Red Wings Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Brandon Peleshok

The Red Wings veteran-laden line-up has proven difficult for young players to crack, though two players on the list are with the team due to injuries. Brendan Smith, Jimmy Howard, and Johan Ryno have been big movers on the ranking. Among the new additions to the list are Ville Leino, Gustav Nyquist and Stephen Johnston.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Jakub Kindl, D
2. Brendan Smith, D
3. Daniel Larsson, G
4. Thomas McCollum, G
5. Jan Mursak, LW
6. Justin Abdelkader, LW
7. Jimmy Howard, G
8. Ville Leino, LW
9. Dick Axelsson, LW
10. Jonathan Ericsson, D
11. Darren Helm, C
12. Mattias Ritola, C
13. Cory Emmerton, C
14. Evan McGrath, C
15. Max Nicastro, D
16. Joakim Andersson, C
17. Johan Ryno, RW
18. Gustav Nyquist, C
19. Logan Pyett, D
20. Stephen Johnston, LW

1. Jakub Kindl, D – 8.0C
6’3, 206lbs
Acquired: 1st round, 19th overall, 2005

Kindl has greatly improved in his second year in the AHL. His 29 points in 56 games is good for the lead in points among defensemen on Grand Rapids. While his -15 rating leaves something to be desired, it is a huge improvement over his -34 from last season. His consistent play has helped the Griffins maintain and top-three spot in the AHL’s Western Conference all season long. Additionally, he was named to the AHL All-Star Game along with teammate Daniel Larsson. After Jonathan Ericsson, Kindl will most likely be the next defensive prospect to play for the Wings.

2. Brendan Smith, D – 7.5C
6’2, 174lbs
Acquired: 1st round, 27th overall, 2007

The top-ranked NCAA prospect in the Wings system is the mobile defenseman Smith. He’s played with senior player Kyle Klubertanz for the University of Wisconsin in hopes that his defensive game will continue to improve. In 21 games with the Badgers, Smith has scored 18 points. Seven of those 18 points were power-play goals, making Smith an ideal candidate to quarterback a special teams unit. The low point in Smith’s season occurred when he was benched for one game due to an off-ice incident involving alcohol. Smith will look to minimize his off-ice antics and improve his defensive side of the game as he returns to Wisconsin next year.

3. Daniel Larsson, G – 7.5C

6’0, 180lbs
Acquired: 3rd round, 92nd overall, 2006

The reigning rookie of the year of the Swedish elite league tried his hand at North American hockey to start the 2009-10 season. Larsson started the season off with a bang, posting better numbers than the supposed No. 1 goaltender on the team, Jimmy Howard. In 28 games with the team, Larsson has posted a 2.74 GAA and a .911 save percentage. Although his numbers have gone down a bit throughout the season, it’s certainly impressive that he transitioned to the smaller rinks so well. Larsson will likely start the 2009-10 season as the Griffins No. 1 goaltender and look to continue his impressive AHL campaign.

4. Thomas McCollum, G – 8D

6’1, 205 lbs.
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2008

McCollum is Detroit’s goaltender with the highest ceiling, but he may not reach it. Starting the season with the Guelph Storm, he maintained a 2.23 GAA and .926 save percentage through 31 games, good for second overall for OHL goaltenders. His performance the World Juniors was a down point, and it may have shaken his confidence a little bit, but it certainly hasn’t shown since he returned. McCollum continued his stellar season after being traded to the Brampton Battalion. In 14 games with the club, he has a 1.89 GAA and .931 save percentage. With Howard likely joining the Red Wings next season, McCollum could find himself moved to Grand Rapids for the 2009-10 season.  His fall birthday gives him that option.

5. Jan Mursak, RW – 7.0C
5’11, 182lbs
Acquired: 6th round, 182nd overall, 2006

Mursak’s rookie season with Grand Rapids hasn’t gone the way most hoped. In 35 games with the club, he has just six points and is a -3. Mursak has often been scratched this year due to a very talented Grand Rapids team. He still possesses the potential to become a high-end offensive winger only rivalled by fellow Wings prospect Dick Axelsson. With players such as Darren Helm and Ville Leino likely moving up to the Red Wings next season, Mursak will get his chance to display his offensive capabilities.

