Red Wings organizational depth analysis, Fall 2009

By Brandon Peleshok

While several key players have graduated, the Red Wings still boast a respectable group of prospects. They remain strongest up the middle and on the back end. But several question marks surround their goaltending and scoring wingers.

Left Wing

At the top of the left wing position are prospects Dick Axelsson and Tomas Tatar. Axelsson is considered to be the most offensively gifted winger currently in the Red Wings system. But attitude and conditioning problems have often hindered his progress. He’s off to a good start in Grand Rapids, with four points in seven games. If Axelsson can focus on just playing the game, and working hard, his stock will rise.

Similarly, Tatar is an 18-year-old left winger who boasts great offensive skills. He surprised the hockey world with his play at the world juniors, and then continued to play well during the Red Wings training camp. His play impressed the Red Wings brass enough to allow him to play in Grand Rapids, as opposed to sending him down to the OHL. Tatar currently has a goal and one assist in five games.

Gustav Nyquist and Mattias Ritola are making some noise as well. After a very impressive first season at the University of Maine, Nyquist has met expectations and then some. In his first six games as a sophomore, he has put up 10 points. The Swedish winger will continue to push his offensive skills in order to earn a contract by 2012.

Ritola is playing his third season of AHL hockey for the Griffins. After struggling in his first season, he was able to put up 42 points in his second season with the team. As a veteran of the team, Ritola will be counted on to play a large role, playing on the power play and penalty kill at times. Over his first 10 games, he has posted five points.

Anton Axelsson, Julien Cayer and Nick Oslund finish off the left wing position. Axelsson, in his third year of SEL play, has continued in his role as a checking-line winger. The 23-year-old doesn’t have to be signed to a contract by a specified date, and as such, has a great deal of leeway over in Sweden. While it is not likely that he will end up playing for the Red Wings, it’s possible.

Cayer, 20, also projects as a checking-line player, but with more offensive upside. In his second year at Clarkson University, Cayer is not putting up big numbers, but is using his physical frame around the ice.

Lastly, Oslund boasts a great deal of size at 6’3, 215 lbs., but has not used it to his advantage. He has never put up a lot of points. In his third year at St. Cloud State, he has continued to play on the bottom two lines.

Right Wing

Perhaps the weakest position in Detroit’s depth pool, the right wing position has potential, but no one boasting a great deal of offensive skill. Jan Mursak and Andrej Nestrasil are perhaps the most skilled of the bunch. Mursak struggled mightily in his first AHL season, putting up a mere nine points over 51 games. He is off to a better start in his sophomore year, netted three goals in his first 10 games. More strength would help Mursak in his quest to become an NHL player.

On the other end of the size scale, the 6’2, 200lbs. Nestrasil is off to a very good start in the QMJHL. He has scored 24 points in 18 games for the Victoriaville Tigres.

Francis Pare and Willie Coetzee are two prospects who have the potential to make an offensive push. In his first year of play with Grand Rapids, Pare went without an NHL contract. His play was impressive enough to earn himself a contract. He’s off to a bit of a slow start though, with only two points in eight games with the Griffins.

Coetzee was also the recipient of a free-agent contract from the Red Wings. Playing on a line with Ferraro in Red Deer, Coetzee was able to put up some respectable numbers. This season, with Ferraro injured and out of the line-up, Coetzee has had an offensive explosion. He has tallied 29 points over 17 games.

Also on right wing are Mitchell Callahan, Johan Ryno and Gennedy Stolyarov. Callahan is the scrappy type of player the Red Wings pool has been devoid of for many years. He’s a player who can drop the gloves and is off to a respectable offensive start with 13 points over 16 games with the Kelowna Rockets.

Ryno and Stolyarov are both cases of players preferring to stay overseas. While Ryno attended the Red Wings training camp, he made it clear that he was not interested in playing for Grand Rapids. Detroit is likely done with Ryno unless he makes a great offensive surge. Similarly, Strolyarov has just been unimpressive during his play in the KHL. He will likely stay overseas as well.

Center

Leading the pack of centers in the Red Wings system is the rugged Justin Abdelkader. The 6’2 has spent time at the wing as well, but has flourished playing as a center. His first year of AHL play was a great success, as he scored 52 points in 76 games. Playing for the Red Wings during the 2008-09 playoffs, Abdelkader scored two important goals in the Stanley Cup finals against Pittsburgh. With the injury bug striking Detroit, he has been able to stay up with the team as a checking-line center this year, netting two points over nine games.

Cory Emmerton, Evan McGrath and Joakim Andersson lead the next wave of centers. Each player has NHL potential, and with certain tweaks to his game could be well on his way. After an OHL career plagued with injuries and illnesses, Emmerton was able to put a fairly uninterrupted season together with the Griffins last year. In 69 games, the two-way forward put up a respectable 35 points. All the while he maintained the defensive aspects of his game. This year he has three points in nine games.

While McGrath struggled with the transition from an OHL game to an AHL one, he seems to have finally found his footing. Finishing the 2008-09 season with 47 points in 68 games, he has continued his offensive success with five points over nine games this season. Much like Emmerton, McGrath focuses on the defensive aspects of the game as well, though it was a side of the game he started focusing on more during his play with Grand Rapids.

Andersson is the less offensively skilled of the bunch, but makes up for it with his superior two-way play. He was impressive during the world juniors, scoring six points in six games during Sweden’s silver medal run. With a bit more in the way of offensive numbers, Andersson could end up being a very good checking line center for the Red Wings.

