The drive from Grand Rapids to Detroit is rather unremarkable. Flat land and clusters of trees pockmark the edge of the highway.
At the end of that two-plus hour journey lies yet another nondescript structure, its exterior different gradients of grey and without windows. Yet inside that building lie the hopes and dreams of every player who wishes to one day don the winged wheel, and this season more have done so than originally planned to.
The Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit's top AHL affiliate, captured the Calder Cup in 2013 on the backs of a well-balanced mix of skill, grit, and goaltending prowess. A number of the players who not long ago lifted a cup are now suiting up for a team looking to lift the Stanley Cup, as injuries have decimated the Red Wings in 2013-14 and prompted a number of recalls from Grand Rapids.
Great learning experiences and ample ice time have been acquired by many of Detroit's top prospects, and while the Wings' ECHL affiliate in Toledo has not fared as well as Grand Rapids both have been excellent training grounds for a deep pool of Detroit's professional prospects.
In addition to those players currently battling it out in the minors, the Detroit Red Wings are benefiting now from the veteran prospects they have developed in their minor league system, players like Brian Lashoff, Tomas Tatar, and Gustav Nyquist, all of whom have graduated from prospect status at Hockey’s Future or are nearing that 65-game mark.
Calle Jarnkrok, C, 22
The Swedish center is starting to find his game again during his debut North American season. Jarnkrok has 15 points in 31 AHL games. His puck retention skill is certainly a strong suit, and his high hockey IQ means that his assist total should greatly increase from where it currently stands (5) as he gains a greater feel for the speed of the AHL. Jeff Blashill, Grand Rapids' head coach, already has ample trust in Jarnkrok. The center is a fixture on the first-unit power play, and he has been seeing increasing time on the penalty kill. Altogether, Jarnkrok is a two-way centerman with excellent offensive instincts.
Petr Mrazek, G, 21
It is difficult to sum a goaltender's career up in one word, but "presumptuous" fits Mrazek's career quite well. Never one to adhere to critics, Mrazek has defied expectations since he left junior hockey. His brazen technical style is topped only by his supreme confidence; he believes that he can be a top-tier netminder, and he does not believe there has to be a long learning curve associated with such.
Mrazek has played in four NHL games in 2013-14, recording his first career NHL shutout to go along with a 1.90 goals allowed average and .910 save percentage. In Grand Rapids, Mrazek has played in 13 games, winning 10 of them, and has a 2.09 goals allowed average and a .927 save percentage. Detroit did not intend to get the young goaltender NHL experience at such a young age, but a combination of injuries and Mrazek's play forced the organization's hand. This may be for the best, as it now appears that the Red Wings have an NHL-caliber goalie waiting in the Wings.
Tomas Jurco, RW, 21
By now you have probably seen his YouTube video (more than once), but Jurco's talent is far more than sleight of hand. Jurco can skate with precision, stickhandle like few others, and has fantastic offensive instincts. He is a player who not only seems destined for a scoring line role in the NHL but has already had one. Though a call-up was all but a guarantee entering the season, Detroit had so many forwards injured that they tapped Jurco and promptly put him next to another puck-handling wizard on the top line, Pavel Datsyuk.
Jurco will soon return to Grand Rapids, however, where he has racked up 11 goals and 16 assists for a team-leading 27 points in 26 games. Jurco consistently gets ice time on Grand Rapids' top line, while also seeing time on the first power play unit.
Xavier Ouellet, D, 20
His game is so steady it could almost be described as boring, but that is not a negative in Detroit; after all, Wings fans heard that for two decades about one Nicklas Lidstrom. Ouellet does not play the same type of game as Lidstrom, but the two do share a similar trait in having superb on-ice vision.
Ouellet has been a solid contributor to Grand Rapids' defense corps, putting up six points in 29 games. Ouellet also was recalled by Detroit for three games, getting his first taste of NHL hockey. Ouellet will likely never be a huge offensive presence on the blue line, but his passing ability and defensive skill should lead him back to the big leagues some day.
Riley Sheahan, C, 22
Sheahan's game has suffered from something of a multiple personality disorder since the time he was drafted; is he a defensive specialist or an offensive centerman? Sheahan's game has started to settle somewhere in between. Sheahan does a little bit of everything for Grand Rapids. He has worked his way onto the second power-play unit of late while being a member of the first penalty-killing unit since the beginning of the season. Sheahan was recently called up to the Red Wings for four games as an injury replacement, and he did the same thing in the NHL that he does in the AHL; he battled in the faceoff circle, killed penalties, and centered one of the bottom two lines.
