Brendan Smith tops solid group of Detroit Red Wings prospects

By Adam Schnepp

Brendan Smith - Detroit Red Wings

Photo: Defenseman Brendan Smith has been developing steadily in the AHL and may now be ready for full-time NHL duty with the Detroit Red Wings (courtesy of Rocky Widner/Getty Images)

 

After an offseason of unprecedented change, the Detroit Red Wings' prospects will be relied upon more than they have been in over a decade to have an impact at the NHL level.

Expectations are high for Brendan Smith and Gustav Nyquist, and if they falter, Detroit's system is laden with talent that may be ready to take a step forward this season. If the offseason has proven anything, it is that the Red Wings have to adapt to a CBA-controlled world in which free agents are less crucial to future success than highly skilled prospects. Luckily for Detroit fans, the farm system is stacked with just that type of player.

1. (1) Brendan Smith, D, 8.0B
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2007

A successful two-year apprenticeship in Grand Rapids (120 games played, 22 goals and 44 assists for 66 points) led to a 14-game stint with the Red Wings in 2011-12. Smith adapted well to the pro game, recording one goal and six assists for seven points and averaging 15:38 of ice time while logging time on the power play. Smith is a top-end talent who should start the season as one of the Wings' top-six defenders and projects to be a top-two defenseman at some point in his career.

He is a good skater who moves the puck well out of his own zone. Smith is not afraid to use his 6'1” frame to play physically, though he needs to be careful to not cross the line between physical and illegal play. During the 2011 preseason, Smith hit Chicago Blackhawks prospect Ben Smith in the head and was subsequently suspended for three preseason and five regular season games. With Detroit in dire need of help on the back end, the 23-year-old Smith should get plenty of time to prove that he belongs with the big club.

2. (2) Gustav Nyquist, LW, 8.0C
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, 2008

Nyquist is a sublimely talented winger who showed flashes of brilliance during his 18-game stint with the Red Wings last season. His puck skills and offensive awareness make him a potential top-six forward in Detroit. His days in that role may not begin this season after averaging less than eight minutes of ice time last season, but it will be difficult for Nyquist not to break the NHL lineup if he continues to progress.

The 22-year-old Nyquist has great hockey sense and plays a good two-way game. He is a very hard worker who is aggressive in both zones without being reckless or irresponsible. His scoring touch translated well in his rookie pro season but he still has to prove he can produce consistently in the NHL.

3. (4) Tomas Jurco, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2011

Do not be surprised if Red Wings play-by-play announcer Ken Daniels soon adds the phrase "Jurconian dekes" to his repertoire. The 19-year-old Jurco has elite stickhandling capabilities, reminiscent of current Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk. He also has a scoring touch, evidenced by the 2011-12 season in which he recorded 30 goals and 38 assists for 68 points. Jurco's frame is already NHL-ready at 6'1” and 191 pounds, but his game still needs some work. Developing more day-to-day consistency in his game and learning how to play against more physical defenders at the professional level are both areas that Jurco needs to improve. He will get the opportunity to do so this year when he makes the leap to the AHL and joins the Grand Rapids Griffins.

4. (3) Tomas Tatar, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2009

He may not have made an NHL appearance like he did in 2010-11, but Tatar is assuredly in the mix to be one of Detroit's first call-ups from Grand Rapids in 2012-13. Tatar dropped a spot in the rankings because his offense plateaued in his second professional season. He scored 58 points in 76 games in 2011-12 after 57 points the prior season in 70 games, but made improvements on the defensive side of his game to remain one of Detroit's top four prospects. Tatar played extensively on the penalty kill for Grand Rapids, and the 21-year-old could be an effective checking line player for Detroit in the near future.

