseason camp. He said his line combinations were already set for the first three games.
“That first weekend he was our 10th forward,” Vitucci said. “But then we were able to get more of a look at him. We got him with consistent linemates.”
Glendening said during those first few games he wasn't sure where he would fit in.
“I was nervous going down there,” Glendening said. “The coaches and leaders did a great job to give me this opportunity. Nick was patient with me and kept giving me a chance.”
Vitucci said it wasn't too deep into the season when he realized Glendening's potential. Vitucci said it came as “no surprise at all” that Glendening continued to excel at the AHL level.
“Draper really started as part of a third line, checking role before he gained the trust from the coaching staff and that's when he became more offensive,” Vitucci said. “Luke in my eyes has a bright future. He has very good offensive skills and good instincts. He's also a great athlete.”
Glendening finished ranked 12th on the Walleye in scoring despite playing less than half of the team’s season and finished with a plus-minus rating of plus-13.
Glendening was among five former Walleye players who helped Grand Rapids defeat the Syracuse Crunch four games to two in the AHL championship series. Forward Andrej Nestrasil, defenseman Gleason Fournier, and goalie Petr Mrazek all played for Toledo this season. Defenseman Brian Lashoff played during the 2010-11 season.
“That was cool,” Glendening said. “I would look up in the stands and see people from Toledo who made the trek to the game. It was special playing with those guys in Toledo. It was great to win it here with those guys.”
Mrazek, a rookie goalie who also started his career this season in Toledo, started all 24 playoff games for the Griffins. Mrazek went 15-9-0 and had a 2.31 goals-against average.
“When we were told he was starting the season with us, we were really surprised,” Vitucci said. “He was a world class goalie in juniors [Ontario Hockey League].”
Mrazek played three games for Toledo before he was promoted to the AHL. The rookie from the Czech Republic had a 2.02 GAA for the Walleye.
“He was a first-year guy and they wanted him to grow some whiskers here,” Vitucci said. “But I was not surprised how well he played after that.”
Vitucci said he was thrilled to see his former players contribute to Grand Rapids' title run. Both organizations are affiliates of the Red Wings.
“We've worked with them for a long time and they have been great to us over the years,” Vitucci said. “They have a lot of ex-Toledo players who have gone up and down in that organization. We take tremendous pride in that.”
Glendening, who attended East Grand Rapids High School, said Toledo was the perfect spot to start his career.
“The leadership group that was in Toledo and those guys were all a part of this journey,” he said. “They were huge.”