Ryan Sproul, D, 20
Some things are discussed to such an extent that the hype supersedes the actual entity itself. Sproul's slap shot is not one of those things. Possessing a shot most people could only get from sliding the "shot" meter to 99 in NHL 14, Sproul's offensive toolbox is well stocked. The defensive side of his game, like many rookie AHL blueliners, remains a work in progress. Sproul has 19 points in 31 games, complemented by six goals (a few of which have come from his lauded slap shot). Sproul also is the recipient of ample power play ice time, playing regularly as part of the Griffins' first unit.
Landon Ferraro, C, 22
Much like fellow center Riley Sheahan, observers have been patiently waiting to see whether Ferraro turns into an offensive weapon or a shutdown defender. Ferraro had a breakout offensive campaign in 2012-13, notching 24 goals and 23 assists in 72 AHL games. In 2013-14, Ferraro has seven goals and nine assists in 23 games, though his point production has recently picked up. He is also getting time of both Grand Rapids' second unit power play and penalty kill.
Luke Glendening, C, 24
Glendening was not expected to make his NHL debut so soon after being signed, he still found himself an NHL forward for about half of his 2013-14 season. Glendening is not counted on for his offense, though that does not mean he is offensively incompetent. He has 10 points in 17 AHL games and one point in 16 NHL games in 2013-14. The bread and butter of Glendening's game is his defensive skill, which often lands him on the penalty kill with Detroit and Grand Rapids. Glendening's relentless work ethic has allowed him a shot at the NHL, and it is perhaps the quality that his coaches find most endearing.
Teemu Pulkkinen, RW, 21
Prospects do not often have bounce-back seasons after moving up to a more difficult league, and even fewer do so when weighted down by the expectations Pulkkinen has been saddled with. Yet, after 26 AHL games, he is off to a better start than he had in SM-liiga in 2012-13. Pulkkinen has 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points in 31 games. Pulkkinen is receiving ice time on Grand Rapids' second power play unit, and as the season progresses, his shot seems to be increasingly tuned to the smaller North American ice surface. Pulkkinen is a sniper's sniper, and as he tweaks his shot, his offensive statistics should only increase.
Adam Almquist, D, 22
One of the most frequently repeated axioms with prospects is that they need to gain weight and strength, and this certainly applies to Almquist. Some players, however, think the game so well that they are able to play in the NHL despite their physical shortcomings. Almquist also falls into the latter group, having been called up to Detroit for two games as an injury replacement.
Almquist's greatest strength is his on-ice intelligence, which he has parlayed into a job on the Griffins' power play and penalty kill. In 28 games, he has 19 assists and no goals, but eats up a huge chunk of minutes and provides a smooth, steady game from the blue line. He is not yet ready for full-time NHL duty, but given more time to develop physically, he will be eventually.
Alexei Marchenko, D, 21
Marchenko's transition from KHL to AHL has been remarkably smooth. Known more for his defensive talents than his offense, Marchenko has been something of a surprise with 16 points in 31 games. He has recently been added to Grand Rapids' power play, though he is used more sparingly there then he is on the penalty kill. Marchenko is a smooth skater and deft passer who takes care of his own zone. Already more valuable to the organization than most players taken 205th overall, Marchenko could be an even more extraordinary steal if he continues to develop at his current pace.
Martin Frk, RW, 20
It may seem somewhat surprising to have a player who scored 84 points in his final 56 junior games playing in the ECHL, but that was the position Frk found himself in for much of 2013-14. After a lackluster six AHL games Frk was sent to Detroit's ECHL affiliate in Toledo. The move reignited Frk's offensive game and allowed him ice time that simply was not available in Grand Rapids. Frk scored five goals and eight assists in 15 ECHL games, while also getting time on the power play. Frk has a reputation as a hard worker with a penchant for going to the net, with his greatest weakness being poor defensive coverage skills. Adjusting that game to the AHL has been struggle, however, as Frk, now back in Grand Rapids, has yet to score his first AHL point through 10 games.
