The Detroit Red Wings have already graduated their first true wave of prospects in a number of years to the NHL, and there is a second wave that may be following quickly at their heels.
Players like Mitch Callahan, Ryan Sproul, and Adam Almquist have already gotten a small taste of life in the big leagues and are ready to step up and claim their prospect awards before stepping up to the NHL for good.
Hardest Worker: Mitch Callahan, RW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
It has long been known that Mitch Callahan has liked to play with a physical edge, and the 2013-14 season saw that rewarded in more ways than one. Callahan punched in 26 regular season goals, many coming due to his willingness to drive the front of the net. He also was recalled by the Red Wings for one game, an indication that his consistent effort in all situations (he also plays on the power play and penalty kill with Grand Rapids) has been noticed by the front office in Detroit.
Hardest Shot: Ryan Sproul, D, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Watching opponents recoil at the sight of Ryan Sproul winding up for a slap shot has become a common occurrence for followers of the Griffins, but his teammates may best be able to speak to the power behind his shot. Fellow Griffin Mitch Callahan took a Sproul slap shot to the face on April 2nd that fractured his jaw and caused him to lose 10 teeth. Sproul's slap shot is largely responsible for the 11 goals he scored in 72 regular season games in 2013-14.
Best Defensive Prospect: Adam Almquist, D, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Defensemen take a notoriously long time to develop, and Adam Almquist has been no exception. He made tremendous strides in 2013-14, however, and while there are always new skills to acquire Almquist's offensive and defensive skill sets are ready for the Red Wings. He is versatile enough to be deployed on both the power play and penalty kill.
The one area that Almquist needs to improve on is his strength; aside from that his tremendous hockey IQ and offensive instincts (53 points in 73 regular season games) are refined enough for regular duty in the NHL.
It was no secret that Detroit drafted Andreas Athanasiou in 2012 for his skating ability, but he has shown in 2013-14 that he can do more than just skate. He has learned how to create on the fly, so much so that he potted 49 goals and 46 assists in just 66 games with the Barrie Colts. The gamble that the Red Wings made when they drafted him may well pay off, as he has only taken two seasons to go from a player who could move faster than he could act to one that can create faster than others can skate.
Mantha answered critics in 2013-14 and put forth a more consistent night-to-night effort. That increased effort translated well to the score sheet, as Mantha put up 57 goals and 120 points in 57 regular season QMJHL games. He also had a great showing at World Juniors, posting 11 points in seven games for Team Canada. Mantha has the mix of size and skill that should translate nicely to the next level even if his statistics fall off a bit.
Breakout Player for 2014-15: Mattias Janmark, C, AIK (SHL)
Janmark scored 30 points in 45 games with AIK, which is no small feat in the low-scoring SHL. Janmark pairs a high hockey IQ and polished offensive skill set with a physical edge, which should bode well for him as he transitions to the AHL. Janmark has already made his North American debut with the Griffins during the AHL playoffs, and that extra experience has him poised for a big season with the Griffins in 2014-15.
Most Improved: Andreas Athanasiou, LW, Barrie Colts (OHL)
As mentioned above, Athanasiou quickly learned how to combine his offensive skills with his blistering speed, creating a more complete (and more dangerous) offensive game. The Detroit front office was sufficiently impressed with his progress to move him up to the AHL after his OHL season ended.
Overachiever: Andrej Nestrasil, LW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
After splitting time between the ECHL and AHL, Nestrasil finally settled in to a full-time AHL role in 2013-14. He started the season slowly, and it appeared that he may have played his way out of Detroit's future plans. The second half of the season saw Nestrasil get extra ice time due to the Red Wings recalling a number of players, and Nestrasil took full advantage. He went on a scoring tear, finishing the season tied for fifth in scoring for Grand Rapids with 36 points.
Tvrdon was thought to be ready for the AHL in 2013-14, but that was anything but the case. He played only one game with Grand Rapids before being sent to the ECHL's Toledo Walleye, and after 22 games in Toledo was sent back to the WHL. Tvrdon seems to have regained his confidence in the WHL, but it is nonetheless disappointing to Detroit that he was not ready to advance to a more competitive league.
Highest Risk/Reward: Martin Frk, RW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
It is hard to deny that Martin Frk has a great deal of offensive ability. It is also hard to deny, however, that there are still questions surrounding whether he will be able to improve his skating enough to make his stellar shot a truly dangerous weapon. Frk had a disappointing 2013-14 season, recording only 12 points in 50 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins while also being sent down to the ECHL for 15 games. Whether Frk will turn into the player who scored 84 points in 56 QMJHL games in 2012-13 or the one who scored 12 in 50 games in 2013-14 is yet to be determined.