5. (5) Calle Jarnkrok, C, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2010

A hard-working, offensively-minded center who is difficult to bump off of the puck, Jarnkrok is Detroit's best prospect not already playing in North America. Jarnkrok had shoulder surgery in the 2011 offseason but picked up where he left off with Brynas of the Swedish Elite League, notching 16 goals and 23 assists over 50 games in 2011-12 and then another 16 points in 16 playoff games. An indication of Jarnkrok's talent was seen in his selection to be a member of Team Sweden at the 2012 World Championship, where he was teammates with current Red Wings' stars Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, and Jonathan Ericsson. He may return to Brynas for the 2012-13 season before coming to North America, and likely Grand Rapids, in 2013-14. There is a chance, albeit unlikely, that Jarnkrok suits up for the Red Wings in 2012-13. The 20-year-old forward will be invited to training camp and given an opportunity to earn one of the 12 forwards spots on the NHL club's roster.

6. (6) Teemu Pulkkinen, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2010

Pulkkinen is a pure sniper with great hockey sense whose shot is often compared to Hockey Hall-of-Famer Brett Hull. He is not a good skater but has a knack for finding the space to release his cannon of a shot. He needs to work on his skating and defense before he can make the jump to the NHL, but his offensive upside is enormous. He projects as a top-six forward who will be able to play the point on the power play.

Despite all of his talent, there was a big drop in Pulkkinen's offensive numbers in 2011-12. The 20-year-old winger scored 16 goals and 37 points in 56 games last season after a breakout rookie season with 18 goals and 54 points in 55 SM-liiga games in 2010-11. That appears to be a significant decline but is not necessarily a red flag as he was injured for a portion of last season with a rather uncommon ailment in nephritis, an infection of the kidneys. Pulkkinen will spend one more season with Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League before coming to North America.

7. (10) Petr Mrazek, G, 7.5C
Drafted 5th round, 141st overall, 2010

Mrazek plays the game with a passion that borders on reckless abandon, but it has served him well to this point. He is not the most technically-sound goaltender, often relying on instinct and athleticism to make flashy saves. He often punches the air and chest bumps the glass after big saves, vividly illustrating the confidence he has in his game. 

Mrazek's 2011-12 regular season statistics were remarkably similar to his 2010-11 stats, posting an identical 2.84 goals against average and consistent .917 save percentage in 50 games in 2011-12, but he stepped his game up when it counted during the OHL playoffs and the World Junior Championship. In 17 playoff games with the Ottawa 67's, Mrazek's goals against average was a 2.59 and his save percentage .926. Over six WJC games, Mrazek's posted a similar line with a 2.49 goals against average and .928 save percentage. These big performances under pressure have catapulted the 20-year-old goalie past Thomas McCollum as the Wings' goaltender of the future and launched him up the Top 20 list as well.

8. (8) Riley Sheahan, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2010

At 6'2” and 202 pounds, Sheahan already has the size to play in the NHL. The 20-year-old made his debut last season, appearing in the last game of the regular season with the Red Wings. He brought much-needed size to the lineup, and his well-rounded game could help earn him an NHL roster spot down the road.

Unlike many prospects, it is not the defensive side of the game that Sheahan has to work on; the 2011-12 CCHA Top Defensive Forward Award nominee has that part of his game developed. It is his offensive skills that need work. Sheahan never recorded double-digit goals nor did he break 20 assists in a season during his three years at Notre Dame. Sheahan has the skills to contribute more offensively, but he needs to improve his consistency first and foremost. He was a streaky scorer throughout his career at Notre Dame and needs to find a way to play a quality two-way game on a nightly basis. Expect him to start the 2012-13 season with Grand Rapids.

9. (9) Ryan Sproul, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 55th overall, 2011

The 6'3”, 185-pound defenseman may still need to fill out physically, but he had no problem filling the scoresheet in 2011-12. Sproul potted 23 goals and 31 assists for 54 points in 61 games for the OHL's Sault St. Marie Greyhounds. Sproul has a point shot that scouts rave about, and his comfort with handling the puck meshes well with what Detroit's system requires of defensemen.

