Leaves are falling and temperatures are dropping, which means the much anticipated return of hockey. While there may be no NHL training camps this September, there are already games being played by many NHL prospects. Below is a rundown of some Red Wings prospects to watch during the upcoming season at each level of the game.
Forget the window, the sliding glass door of opportunity is wide open for Smith in 2012-13. Detroit has lost three of its top-six defensemen over the past two seasons, clearing the way for new, younger blood to be added to the lineup. Smith has paid his dues in the AHL over the past two seasons and is ready for NHL action. The question that remains is whether he is ready for a full season in the NHL, as Smith has played only 14 NHL games thus far. The lockout will force him back to Grand Rapids to open the year, but how well he adapts to the NHL will be a central storyline of the 2012-13 season for the Red Wings.
Gustav Nyquist, LW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Nyquist tallied seven points in 18 regular season NHL games in 2011-12, all the while displaying good chemistry with Detroit's top-line talent. It appears that Nyquist will get more ice time than the 10:35 he played per game in 2011-12, and with more ice time, the sky is the limit for his offensive production. He has great hockey sense, is adept at puck protection, and his shot is underrated. If he spends time on a line again with Pavel Datsyuk in 2012-13 his offensive output could explode.
Thomas McCollum, G, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
This may be less a prediction of a bounce back season than a proclamation that McCollum must have one to avoid having his window of opportunity close. McCollum has not been able to stick in the AHL for a full season over the past three years, due in large part to a goals allowed average that has consistently been over three and a save percentage that has yet to be over .900. He will face fierce competition this season from rising star Petr Mrazek, who dazzled at the 2012 World Junior Championships. McCollum must show improvement in 2012-13 or he may never live up to his status as a first round draft pick.
The Red Wings may be thin on defensemen at the NHL level, but their prospect pool is deep. Sproul improved by 21 points from 2010-11 to 2011-12, leading all OHL blueliners in goals last year with 23. He has quickly made a name for himself with a booming point shot. A true offensive-defenseman, he also possesses good vision and excels on the power play. His defensive game is still developing, but an additional season in the OHL should help him before moving up to the AHL and Grand Rapids in 2013-14. Do not expect to see him in the NHL any time soon, but when he does get there he will likely be a top-four defenseman and power-play specialist.
New Team in 2012-13
Andreas Athanasiou, LW, Barrie Colts (OHL)
Athanasiou watched his draft stock plummet from potential first-round pick to going 110th overall to Detroit in 2012. His greatest asset is his speed, though he also has good puckhandling ability and a penchant for finding the back of the net. He doubled his goal totals in the OHL with the London Knights from 11 in 2010-11 to 22 in 2011-12. That was not enough to keep him out of the doghouse, as he was a healthy scratch at times late in the season and through parts of London's playoff run. He will need to improve his consistency if he hopes to make an NHL roster, but he still has plenty of time to do so.
Like fellow 2012 Detroit pick Athanasiou, Frk watched his draft stock slide as the 2011-12 season progressed. Originally projected as an early first-round pick, Detroit selected Frk in the second round at 49th overall. A concussion at the beginning of the 2011-12 season kept him out of the lineup for months, and as unfortunate as that was for Frk, it may have been a blessing in disguise for Detroit. He has a phenomenal shot and good puck skills. He is capable of playing the point on the power play but needs to work on his self-control and not take ill-timed penalties. He will return to the QMJHL with the Mooseheads in 2012-13.
Top Amateur Prospect
Nick Jensen, D, St. Cloud State University Huskies (WCHA)
Like many rearguards in the Red Wings' pipeline, Jensen is an offensively-minded defenseman who is a speedy skater that excels at moving the puck. He only notched one more goal in 2011-12 than he did in 2010-11, but an increase by eight in his assists total indicates that he has acclimated well to the college game. Jensen enters his junior year at St. Cloud State in 2012-13 and should see time on both the penalty kill and power play. He will not reach the NHL until 2015-16 at the earliest, but if he continues to steadily progress and further develop his defensive game then there is likely a spot waiting for him with the Wings.
Ben Marshall, D, University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
It may seem strange to see a defenseman selected as a player poised for an offensive explosion, but Marshall's score-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude makes him the perfect candidate. Although he is only 5'9", Marshall has speed to evade defenders and the puck skills to match. He was able to find ice time as a freshman on a Minnesota team that reached the Frozen Four in 2011-12, so minutes should not be a limiting factor for him in 2012-13. If the opportunity presents itself, Marshall should be ready for a role on the power play where he has been used as a power-play quarterback in the USHL and high school.
Top European Prospect
Calle Jarnkrok, C, Brynas (SEL)
Jarnkrok is often compared to fellow countryman Henrik Zetterberg and for good reason. Like Zetterberg, he has fantastic playmaking ability and puck-possession skills but could also stand to shoot the puck more. He fits Detroit's system nicely, as he plays a solid defensive game that complements his ability to hold on to the puck and distribute it. Jarnkrok has all of the tools to develop into a top-six center in the NHL, but will need to work on his faceoff skills to be a truly elite player at the next level. He will spend another season with Brynas of the Swedish Elite League before coming to North America in 2013-14.
Alexei Marchenko, D, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Health concerns have held Marchenko back a few times, first in 2009-10 when he had to have his spleen removed and again in 2011-12 when a knee injury limited him to just 11 regular season and playoff games in the KHL. Health permitting, he should be in for a much more productive and lengthy 2012-13 season. Unlike many of Detroit's other blue line prospects, Marchenko projects as more of a defensive-defenseman. He has some offensive upside, but his skating and defensive zone abilities are more developed skills. Marchenko will play another KHL season with CSKA Moscow in 2012-13 before joining the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, barring any additional developmental setbacks.
Teemu Pulkkinen, RW, Jokerit (SM-liiga)
Pulkkinen may be the purest scorer of all Detroit's prospects. He boasts a wicked one-timer that often gets him compared with former Red Wing Brett Hull. His great shot, however, could not keep him from taking a step back in 2011-12. Pulkkinen had 37 points in 2011-12, 17 points lower than his total in 2010-11. His game was less consistent than during his rookie season, and he will need to find that consistency if he wants to be a member of the Red Wings in 2013-14. After showing up to Red Wings development camp in July in phenomenal shape it appears that Pulkkinen has dedicated himself to the game once more.