2009 draftee Landon Ferraro was Detroit’s first selection. Boasting blazing speed, the Red Deer Rebel went in the second round. He led the Rebels in scoring with 55 points during the 2008-09 season, 37 of which were goals. Ferraro had a rough start this season, though, suffering a knee injury that has limited him to just seven games. He joins Coetzee on Red Deer’s top line.

Brent Raedeke, Stephen Johnston and Jesper Samuelsson finish off the Red Wings centers. In his third season with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, Raedeke has maintained his play on the defensive side of the puck and added a little more offensive touch as well. He’s put up 18 points over 17 games, putting his speed to good use. Similar in his playing style, Johnston has continued to play at a solid pace as a member of the Belleville Bulls. Entering his third season with the Bulls, he’s put up nine points over 14 games. Samuelsson has continued his play overseas in the SEL. His issues gaining weight have continued, as he remains a very slight 175 lbs. He’s only been able to put up one assist over 10 games with Timra and will have to push for more of an offensive burst.

Defense

The Red Wings prospect pool is deepest at the defensive position. Leading the pack is Czech native Jakub Kindl. After a rough rookie season, Kindl improved his play during his sophomore season, scoring 33 points. He seems to be overcoming his defensive struggles, and improving his offensive numbers simultaneously. He has starting the 2009-10 season off with a respectable three points in eight games played.

Slightly lower on the depth chart are Brendan Smith, Brian Lashoff and Max Nicastro. Smith’s 2008-09 season for the University of Wisconsin was offensively successful, though he had several off-ice issues that may have affected his play. Certain disciplinary measures caused him to miss some time. He finished the year with 23 points in 31 games, but could have certainly done better. In five games, he has nine points.

Lashoff was the recipient of a three-year entry contract in the 2008 off-season. He was traded to and given the captaincy of the Kingston Frontenacs and put together a decent season, scoring 19 points in 35 games. He made the most noise, though, while playing on an amateur tryout contract for Grand Rapids. He played at nearly a point-per game pace and spent time on the team in the post-season as well. Lashoff currently sits at eight points in 16 games for the Frontenacs.

Nicastro spent the 2008-09 season playing his last year of USHL hockey for the Chicago Steel. The puckmoving defenseman ended the season scoring 31 games in 57 games. Moving on to Boston University, Nicastro remains scoreless through five games.

The Red Wings used three of their selections in the 2009 draft on defenders. Gleason Fournier, Nick Jensen and Adam Almqvist were all picked, furthering the depth of the defensive shelves. Fournier brings elite speed into the mix, promoting his offensively geared game. He finished his second season with the Rimouski Oceanic with 28 points in 66 games. He currently sits at nine points in 10 games for the Oceanic. Jensen projects as an offensive talent as well, albeit a very raw one. In his first season in the USHL, he put up 22 points, and currently sits at two points in seven games. He’s a long-term project and will eventually attend St. Cloud State.

Almqvist is perhaps the surprise of the trio. The small-framed defenseman finished the 2008-09 season in the Swedish junior ranks with 36 points in 41 games. The seventh round selection has exploded this season, scoring 29 points in just 13 games. Those numbers are impressive for a prospect who was selected so late. He will need to put on some weight, though, as he moves up the ranks.

A trio of prospects, Logan Pyett, Sergei Kolosov and Bryan Rufenach, are all looking to improve on their numbers and make a bigger impact. In his first year of play in the AHL, Pyett struggled the find the offensive touch he exhibited in the WHL. He’ll look to improve his overall game this year. He has two points in 10 games so far and is -3.

Also in his sophomore season in the AHL is bulky blue liner Kolosov. He was able to put up numbers similar to Pyett last year, while maintaining his strong defensive play. He is scoreless and -2 in nine games this year.

In his third year of college hockey, Rufenach has five points in seven games, a big improvement. He’ll need to improve the defensive aspects of his games though if he hopes to grow into a more complete player.

Rounding out the list of defenders is a pair of free-agent signees. Sebastien Piche and Travis Ehrhardt were locked up by the Red Wings during the 2009 off-season. Both players were brought in to give Grand Rapids some depth. Piche brings an offensive flair to the blue line that allowed him to rack up 72 points in 62 games during his last year in the QMJHL. But he remains pointless through six games as a Griffin. Similarly, Ehrhardt brings some offensive skill into the mix. In 2008-09, he put up 37 points on the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. He has one point in eight games for Grand Rapids.

Goaltending

With the graduation of Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings are left with three goaltenders in their prospect pool. One of either Daniel Larsson or Thomas McCollum could become the future starting goaltender of the Red Wings.

The tandem has split time for the Griffins this season. In his second year of AHL play, Larsson has been the stronger of the two goaltenders, with a 2.85 GAA and .916 save percentage, with one shutout. With his conditioning issues seemingly behind him, the 23-year-old looks poised to put up a full solid season.

McCollum has posted a 2.57 GAA and .903 save percentage thus far in six games. In his rookie season with the Griffins, McCollum is going to be insulated by Larsson, and will not be counted on to take the brunt of the work. This could go a long way in helping some of the still 19-year-old’s confidence issues.

Behind them on the depth chart is free-agent signee Jordan Pearce. While Pearce posted good numbers in his last year at Notre Dame, his first year in the ECHL has not gone well so far. Pearce has only played three games with the Toledo Walleye, and has looked rather unspectacular in all of them. The 23-year-old has posted a 4.67 GAA and .851 save percentage, numbers much worse than fellow rookie Alec Richards (CHI).