The 19-year-old defenseman has clear offensive upside but needs to work on adding bulk and playing more physical if he wants to become an everyday NHL defenseman. Luckily, there is still plenty of time for that. Sproul will return for one more season with Sault St. Marie before likely heading to the AHL to play with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2013-14. Sproul could be a point-producing second pair defenseman at the NHL level if he improves his defensive and physical games.

10. (7) Xavier Ouellet, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 48th overall, 2011

Ouellet had a breakout season in 2011-12, topping his 2010-11 goal production by 13 for a total of 21 goals. For this he was nominated for the Emile (Butch) Bouchard Trophy for the QMJHL's top defenseman. A moderately sized rearguard at 6'0” and 179 pounds, Ouellet showed that he was more than just a responsible, puck-moving blueliner in his first season with the Armada. His slide down the rankings is not a condemnation of his skills so much as it is an illustration of the talent at the top of Detroit's system.

He already plays a good two-way game, and if he can prove that his offensive production in 2011-12 was not an aberration, then the Red Wings have a very well rounded prospect on their hands. The 19-year-old Ouellet will again return to the QMJHL's Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in 2012-13.

11. (NR) Martin Frk, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2012

Few would question that Frk's best quality is his cannon of a shot. He does a good job finding open areas of the ice, much like fellow Wings prospect Teemu Pulkkinen. It is his conditioning and defensive game that need work, and the 2012-13 season should provide just the opportunity he needs to improve. His offensive upside is undeniable, to the point that he almost cracked the top 10 prospects despite missing a significant portion of the 2011-12 season. Frk's statistics saw a significant drop in 2011-12 because of a concussion suffered at the beginning of the season that kept him out until December. Many prognosticators had Frk as a top 10 selection in the 2012 Draft prior to his concussion, which is indicative of the kind of offensive talent Detroit may have landed should Frk's game return to where it was before the injury. Expect to see a big rebound year from the 18-year-old winger in 2012-13.

12. (11) Nick Jensen, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 150th overall, 2009

A speedy and smooth skater, Jensen is a good passer who is more of a set-up man than goal-scorer from the blue line. He is a defenseman in the classic Red Wings mold, a puck-mover with offensive upside. Playing in the defensive-minded NCAA, Jensen averaged almost a point per game in his sophomore year at St. Cloud State University with 32 points in 39 games.

The 21-year-old blueliner still needs time to develop but could be one of the top prospects in Detroit's system by the time his NCAA career concludes. Detroit does not rush prospects through the system, so expect him to play out his remaining two years of NCAA eligibility. At that point he will likely join the Grand Rapids Griffins to adapt his game to the more rigorous AHL.

13. (NR) Brian Lashoff, D, 6.5C
Signed as free agent, September 30th, 2008

At 6'3” and 207 pounds, Lashoff is already one of the bigger defenders in the Wings' pipeline. He is not afraid to use that size, but also knows how to move the puck out of his own zone. Things seemed to come together for the 22-year-old defenseman in 2011-12 when he recorded eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points over 76 games.

Though he has always been billed as a shutdown defeseman, the recent uptick in his offense could be evidence that his overall game has progressed enough to play at the NHL level. He could log first-pairing minutes in Grand Rapids in 2012-13 and has a shot at being an injury call-up for the Red Wings, which is quite an impressive feat for a player who went undrafted four years ago.

14. (13) Joakim Andersson, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 88th overall, 2007

It took him over a season to adjust, but Andersson thrived once he got comfortable in the AHL. In 2010-11, he recorded just seven goals and 15 assists for a modest 22 points in 79 games. In 2011-12, Andersson contributed 21 goals and 30 assists for 51 points in 73 games. The last time Andersson scored 20 goals was in 2006-07 with Frolunda J-20 of the SuperElit, so it is safe to say that his goal scoring came as something of a surprise to those who follow the Grand Rapids Griffins.

The 23-year-old Andersson tends to play physically and engage opponents. His defensive game has long been consistent and effective, as he frequently plays against top opposing lines and on the penalty kill for Grand Rapids. However, finding his scoring touch got him rewarded with a five game NHL call-up in the middle of the 2011-12 season. Andersson's offensive output may have been the most surprising element of his game in 2011-12, and it could ultimately earn him another NHL call-up in 2012-13.

