Red Wings 2008 system audit

By Brandon Peleshok

If the Detroit Red Wings have proven one thing, it is that continuous success in the NHL does not have to result in futility at the draft table. Though the Wings have drafted late, their talent has panned out quite well. With current notables in the line-up such as Pavel Datsyuk (6th round, 171st overall) and Henrik Zetterberg (7th round, 210th overall), Detroit’s scouting system boasts a keen eye for discovering talent that will fit perfectly into their puck possession style of play.

In the current crop of Red Wings prospects, players such as Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson and the recently signed Ville Leino have all been labelled as NHL-ready talents. These players must continue to push and prove themselves amid the hardship of knowing that they cannot crack a highly skilled Red Wings squad. These players serve as measuring sticks for those behind them in the depth chart. Prospects such as Justin Abdelkader, Corey Emmerton and Mattias Ritola will push in order to prove that they are good enough to play the style of hockey that the Red Wings demand. Meanwhile, defensive prospects such as Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith ooze with potential and have a skill set that fits perfectly with Detroit’s style. There’s a high level of competition not only at the minor league level, but also at the NHL level in the organization.

Left Wing

At the left wing position, the Red Wings have little elite talent, though they do boast quite a bit of potential. Players are either entering their first year of North American professional hockey or playing overseas. Abdelkader and Jan Mursak will aim to show that they can play at the pro level as members of the Grand Rapids Griffins. Meanwhile Dick Axelsson and Anton Axelsson will look to improve on previous seasons in the Swedish Elite League. Continuing the list of left wing players is Stephen Johnston of the OHL.

Abdelkader has shown that he is capable of playing in the NHL, at least in the short stint that he was able to play. At the end of last year’s NHL season, he squeaked in two games with the Wings and showed off the physical presence and solid two-way play that he brings. Abdelkader also boasts a solid scoring touch around the net and is able to use his body to make room for himself and his teammates. After three years of college hockey at Michigan State University, he looks to show that he can survive and even thrive at the pro level. Though it is doubtful that Abdelkader will make the team this year or the next, he is a possible call-up for the Red Wings if a player such as Kirk Maltby or Tomas Kopecky is injured and a physical presence is needed. Realistically, Abdelkader will look to have a solid first year with the Grand Rapids team and look to further establish himself as a reliable, gritty two-way forward. Playing a similar defensive style is prospect Anton Axelsson. The younger brother of P.J. Axelsson, he mirrors his game after his brother as a great penalty killer. Axelsson needs to work on his speed, size and scoring touch if he hopes to make the Detroit team in the future. He will play in his second year with Timra of the SEL league, hoping to continue his strong defensive play and possibly post better offensive numbers.

While Mursak is likely further away from the NHL than Abdelkader, he also has a higher ceiling in terms of his NHL potential. What Mursak lacks in size, he makes up for with his high-end speed and offensive skills. Projected as a top-six forward, Mursak is coming off of two successful offensive seasons in the OHL as a member of both the Saginaw Spirit and Belleville Bulls. The Wings recognized his talent, as he received a call-up to the Griffins during the 2006-07 playoffs where he recorded two assists in seven games. Mursak will look to continue his offensive success at the pro level and determine if he can survive the grit and tempo of AHL hockey.

In the SEL, Dick Axelsson will look to prove that he can be the offensive threat that he is claimed to be. Director of European Scouting Hakan Andersson is very high on the prospect and believes that he fits the Red Wings system very well. Axelsson not only brings an offensive scoring touch, but also brings a 6’2, 198 lbs frame that aid in his physical style of play. “Hat Trick Dick” will look to improve on his last season on the Djurgardens team and put up some convincing offensive numbers.

Though his offensive skill is not on the same level as Mursak or Axelsson, Johnston is plenty capable at both ends of the ice. He is projected as a two-way forward who has shown signs of being a potential offensive threat. Johnston is adept at finding the open man and if placed in the right settling could flourish offensively. Playing in his second season with the Belleville Bulls, he will seek to show off his offensive potential.

Right Wing

The right wing is the shallowest position in terms of depth for the Red Wings. The most notable prospect at the position is the Swedish-born Johan Ryno. While he was able to crack the AHL roster last season, Ryno opted to return home and play in the SEL. Gennedy Stolyarov and Nick Oslund complete the list of prospects at the right wing.