Nick Jensen, D, 23
Jensen recently made his 2013-14 season debut with the Griffins, having suited up for seven AHL games after a three game conditioning stint in the ECHL. He had been recovering from a shoulder injury suffered during a fight with 2013 draft pick Tyler Bertuzzi over the summer at the Wings' prospects camp. Jensen is a swift skater who can move the puck, and how he transitions from the NCAA to the AHL remains to be seen.
Mitch Callahan, RW, 22
Callahan consistently brings energy to the rink, and it has recently paid off for him offensively. He has 12 goals and 17 points in 31 games despite playing on the fourth line and being used frequently on the penalty kill. Callahan plays a style well-known to fans of Detroit's famed Grind Line; tenacious defense that generates offensive opportunities. He is a fan favorite in Grand Rapids, and his offensive numbers are a pleasant surprise.
Louis-Marc Aubry, C, 22
Size is not everything, as Aubry has this in spades (6'4, 205 pounds) but found himself frequently scratched from the Griffins lineup before being sent to Toledo. He has five points in 11 ECHL contests, and it appears that he will need to reclaim his game both offensively and defensively if he wants to get consistent ice time in the AHL.
William Coetzee, RW, 23
A knee injury has sidelined the Toledo Walleye's leading scorer from 2012-13 (68 points in 64 games) for the entirety of the 2013-14 campaign. His return is unknown.
Jared Coreau, G, 22
The hulking, athletic netminder has spent most of the 2013-14 season between the pipes in the ECHL, though he has recently been added to the AHL roster due to the call-up of Petr Mrazek. Coreau's numbers through nine games in Toledo are not pretty, a 4.42 goals against average paired with a .865 save percentage. Coreau, however, is only one season removed from the NCAA and will be given plenty of time to develop.
Gleason Fournier, D, 22
Fournier has played in both the ECHL and AHL in 2013-14, playing one game with the Walleye and nine with the Griffins with no points. The rearguard is currently on the Griffins' roster but has lately been scratched from the lineup.
Max Nicastro, D, 23
After an unremarkable 25-game stint in Grand Rapids in 2012-13, Nicastro was sent to Toledo, where he has remained since. Through 25 games in 2013-14 he has seven points (all assists). Offense, however, is not why Detroit drafted Nicastro. He is a more defensive-minded defenseman, though this side of his game is still a work in progress.
Richard Nedomlel, D, 20
Nedomlel has played three games in the AHL during his rookie professional season, but the majority of his time in 2013-14 will be spent with the Toledo Walleye in the ECHL. He has three points in 14 games with the Walleye, but the monstrous defenseman is not counted on for offensive contributions. Nedomlel is your prototypical stay-at-home type, able to knock guys off of the puck and take away shooting lanes.
Andrej Nestrasil, LW, 22
After recording more than a point per game with Toledo in 2012-13, Nestrasil has been an offensive letdown for Grand Rapids in 2013-14. The winger has seven points in 25 games, a far cry from the 41 points in 40 games he notched in 2012-13. Considering that his game is predicated on offense he still has a great deal to prove during the remainder of the season.
Marek Tvrdon, LW, 20
Tvrdon appears to be getting his career back on track after three seasons riddled with injuries. He is a highly skilled winger with scoring touch, and has eight goals and 11 points in 20 ECHL games. Having already signed his entry-level contract, Tvrdon will be given plenty of time to regain his form after missing so much time between 2010 and 2013.
Dan DeKeyser, D, 23
The only thing that will allow him to retain prospect status for a significant length of time is injury, because when he is healthy he is suiting up in the NHL. DeKeyser has excellent stick skills, is quick, and does a good job in defensive coverage. He has started to contribute offensively as well, posting 10 points in 25 games with the Red Wings in 2013-14. He has stepped in and looked like a top-four defenseman from the time he burst onto the NHL scene after completing his college career at Western Michigan in 2012-13. DeKeyser recently returned from a shoulder injury and has already worked his way back up to over 20 minutes of ice time per game.
Tomas Tatar, LW, 23
The Red Wings waited a long time to bring Tatar up to the NHL on a full-time basis, but it appears that he was worth the wait. The Slovakian winger has 15 points in 32 NHL games in 2013-14 and has been consistently getting around 15 minutes of ice time each night to go along with time on the power play. Tatar's stick handlings is sublime, and he has the offensive intelligence and ability to be a top-six winger in the NHL.