6. Justin Abdelkader, LW – 7B

6’2, 215lbs
Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2005

Playing in his first year of pro hockey, Abdelkader was likely looking to maintain a role as a defensively responsible forward. Surprisingly, he has continued to find the scoring touch he developed in college as a member of the Griffins. In 52 games with the team, Abdelkader has put up 38 points, good for second overall on the team. He was named rookie of month in October and has continued to play a physical game to compliment his offensive contributions. He earned a call-up for two games with the Red Wings where he displayed his grit and energy.

7. Jimmy Howard, G – 7.5C
6’1, 208lbs
Acquired: 2nd round, 64th overall, 2003

Staying true to his past, Howard has had yet another season full of ups and downs. He started the early parts of the season below a .900 save percentage, but began to heat up in mid-December. The result of his resurgence is a total of 33 games played with a 2.46 GAA and .916 save percentage. The surge in his play has allowed him to surpass Larsson and regain his spot as the Griffins No. 1 goalie. With Detroit so close to the cap, it looks like he’ll get his shot as the Red Wings backup goaltender in the 2009-10 season.

8. Ville Leino, LW – 7.0B

6’1, 188lbs
Acquired: Signed as a free agent in 2008

Leino left the Finnish elite league as the MVP to sign with the Red Wings. Despite an impressive pre-season with the club, the 25-year-old  was sent down to play in the AHL. Leino posted 37 points in 44 games with the Griffins while waiting for his call-up to the Wings. When the injury bug struck, Leino received his call-up and quickly impressed the club with a goal in his first game. In 10 games with Detroit, Leino has tallied seven points while being placed with several different linemates. Showing that he can score at the NHL level, Leino will likely play for the Red Wings in the 2009-10 season or leave for another club if they are unable to find a spot for him on the roster.

9. Dick Axelsson, LW – 7.0C

6’2, 176lbs
Acquired: 2nd round, 62nd overall, 2006

Similar to Mursak, Axelsson is considered to have the potential to be a high-end offensive talent. He started his season in the Swedish elite league with Djurgardens, posting 12 points in 18 games. But Axelsson was promptly kicked off the team when his attitude and work ethic came into question. He was moved to Farjestads and has since become a point-per-game player with 17 points in 17 games. While his skill level is certainly apparent, he will have to get his maturity issues in check before becoming a member of the Red Wings. It is likely that Axelsson will be a Griffin in the 2009-10 season.

10. Jonathan Ericsson, D – 6.5B

6’5, 220lbs
Acquired: 9th round, 291st overall, 2002

Ericsson is in what will likely be his last season with the Griffins. In 37 games with the team, Ericsson has a modest 14 points. He’s been plagued with injuries and is likely a bit complacent after his stint with the Wings last season. If it wasn’t for a nagging wrist injury, Ericsson would be with the Red Wings amid their current influx of injuries. The 24-year-old Swede will likely lay for the Red Wings next season.

11. Darren Helm, C – 6.5B

5’11, 185lbs
Acquired: 5th round, 132nd overall, 2005

Helm is likely sick of hearing Mike Babcock talk about how great he is. After being a part of the Stanley Cup winning Red Wings last season, Helm started the season in Grand Rapids. In the 37 games he spent with the club, he scored 31 points amid injuries and a possible cup hangover. Helm’s currently playing in Detroit and has an assist in 13 games. He and fellow Griffin Leino brought a level of energy and determination that helped the Wings snap out of a five-game losing skid. Barring any unexpected circumstances, Helm will begin next season as a member of the Red Wings.

12. Mattias Ritola, C – 6.5C
5’11, 185lbs
Acquired: 4th round, 103rd overall, 2005

Ritola has proven that perseverance pays off. When fellow countryman Ryno left the club last season, Ritola could have followed, but he decided to stay behind and has reaped the benefits. Through hard work and careful crafting of his game, Ritola has managed to net 33 points in 50 games. He’s improved his ability to deal with the rigors and grit of a North American brand of hockey, even dishing out a hit or two himself. Ritola’s next season with the Griffins will shed more light on Ritola’s true potential as a player.

