The 2015-16 season marked the beginning of a time of transition for the Detroit Red Wings. It saw the graduation of a handful of key prospects, by far the most impactful being teenager Dylan Larkin. Larkin was outstanding as a rookie this season and will be a key building block for the Red Wings as they re-tool for the future.
In addition to him, there are many prospects plying their trade at the AHL level who could be wearing the red and white winged wheel sooner rather than later. The Red Wings will have to make the transition to a more youthful core, but can manage it in a way that many teams only dream of doing.
A 25th consecutive playoff appearance this season will be hard to follow up in 2016-17, especially with the seemingly inevitable loss of Pavel Datsyuk, but the group of top-end prospects on the horizon could help the team avoid a full-on rebuild.
Hardest Worker: Tyler Bertuzzi, W, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Bertuzzi made his full-time debut in the AHL in 2015-16 and has lived up to all the scouting reports. He gives maximum effort on every shift and his motor has been a big part of how he got this far. With a dozen goals and 30 points in 71 games for the Griffins, his offensive output has been a pleasant surprise.
What is more appealing about Bertuzzi is his ability to perform in the playoffs. After playing in just two professional hockey games once his junior season ended, Bertuzzi tallied 12 points in 14 Calder Cup playoff games last season. After a middling rookie season on the scoresheet this season, he went right back to those ways, with three goals in the Griffins’ first four games of the post-season. The hustle and effort are what will continue to carry him but the results are great.
Hardest Shot: Anthony Mantha, LW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
With the graduation of Teemu Pulkkinen by Hockey’s Future criteria, there is no one that immediately grabs the eye with the same hard, heavy shot. But Mantha’s isn’t far off from it and has some of the accuracy Pulkkinen’s lacks.
Possessing one of the best wristers in the Red Wings prospect pool, Mantha has put that shot to its best use since getting the call to Grand Rapids. In 61 games in 2015-16, Mantha hit a career-best 21 goals to go along with an equally best 45 points, nice upticks from a 33-point rookie season. Mantha’s shot is just one of his many tools, but it is the kind of shot that could net him 25+ goals on the NHL level.
With all due respect to Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul, a pair of defenders who have been plying their trade at the AHL level the last couple of seasons, Hicketts has the kind of offensive ability the Red Wings haven’t seen from a defenseman in years.
In his last two seasons for the Royals, where he served as captain, Hicketts registered 105 assists and 125 points in 121 games. His size is an issue at just 5-8, but he is a dynamic skater with outstanding playmaking potential. If he can continue that level of production at the next level, he could quickly leap to the top of the Red Wings prospect rankings.
Fastest Skater: Andreas Athanasiou, LW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)/Detroit Red Wings (NHL)
After Larkin, the prospect who may have raised his stock the most this season was Athanasiou. With veteran penalty-killer Darren Helm a 29-year-old unrestricted free agent this offseason, Athanasiou looked like he might be capable of filling a similar role while on an entry-level contract. A player with good size and defensive awareness for a rookie, “AA” put up nine goals and 14 points in his 37 games of NHL action. The majority of those points came as he got loose using some of the fastest north-south skating in the league.
The 21-year-old has adjusted quickly to pro life, also putting up 16 points in 26 games with the Griffins as he shuffled back and forth this season. It should come as no surprise: the speedster was lethal on the ice as a junior to the tune of 49 goals and 95 points in 66 games over his final season with the Barrie Colts. With the ever increasing speed of the game, Athanasiou looks like an important part of the picture for Detroit.
Svechnikov, the most recent first round pick in Detroit’s prospect pool, has shot up the rankings quickly and with good reason. The 19th overall pick in 2015, Svechnikov followed up an impressive rookie season in the Q by not only matching his 32 goals, but slightly besting his 46 assists and 78 points (he had 47 and 79, respectively) despite playing in five fewer games.