15. (14) Adam Almqvist, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2009

The 21-year-old defenseman does not yet have the strength to play in the NHL, but Almqvist's hockey sense is preternatural. He has a good breakout pass and is a smooth skater. Almqvist needs to bulk up if he is going to be effective at a higher level of play. He has been attempting to do so for two years, and it is crucial that he is able to add strength to his frame this offseason. 

Almqvist had only 11 points for HV71 of the Swedish Elite League in 2011-12, but he also was not getting top-pair minutes. He will join Grand Rapids for the 2012-13 season and will likely see a larger workload, including some time on the power play.

16. (15) Marek Tvrdon, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2011

While his skill set may frequently be compared to that of fellow Wings prospect Tomas Jurco, Tvrdon has a lot of work to do if he wants to climb to Jurco's position on this list. A good 2011-12 season with the WHL's Vancouver Giants that included 31 goals and 43 assists in 60 games went a long way towards alleviating some concern, but Tvrdon has to be more consistent and engaged on a nightly basis if he wants to make it to the NHL.

He is a big body at 6'2” and 217 pounds, but the 19-year-old winger is still learning how to play a power forward's game. Tvrdon will occasionally go to the net but can also rely on his great shot from outside. He will return to the Vancouver Giants for the 2012-13 season.

17. (19) Mattias Backman, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 146th overall, 2011

Backman could develop into a reliable everyday defenseman, but he is not there yet. He is tall but skinny at 6'2” and 169 pounds. He also does not have much, if any, offensive upside. Backman is a strong skater and great passer who does the little things well.

Backman's breakthrough came in the 2012 World Junior Championship, where the 19-year-old blueliner went from rotating in as Team Sweden's last defenseman to getting progressively more ice time as the tournament wore on. In 42 games with Linkoping of the Swedish Elite League, Backman had one goal and seven assists for eight points. His value comes from his strong positional game. Whether his hockey sense is enough to get him to the NHL remains to be seen.

18. (18) Landon Ferraro, C, 6.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2009

Ferraro was drafted after scoring 37 goals in 68 games with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels in 2008-09, and all signs pointed to him being an up-and-coming goal scorer. Unfortunately, he has not cracked the 20-goal plateau since. His projection continues to change, as he has evolved from a potential top-six forward to a likely third or fourth liner in the NHL.

Speed may be Ferraro's best asset, though he does have finishing ability that has yet to be seen at the AHL level. The 21-year-old forward will spend his second season in Grand Rapids in 2012-13, and top-line minutes should provide the opportunity to help solidify his long-term expectations.

19. (NR) Louis-Marc Aubry, C, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 81st overall, 2010

It is becoming increasingly clear after a five goal, 11 assist 2011-12 campaign in 62 games with Grand Rapids that Aubry's offensive skill is not going to be the asset that gets him to the NHL. His hockey sense is revered and is one of the main skills that may help him become a bottom-six NHL forward.

The 20-year-old Aubry is strong defensively, as well, and though he does not have high-end offensive talent, he is not afraid to go to the front of the net looking for deflections. He is very raw and it is possible that his skill does not develop enough for him to make the league, and this is the reason he received a D for his Probability Rating.

20. (NR) Thomas McCollum, G, 6.0C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2008

McCollum has now played portions of three seasons in the AHL, and never once has the 22-year-old goaltender recorded a save percentage over .900 in a pro season. Struggles at the AHL and even ECHL level over the past three seasons have brought McCollum's development into question, as he was at one point targeted to be a starter in the NHL and has not performed at that level recently.

He is a technically-sound netminder, but his mental game has been called into question. He can be rattled and give up goals in bunches. The window is closing for McCollum, and his status as a former first round pick will not mean much in the competition for ice time in Grand Rapids that will take place between he and Petr Mrazek.