13. Cory Emmerton, C – 6.5C
5’11, 185lbs
Acquired: 2nd round, 41st overall, 2006

After a hectic end to his OHL career, Emmerton joined the Griffins for the 2009-10 season. He has shown that without trades or injuries, he can put together a successful season. Emmerton has potted 26 points in 49 games in the AHL and staying true to his playmaker label, 23 have been assists. He has also remained defensively responsible, adding to his list of tools. Emmerton will look to build on his offensive numbers next season, proving whether or not he can be an offensive threat at the pro level.

14. Evan McGrath, C – 6.5C
6’0, 195lbs
Acquired: 4th round, 128th overall, 2004

McGrath entered the 2008-09 season as an afterthought to most, as he was expected to have yet another mediocre season in the AHL. However, McGrath has had a resurgence of sorts, finding the back of the net in a way reminiscent to his days in the OHL. In 48 games with the club, he has scored 35 points, matching last year’s total in 30 fewer games. Additionally, he’s second on the club with a +11 rating. McGrath’s play this season has put him back on the Wings’ radar and another successful season next year will do him wonders.

15. Max Nicastro, D – 6.5C
6’2, 189 lbs.
Acquired: 3rd round, 91st overall, 2008

In his second year with the USHL’s Chicago Steel, Nicastro has emerged as the team’s top defenseman and one of the better defensemen in the league. He’s logged top-pairing minutes with the club and has 27 points in 41 games. At only 19 years old and headed for college, Nicastro still has plenty of time to develop his game properly. Pending a successful transition to Boston University next season, Nicastro could see his stock rise quite favorably.

16. Joakim Andersson, C – 6.5C
6’0, 220lbs
Acquired: 3rd round, 88th overall, 2007

Andersson fits the mold of a Samuel Pahlsson type player, great on the penalty kill and always responsible in his own end. He’s seen a new high in points this season with Frolunda of the Swedish elite league, scoring 10 in 44 games. While the point total is a bonus, Anderson’s game revolves around keeping the opposition at bay. He faced heartbreak this season when his Swedish national team fell to Canada in the World Junior Championship game.

17. Johan Ryno, RW – 7.0D
6’4, 215lbs
Acquired: 5th round, 137th overall, 2005

Ryno determined his own fate last season when he left the Griffins to go back to Sweden. When he returned to Djurgardens, he became a role player and saw his point totals drop off. He started off this season continuing his bout of bad luck. Ryno re-aggravated a previous injury just a few games into his season and suffered a broken leg. With his commitment and injury issues, Ryno’s future with the Wings remains cloudier than ever.

18. Gustav Nyquist, C – 7.0D
5’11, 170lbs
Acquired: 4th round, 121st overall, 2008

A new entrant to the list, the Swedish-born Nyquist decided to go the college route for the 2008-09 season, a rare move for those playing in Sweden. The move paid off, though, as Nyquist has been able to tally 22 points in 29 games with the University of Maine. Nyquist has also remained defensively responsible amid his offensive tear. The Wings may have found yet another Swedish gem to fit their puck-possession style of play.

19. Logan Pyett, D – 6.0C
5’10, 205lbs
Acquired: 7th round, 212th overall, 2006

This is Pyett’s rookie campaign with the Griffins. After being nearly a point-per-game defenseman in the WHL, Pyett has 12 points in 45 games with the Griffins. While he’s seen a drop in his point production due to joining the pro ranks, his focus on defensive responsibility has played a role as well.

20. Stephen Johnston, LW – 6.0C

6’1, 175 lbs.
Acquired: 6th round, 181st overall, 2008

Johnston closes out the top 20 and is one of the most improved players in the Red Wings system. He has more than tripled his point totals from last season, scoring 34 points in 50 games for the OHL Belleville Bulls. While he was once thought to be solely a defensive forward, Johnston has developed a set of hands and sense around the net. If he can continue to improve his play and prove his current success isn’t just a fluke, Johnston’s stock will rise.