Stocked and ready with skilled players, the Detroit Red Wings continue to supply Joe Louis Arena with world-class skill on a nightly basis. With a number of prospects set to make the transition from either the junior game to the pro game or the AHL to the NHL, the inaugural edition of the HF Prospect Awards is ripe with noteworthy names.
Like most teams, the Red Wings aren’t short on hard workers. The industrious nature of a forward is made all the more special when he has the skill level that Gustav Nyquist does, however. After running roughshod over his competition at the University of Maine, the Swedish winger joined Grand Rapids in 2011-12 but earned a number of call-ups to the Red Wings in his first professional season. With seven points in 18 games plus the added confidence boost of being dressed in four Red Wings playoff games, Nyquist looks poised to challenge for a full-time position in 2012-13. The fourth round pick was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team after potting 58 points in 56 games.
Other Detroit prospects that were considered for this award were: Louis-Marc Aubry, Mitchell Callahan and Brent Raedeke.
With nearly twice as many points and nearly three times as many goals as the second best defenseman on the Greyhounds, Ryan Sproul has made a habit of blowing pucks through wide-eyed goaltenders all season long. With 23 goals from the back-line in 61 games, only two of his teammates could beat his goal-scoring exploits on the season. As the only 20-goal scorer from the blue line this year in the OHL, Sproul earned a lot of respect from the Western Conference coaches: they voted him as the second-best offensive defenseman (Ryan Murphy), second in terms of “best shot” (Nail Yakupov) and the definitive winner of the hardest shot.
Best Defensive Prospect: Brendan Smith, D, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
After another successful season in the AHL with Grand Rapids, Brendan Smith seems about ready to move into Joe Louis Arena full-time starting in 2012-13. Smith was a call-up for 14 games with the Red Wings, garnering seven points and a plus-3 rating. In 57 AHL games, he scored ten goals and registered 34 points while logging big minutes for the club. With the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and the departure of Brad Stuart, the Red Wings are expected to count on Smith to aid in their transition game and man the point of the power play. He’s making progress with his defensive game and decision-making and he worked on that especially hard in 2011-12 in preparation for his much-awaited chance at the big show.
Xavier Ouellet was heavily considered for this award as was Ryan Sproul.
Fastest Skater: Landon Ferraro, C, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
While fate and success haven’t exactly coincided as expected for Detroit’s first choice in 2009, Landon Ferraro is finding a way to right the ship. Though injuries, including a concussion, set him back a bit during the year, he still had a respectable rookie campaign with Grand Rapids. Mainly used as a depth player, Ferraro carved out 20 points in 56 games while helping out on both sides of the puck. Versatile, smart and – above all – fast, Ferraro will have his work cut out for him if he wants to catch his father’s lofty NHL totals, but for now he has to pursue being a high-quality AHL player.
Gustav Nyquist was also considered for this award, and Riley Sheahan has shown himself to be a strong skater in his own right.
Prospect of the Year: Petr Mrazek, G, Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
At the World Junior Championship, Czech import Petr Mrazek absolutely stole the show. He won best goaltender of the tournament and won over a lot of fans in the process. Similarly, he had an excellent season with the Ottawa 67's of the OHL which he coupled with a deep playoff run. With a flair for the dramatic, Mrazek is an exciting young goalie in a prospect pool that could certainly use one. The door is wide open for him to carry his flashy and, at times, acrobatic, stylings into a starting role in the AHL as soon as this fall.
Breakout Player for 2012-13: Tomas Tatar, LW/RW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Before earning a silver medal with the Slovaks at the World Championship, Tomas Tatar put together another very strong season in the AHL. He just edged out his career-high in points by nabbing 58 in 76 games this past season. With the question marks of the offseason still yet to be given satisfactory answers, Tatar could find himself occupying a roster spot vacated by a Tomas Holmstrom or Jiri Hudler and seeing quality minutes in the NHL as soon as this season. A supremely skilled player, Tatar can woo even veteran players with his puck control exploits and hopes to show them off in primetime this fall.
Brendan Smith and Gustav Nyquist were among many others considered for this award as well.
More or less an afterthought, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada were not expected to be much more than the new name in the QMJHL in 2011-12. They took the league by storm and captured the West Division by 19 points. Much of the thanks can be credited to their captain, Xavier Ouellet. As just one of two 20-goal scoring defensemen in the league, Ouellet scored at nearly a point-per-game pace while providing excellent defense for the Armada. On merit, Ouellet was nominated for the Emile Bouchard award and was named a first-team all-star.
Other Red Wings prospects included for this award were: Riley Sheahan, Joakim Andersson and Ryan Sproul.
Overachiever: Alan Quine, C, Peterborough Petes (OHL)
Though he made a precipitous jump in terms of points, the progression in Alan Quine’s game is still not on par with that of a soon-to-be NHL player. Quine was second on his club with 68 points and had the second-worst plus/minus rating at minus-19. He makes good offensive plays with quality skill and a terrific shot but it’s not evident that his skills will translate to the NHL any time soon. Toughness, size and consistency are all question marks surrounding Quine at this point and he will return to the OHL with hopes of answering at least some of them.
Underachiever: Teemu Pulkkinen, LW, Jokerit Helsinki (SM-Liiga A)
After a record-breaking rookie campaign in the SM-Liiga A, Teemu Pulkkinen was under a lot of pressure to get back near his point-per-game benchmark and failed to do so. Though his season was not disastrous by any stretch, a junior-aged player excelling in big minutes in one of the best league’s in the world is nothing to sneeze at. For a pure scorer, though, a 17-point drop-off in production in one more game than last season is not the most promising sight. While he netted six goals in seven games at the WJC's, the asterisk there is that four of the goals came in the third period in a game that was already well in hand against Denmark. With Pulkkinen’s shot being far-and-away his most useful trait, he needs to be able to put pucks in the net with a high degree of regularity in order to carve out a meaningful NHL career.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Tomas Jurco, RW, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
The highly-skilled puck magician from Slovakia was a much-discussed prospect even before his point explosion in 2011-12 with the powerhouse Sea Dogs. Tomas Jurco scored 68 points in 48 games this year in the QMJHL and registered a plus-46 rating as he helped his team reach the Memorial Cup for the second straight year. His three-year stint in major junior hockey has come to an end but with such creative skill, not a ton of defensive wherewithal and an international transfer agreement still to hurdle over, Jurco is nearly the dictionary definition of a boom or bust prospect. Provided the contract situation works itself out naturally, Jurco will ply his trade with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins – his first taste of North American professional hockey.