Ryno brings a 6’4, 215 lbs body that he knows how to use. Ryno skates fairly well for his size and has good hockey sense. After spending two years in the SEL, he was able to make the Griffins, scoring seven points in 12 games, though he decided to leave the team and head back to Sweden. But this move may not have been in his best interests, as his production went down and so did his stock. Behind Ryno in the depth chart is winger Stolyarov. While he possesses solid offensive skills, he lacks the consistency to compete on a regular basis. The 2004 draft pick will continue his quest for solid play on a more regular basis in Russia.

Oslund projects as a great checking winger who loves to bring the body against the competition. His 6’3, 215 lbs frame allows him to play a very effective physical game. His downfall is his inability to produce offensively and a lack of puck control. Oslund will play in his second year of college hockey at St. Cloud State.

Center

Aside from defense, the center position is the most important in the Red Wings system. The emphasis is placed on good face-off skills and excellent back-checking and defensive play. Helm and Leino have both been touted as NHL-ready prospects by the Red Wings brass and have made the decision to send them down to Grand Rapids rather difficult. Following them on the depth charts are first-year pro Emmerton and Swedish-born players Ritola and Joakim Andersson. AHL veterans Evan McGrath and Ryan Oulahen remain on the prospects list in hopes of a breakout year. Randy Cameron, Zack Torquato, Julien Cayer, Gustav Nyquist and Jesper Samuelsson finish out the list of prospects at the center position.

Helm is considered an NHL-ready prospect, with just cap issues and a logjam of players in front of him in his way. He brings elite skating ability and speed along with strong defensive play to the table. He received a call-up during both the regular season and playoffs last year where he thoroughly impressed coach Mike Babcock. He will likely spend most of his season on the Griffins and could be the first call-up depending on who is injured. Andersson will continue to play for the Frolunda team in the SEL. While he does not have much of a scoring touch, Andersson brings a very solid defensive game and has been favorably compared to Anaheim Ducks center Samuel Pahlsson. If the young forward can remain a physical and defensively elite player then he may one day wear the winged wheel. Cameron is a center who is well-suited to play a two-way defensive game. He possess above-average face-off skills and an improving offensive ability. Cameron will play in his third season as a member of the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL.

Oulahen is an AHL veteran known for his strong defensive play. He is suited to play on the penalty kill and other defensive situations. Entering his fourth year of professional hockey, the time is now for him to step up. Cayer is a player who is able to utilize his size to play a strong physical game. He is not known to back down and is improving his offensive game. Cayer will play his first season of college hockey at Clarkson University this year.

Similar to Helm, Leino is also NHL-ready. He was signed in the off-season by Detroit for his high-end offensive skills. Coming off a year where he was named Finnish elite league player of the year, Leino entered the Wings camp looking for a roster spot. He has great hands and finishing skills near the net and like Helm should receive a call-up this year. Emmerton and Ritola have also shown a knack for putting the puck in the net. Emmerton has shown signs of offensive greatness in the past but has battled both injuries and illness, which have resulted in performances that have not matched his potential. Still, Emmerton brings a great set of offensive tools and is also defensively responsible. He will begin his first year of professional hockey with Grand Rapids. Ritola is entering his second year of professional hockey and has made great strides in that year. After a rough introduction and some disappointing play by Ritola, he has shown that he is adapting well to the grit and pace of North American hockey. While he is not great at anything in particular, he has shown flashes of offensive skill. However, Ritola must work on his consistency if he hopes to play at the NHL level. Depending on the number of injuries Ritola may receive a call-up down the line, but will realistically look to improve his transition to the North American game.

McGrath is an AHL veteran entering his third year as a Griffin. He has fallen down the depth chart after disappointing at the professional level. The once offensive dynamo will have to have a tremendous year with the Griffins if he ever hopes to wear a Red Wings jersey. Torquato has shown that he can be a point-per-game player at the OHL level.  He has a skilled set of hands that allow him to be dangerous around the net and in passing. His lack of size and skating ability could hurt Torquato in the long run, but it remains to be seen if they will hold him back. He will play in his fifth year of OHL hockey, currently playing for the Erie Otters.

Nyquist has shown that he can score at the Swedish junior level and hopes that his offensive ability can translate to higher levels of competition. He is also well known for his solid defensive play and ability to pursue the puck. His downside may be that he lacks elite skating ability. Nyquist will play his first year of college hockey for the University of Maine.

Samuelsson possesses great hockey sense and decent playmaking skill, but his lack of size may hurt him in the long run. He will play in his first year of Swedish Elite League hockey with the Timra club.

