Regardless of where they pick in the NHL Draft, the Detroit Red Wings always seem able to find NHL-caliber players to populate the team's talent pipeline. With that in mind, we preview the Wings' 2011 NHL Draft.
Top 10 prospects:
1. Brendan Smith, D
2. Tomas Tatar, C
3. Jan Mursak, LW
4. Gustav Nyquist, C
5. Teemu Pulkkinen, LW
6. Riley Sheahan, C
7. Calle Jarnkrok, C
8. Andrej Nestrasil, C
9. Landon Ferraro, C
10. Mitchell Callahan, RW
Changes continue for another summer in Detroit, where there is plenty of uncertainty regarding some of the team's top veterans. Up front, Mike Modano will not return to the Wings, while veteran grinder Kris Draper's future with the team is not yet certain. Fellow-UFAs Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves are expected to be re-signed, though no deal has been reached yet, while prospect Jan Mursak is also penciled into the lineup for next season. Their presence could push Draper out of the lineup, as could the possible promotion of former second round pick Cory Emmerton.
The defense is even more in limbo, having already lost former All-Star Brian Rafalski to retirement. Additionally, Ruslan Salei and Jonathan Ericsson are both unrestricted free agents this summer. Neither is guaranteed to return, with age becoming a factor for the 36-year-old Salei and the possibility that Ericsson could fetch more money on the open market. None of these questions are nearly as important as the decision to be made by captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who is currently weighing his options between retirement and re-signing with Detroit. The organization's prospect ranks may be equipped to replace some of the minutes, but replacing Rafalski from within the system could be tough, let alone replacing a future Hall of Famer in Lidstrom. Jakub Kindl could move into regular duty on the back end, but the Wings' top prospect Brendan Smith would surely benefit from at least beginning next season in Grand Rapids. The rest of the prospects are further away, such as 6'3 Brian Lashoff, who is better suited to a checking role than Smith, or Swedish defenseman Adam Almqvist, who has drawn comparisons to Rafalski but is expected to remain in the Swedish Elite League next year.
In goal, Jimmy Howard is locked up and will again be Detroit's primary netminder. His backup is not so clear, as both Chris Osgood and Joey MacDonald are unrestricted free agents. Both are willing to return, though age could be a factor and, in Osgood's case, so will the ability to rebound from a rash of injuries over the past few seasons. Prospects Jordan Pearce and Thomas McCollum will likely remain in the minors next season as the organization would prefer to have a veteran or two behind Howard.
Few organizations in the NHL can match the depth and breadth of the Red Wings' forward prospects. From a deep group of balanced center prospects to high-end skill on the wings, Detroit boasts a diverse group of skaters who will be knocking on the doors of the NHL over the next few seasons.
The deep center group is headlined by Tomas Tatar, who has already played two productive seasons in the AHL, and Gustav Nyquist, a two-time Hobey Baker nominee while at the University of Maine. Calle Jarnkrok, a skilled and determined Swedish forward who just completed a strong rookie season in the SEL, is another talented prospect down the middle. The group also has a number of solid two-way contributors in Riley Sheahan and Cory Emmerton.
That depth and skill is also apparent on the wings. Jan Mursak, who notched one goal in 19 NHL games in Detroit last year, may not have the highest offensive upside of the group, but is likely Detroit's most pro-ready prospect and should contribute at both ends of the rink next season. In Detroit's farm system overseas, Finnish winger Teemu Pulkkinen, fresh off a record-breaking rookie season in the SM-liiga in which he surpassed Teemu Selanne's rookie assist record, along with Swedish sniper Dick Axelsson, who remains in the club's plans despite signing on for another SEL season, add a bevy of scoring ability. In addition to these natural wingers, some centers like Tatar or Nyquist will see at least part-time duties on the wing, similar to many of the current centers on the Wings roster.
Picking in the second half of the each round for so long has certainly diminished some of the top end talent that Detroit might have drafted, which is especially noticeable on the blue line. Beyond Smith, the group does not have a ton of upside, though there are still several solid prospects who could man the Detroit blue line down the road. Shrewd pick-ups like free agent signing Brian Lashoff add some depth, while late round selections like Benjamin Marshall and Adam Almqvist have emerged as two of the team's more intriguing offensive defensemen.
Goaltending has rarely been a strength for the organization, but the pipeline still does not inspire a ton of confidence. Thomas McCollum seemed to take a step back last season, struggling to maintain his confidence while spending part of his year in the ECHL. Jordan Pearce has been a solid prospect, taking over the reigns in Grand Rapids last season, but has a limited ceiling. Perhaps the most intriguing goalie prospect in the system is Petr Mrazek, a Czech-born goalie currently playing in the OHL. He had a stellar regular season for the Ottawa 67's in his first year as starter and should return to the same role again next season.
While the team has shown a preference for selecting North American prospects with their earliest picks, their mid-to-late round selections come from a variety of backgrounds. The Wings have maintained a balance between picks from the junior ranks, the college level, and Europe in their last five draft classes. Of the team's 32 total picks in that span, 14 were drafted out of the CHL, including six from the OHL and four picks each from the WHL and QMJHL.
For a team that has earned a reputation for slowly developing their prospects, they have drafted a surprisingly low amount of college-bound prospects of late. Just eight of Detroit's picks in the last five drafts were from the high school or Junior A level, though this group does not include a player like Nyquist, who played at Maine University but was drafted out of Sweden.
The Detroit organization has long made a name for itself by finding the late round gems, especially in Europe. With the help of Hakan Andersson, the team's Director of European Scouting, the Wings have continued to be one of the premier organizations in the NHL when it comes to mining talent overseas. Seven of the squad's 10 European draft picks in the last five draft classes were selected out of Sweden, including top prospects like Nyquist and Jarnkrok.
Hockey's Future staff mock draft result:
No. 24: Oscar Klefbom, D
The 6'3 Swedish defenseman helps fill out some of the depth on Detroit's blue line, as well as addressing one of the team's more immediate needs as the defensive corps gets older. In addition to his size and strength, Klefbom is also a solid puck-mover and good skater, making him just the potential two-way defenseman that would fit in the Red Wings puck possession system.