A tragic injury nearly cost the life of Wings prospect Igor Grigorenko, who many had hoped would inject youthful skill and excitement to Wings lineup, as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the two previous seasons. But while the Russian star bravely attempted to return to form from
injuries suffered in a violent car crash last spring, a rash of relatively mundane injuries allowed Wings fans to get a glimpse of the future last fall. Several Red Wing prospects and AHL depth players pulled on the Winged Wheel for the first time this year: Jiri Hudler, Niklas Kronwall, Darryl Bootland, Ryan Barnes, Nathan Robinson, Anders Myrvold, Jamie Rivers, Marc Lamothe and Mark Mowers all played roles on the President’s Trophy winning team this year.
Prior to the season, Jiri Hudler was supposed to be the only Red Wing rookie this year. But it quickly became apparent that Coach Dave Lewis didn’t feel young Hudler was ready for the NHL. Injuries allowed Niklas Kronwall to make an impact on the team. The Swedish defenseman looked comfortable in his first tour of duty with the club. Had he not suffered a season-ending injury in January, he might have rivaled John-Michael Liles as the best rookie defender of the year. Other players, like free agent signees Bootland and Robinson, also had unexpected stays with the Wings. In fact, the fresh faces seemed to spark the Wings. After an uninspired start, the team turned things around almost precisely when AHL affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins raided the Wings roster.
#26 – Jiri Hudler, C (Age: 20)
After the Grigorenko tragedy, some hoped Hudler would be for the Wings this year what Zetterberg was in 2002-03 and Datsyuk was in 2001-02. Hudler made the team with a strong training camp and pre-season. But, inexplicably, Coach Dave Lewis used Hudler sparingly, giving him just six to eight minutes a night if he used him at all.
In seven games from the start of the season, the pint-sized talented Czech center, picked 58th overall in 2002, managed one assist and seemed to have trouble with the flow of the game playing just a few minutes a game. Hudler took five minor penalties, mostly for obstruction, which seemed to stem from his difficulty playing defensive hockey in the neutral zone. The Wings sent him down to Grand Rapids, where he put up good numbers for a month before he was called up again to help an injury-ravaged lineup.
In his first game back Dec. 10, Hudler scored his first NHL goal in a 7-2 rout over Buffalo. He picked up an assist the following game and played much better before being released to the Czech team for the World Junior Championships. Many expected Hudler to dominate at the tourney. Instead, Hudler struggled, as the poorly prepared team finished out of the medals. Hudler went back to Grand Rapids and scored at a point-per-game clip until the All-Star break. At that point, the Griffins team started struggling, and Hudler’s play also dipped.
The disappointing Griffins were swept from the playoffs, despite good play from Hudler. Just 5’8, 180, some wonder if Hudler has the speed to make up for his small stature. Some have also questioned his attitude, but few dispute his skill. And he has an uncanny vision for the game that should help in adjust. In addition, having fellow Czech Robert Lang around for three more years should help Hudler adjust to the NHL lifestyle. Hudler will have every chance to make the Wings roster next season.
Hudler had two points and 10 penalty minutes in 12 games with the Red Wings.
#55 – Niklas Kronwall, D (Age: 23)
In five years, the Wings have had just one first round draft pick. In 2000, the Wings used the 29th pick overall to select Niklas Kronwall. Midway through the 2002-03 season, as Kronwall struggled with Djurgardens in the SEL, many were wondering if he would join names like Golubovsky, Eriksson, Wallin and Kuznetsov as first round defensemen who never panned out.
A strong second half and great play at the World Championships put an end to that talk, as Kronwall was signed and brought to North America for the 2003-04 season. After an impressive pre-season, in which Kronwall swept away any concerns about his ability to handle physical play with several devastating open-ice hits, Kronwall could find no room on the Wings’ star-studded defense and he was sent to Grand Rapids. After a great start in the AHL, the smooth-skating defenseman, who has unfairly been compared to Nik Lidstrom, got his call up in December.