Defense

Defensemen who are mobile and can make a good first pass are crucial to the Red Wings style of hockey. The speed and quick counter-attack of Detroit allows them to be as successful as they are. Ericsson leads the list of defensemen in terms of being NHL ready. Cap issues and the Red Wings’ depth at the position have kept him in the AHL. Kindl is just behind Ericsson and may be ready to play in the NHL as soon as next year. First-year pro Logan Pyett hopes to continue his success at the professional level. Smith, Bryan Rufenach and Max Nicastro close out the list of defensive prospects.

Ericsson brings the traits that the Red Wings look for in their defensemen and also possesses a 100 mph slap shot and a 6’5 frame that allows him to play with grit. While Ericsson started his career at the center position, scout Hakan Andersson felt he would be better served as a defenseman and since then he has flourished there. He has put up solid offensive numbers and established himself as very capable in his own zone. Now in his third season as a Griffin, Ericsson will almost assuredly play for the Red Wings next season.

Kindl projects as the defenseman in Detroit’s system with the most raw potential and could end up as a top-four defender. Kindl has great mobility on the blue line, which translates into his ability to quarterback a power play. Unfortunately, his first season as a pro hockey player did not turn out very well, as he finished the season with a league-low plus/minus rating of -34. If Kindl can cut down on his defensive zone turnovers and improve on his offensive numbers, then the prospect can get back on the right track.

Pyatt is touted as a very solid offensive defenseman, putting up impressive numbers during his time on the WHL’s Regina Pats. Much like Kindl, Pyett has great mobility on the blue line and can find the net. His lack of size and need for improvement in his own zone are issues Pyatt will need to work on in the future. He will play his first season of professional hockey with the Griffins this season, hoping to put up impressive offensive numbers.

At the college level, both Smith and Rufenach will continue to pursue their development. Smith has been scouted as a potential top-four defenseman who has great skating ability and elite offensive skills. The first-round draft pick will be a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. Similarly, Rufenach has been praised as an offensive talent with smooth skating abilities and a great first pass. The offensive defenseman is in his second year with Clarkson University and will look to prove that he can put up offensive numbers at a higher level of competition. At the Junior ‘A’ level is prospect Nicastro. While he does not boast the elite offensive skill of Smith and Rufenach, he is very mobile and has good hockey sense. He is also defensively responsible in his own end. He will look to improve on his numbers in his second year with the USHL’s Chicago Steel.

Goaltending

The position of goaltender for the Red Wings can often be a difficult one. With so few shots on net the goalie must be able to maintain his focus during the game and stay sharp. Jimmy Howard and Daniel Larsson have both shown flashes of greatness as netminders, and are in direct competition for not only a call-up this season, but also a future between the pipes of the Red Wings. A few years behind them is Thomas McCollum, a prospect the Wings selected in the first round of the 2008 draft.

Howard has been projected as the future goaltender of the Red Wings for quite some time. He has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but at the same time has not remained consistent. There were also questions about his physical fitness, which he in turn answered when he arrived at last year’s training camp in great shape. Howard appears to be his own worst enemy, as he has the talent to be an NHL-caliber goaltender but has not fully convinced the management of the Wings that he is entirely ready. Howard will play in his fourth year of professional hockey for the Red Wings, possibly receiving a call-up or two based on his performance.

Battling with Howard is the Swedish-born Larsson. Coming off a season where he was named the Swedish Elite League’s goalie of the year, Larsson looks to have a smooth transition to North American hockey. He is not easily shaken and has great focus during a game. His rebound control has been questioned, but his quickness and glove hand are cited as positive attributes. Larsson will begin his pro career backing up Howard in Grand Rapids, but based on his performance that could change at any time.

The most recent addition to the Red Wings goaltending prospects is Thomas McCollum. Touted as a franchise goaltender, McCollum has the most potential of any of the Detroit goaltending prospects. His rebound control and ability to stay focused during the game are among his strengths. He is in his third year with the OHL’s Guelph Storm.

Overall

While the Red Wings do not possess elite talent, they do possess talent that fits their team very well. They are patient with their prospects and allow them to grow in the ranks while the veterans on the team smooth their NHL transition. Few prospects will threaten to take an NHL job this year, but there will be call-ups throughout the season. As veterans Draper and Maltby make their way out, players like Helm and Abdelkader will help to fill their shoes.