Svechnikov already has smooth skating ability and power forward size to go with outstanding hands and scoring ability. His ceiling is substantial and he could be a fixture on one of Detroit’s top two lines for a long time to come.
The 2015-16 season was a bit of a whirlwind for the diminutive Finnish defenseman, but the writing is on the wall in regards to his abilities as an offensive defenseman. In 59 games with Flint, Saarijarvi posted a dozen goals and 43 points, showing that despite his size, he can be a dynamic player.
This comes in the face of some organizational issues between Detroit and Flint as well as the fact that he is just a couple years removed from being a forward full-time. It seems a sure bet that he will have a new home in 2016-17 where he will have a chance to take that year of experience in the OHL and use it to fuel his true breakout.
Most Improved Prospect: Martin Frk, W, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Ever since his days with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, the question surrounding Frk was always whether or not he could produce without the star power of Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin around him.
The last two seasons have been frustrating, with Frk failing to live up to expectations and bouncing between the AHL and the ECHL. But 2015-16 proved to be Frk’s breakout. In 65 games with Grand Rapids, Frk potted 27 goals (he had managed just 11 total in 82 games in his AHL career) and 42 points, both career-bests. He is off to a good start to the playoffs as well, with four points in three games.
Frk will have to prove in 2016-17 that this season was not a fluke, but it has to be a huge burden off his back to finally put up the numbers many thought him capable of producing at the pro level.
Overachiever: Tyler Bertuzzi, W, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Bertuzzi again? Bertuzzi again. It is hard to keep him off the list given his performance as a first-year AHL player basically fresh out of junior. While a lot of youngsters have a hard time finding the ice in their first season, Bertuzzi established himself as an energy guy that can chip in offensively.
The story on Bertuzzi coming out of junior was on of uncertainty. Sure, he had the monster final season in Guelph that saw him post 43 goals and 98 points, but his three seasons prior didn’t show that kind of offensive potential. So for him to provide that same energy and compliment it with an ability to score is huge for both Bertuzzi and the Detroit organization.
Underachiever: Zach Nastasiuk, W, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
A second-round pick in 2013, Nastasiuk seemed like a rich-man’s Bertuzzi: size, speed, hustle and a potentially burgeoning scoring ability after hitting career highs in goals, assists and points in his final season with the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL.
Unfortunately, the 2015-16 season did not go as swimmingly. Nastasiuk began the year with Grand Rapids, posting just three goals and eight points in 26 games with the Griffins before being sent down to the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL. He looked solid there, posting 10 goals and 20 points in 25 games, so hopefully his first year struggles are limited to the first year.
Nastasiuk will get an opportunity to make Grand Rapids full-time in 2016-17 and hopefully establish himself in a greater role than the one he took in 2015-16.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Anthony Mantha, W, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
The 20th overall selection in 2013, Mantha was drafted with sizable hype and only compounded that with an incredible final season in the QMJHL that saw him post 57 goals and 120 points in just 57 games.
Following a somewhat disappointing first year in Grand Rapids, Mantha looked substantially better in 2015-16, hitting career highs in goals (21), assists (24) and points in 58 games this season.
Mantha is the total package for an NHL forward: size, speed, skill and a plethora of offensive ability. His development will take time, but Mantha is the type of player that will either be a feature player in Detroit for a decade or will flame out before doing much at the NHL level. The Red Wings would definitely prefer the former.
Prospect of the Month
It is hard to find anyone in the Red Wings organization that had a better stretch since our last writing than Evgeny Svechnikov. The second-year QMJHL winger finished the regular season by posting 10 points in his final five games and followed that up with a spectacular playoff effort. Svechnikov posted 15 points in 13 games – which included an eight-game 10-assists streak – for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles before the team bowed out of the playoffs in a tough seven-game series against the Saint John Sea Dogs. Showing huge growth in his sophomore effort, Svechnikov may have already established himself as the top prospect in the Red Wings organization in just a short time.
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