The Wings were impressed with his poise. Rarely out of position and unafraid of work in the corners, Kronwall was solid in his own end. His passing skills should help the Wings transition game for years to come, too, as Kronwall seems to know when to gamble with the pass up the middle. Kronwall played more conservatively than he did in the pre-season, and stayed away from those open-ice hits that can often leave defensemen out of position. In his third game, he picked up an assist. On January 14, he scored his first NHL goal, which proved to be the game winner against the Blackhawks.
Kronwall’s promising season came to an abrupt end just a weak later, when he freakishly broke his leg during a pre-game skate. His recovery took longer than expected and he wasn’t able to get back in uniform to help the Grand Rapids team in the playoffs. He is currently with the Red Wings but is unlikely to see any duty in the playoffs. Kronwall appears to be, at the very least, a second-pairing defenseman who could see time on the penalty kill and the power play. Expect him to start with Detroit next season.
Kronwall had five points and 16 penalty minutes in 20 games with the Red Wings.
#27 – Darryl Bootland, RW (Age: 22)
Drafted 255th overall by the Avalanche in 2000, Bootland was not signed by Colorado and the Wings signed him in 2002. A hard-nosed winger who tallied 41 goals for the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors in his last junior season, Bootland was an unexpected call-up – ahead of Hudler — when the Wings forward unit was depleted by injuries last fall.
Bootland immediately made an impact, agitating, drawing penalties, fighting and even generating some offensive chances while skating in Darren McCarty’s place on the famed Grind Line. Many see Bootland as an eventual successor to McCarty — a gritty middleweight enforcer with the ability to score the odd goal. Like a young McCarty, skating appears to be the main stumbling block on the road to an NHL career. Those who’ve watched Bootland for a few years say he’s already made great progress as a skater. But he still has work to do. Like many young players who play the game with an edge, Bootland also needs more discipline.
Toward the end of his stint with the Wings, he started taking poor penalties. The poor penalties seemed to temper his play. And by the time he was demoted, he lost some of the fire in his game. In Grand Rapids say that Bootland never regained his edge and he struggled for the rest of the season. He’ll need at least one more year of seasoning in the AHL before getting a shot at a full-time role with the Wings.
Bootland had two points and 74 penalty minutes in 22 games for the Red Wings.
#38 – Nathan Robinson, C/LW (Age: 22)
Signed two years ago as an undrafted free agent out of Belleville of the OHL following the 2001-02 season, speedy Nathan Robinson opened some eyes with a strong season in Grand Rapids this year. And his strong play was rewarded with call up to Detroit in late November. The knock on Robinson, of course, is his size. He’s listed at 5’9”, 180. Robinson, however, is one of the fastest skaters in the Wings organization.
In his five-game call up to Detroit, he used that speed to create offense and develop a forecheck. He doesn’t have the vision or playmaking abilities of a Zetterberg or a Datsyuk, but if he models himself after a Kris Draper or Kirk Maltby, he could carve himself a fine NHL career. Robinson, who was having a great campaign in Grand Rapids before hurting himself at the speed skating contest in the AHL All-Star game, could earn a spot as a role player with the Wings next season if the team loses players to retirement and free agency.
Robinson had no points in five games with the Wings.
#52 – Ryan Barnes, LW (Age: 24)
Detroit’s second pick in the 1998 draft (55th overall) finally made it to the NHL this year, but he barely broke a sweat, as Coach Dave Lewis decided to keep him strapped to the bench. Barnes is perhaps the best fighter anywhere in the Red Wings organization, but despite career stats as a pro in Grand Rapids, it appears as if the Wings will not offer him a contract at the end of the season. Barnes, who was drafted out of the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors, has never been able to find an offensive touch. And a choppy skating style will make it tough for him to ever catch on in the NHL as a grinder or checking forward.
Barnes had no points in two games for the Wings.