A paradigm shift occurred for the Detroit Red Wings after the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Gone were the days where Detroit would readily hand out early-round draft picks in exchange for veteran NHL talent. Instead, Detroit decided that they would need to hold on to their draft choices in order to build a prospect pool with skill and size that would help them compete in the new-look NHL.
The seeds planted during that lockout have started to bear fruit for the Red Wings. Brendan Smith and Gustav Nyquist are ready to make their mark on the NHL, while others such as Tomas Tatar and Joakim Andersson are looking to earn another call-up to the big club.
Nyquist is the most talented left wing in the Detroit system, as well as the forward prospect with the most potential. He has tremendous on-ice awareness, which benefits him both defensively and offensively. Nyquist is tough on the puck and has tremendously quick hands. He may not have top-end speed, but his puck skills compensate for this.
After Nyquist, the prospect with the next most potential is Tomas Tatar. He is looking to make it back to the NHL in 2012-13 after having spent nine games with the Red Wings in 2010-11. He lacks size but makes up for it in his willingness to go to the net, and his scoring touch bolsters his chances of once again making an NHL roster.
Detroit has additional talent with a penchant for scoring at left wing, albeit not quite as NHL-ready as the above two players. Marek Tvrdon may be on the lowest scoring team in the WHL's Western Conference, but that has not stopped him from producing at greater than a point-per-game pace. Tvrdon relies on size and skill to fill the score sheet, while Andreas Athanasiou utilizes his blinding speed to create scoring chances. Athanasiou has offensive upside, but if that does not continue to develop he could still make the NHL in a third or fourth line capacity because of the usefulness of his speed on the forecheck.
In Sweden, Rasmus Bodin is trying to get more consistent ice time in the SuperElit. He has great size and is a fairly good skater, but needs to develop an offensive game. The Red Wings expected more from Andrej Nestrasil and assigned him to the ECHL's Toledo Walleye in hopes that he can regain the confidence needed to regain a spot with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins.
Perhaps the Red Wings' thinnest forward position is up the middle, where Calle Jarnkrok is the only player who projects as a top-six forward. Jarnkrok is currently playing for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League and is one of the SEL's top fifteen scorers. He is often compared to fellow countryman Henrik Zetterberg, but it will likely be 2014-15 before he has a chance of becoming Zetterberg's teammate with the Wings.
Riley Sheahan, Joakim Andersson, Louis-Marc Aubry, Brent Raedeke, and Landon Ferraro are all currently plying their trade for the Grand Rapids Griffins. Sheahan has not showed the upside he was once believed to have, but his defensive game is developed enough that he may become a third or fourth line NHL center in the near future. Conversely, Andersson has developed a better offensive game than many thought he would and may be relied on as a third line NHL center who drives the net hard. Aubry is still filling out his frame and is very raw at this point. Raedeke needs to make his presence felt in 2012-13, as it is his final season of waiver exemption. He is a high energy player without much offensive upside. Ferraro has not yet matched the offensive skill he displayed prior to being drafted and may have to adjust his game to be more defensive-minded if he wishes to make the NHL.
Alan Quine and Philippe Hudon are both playing in the CHL in 2012-13 and also need to impress because they must sign by June 2013. Quine will be making up for lost time, as he did not play his first game of the season until November 1st due to a case of mononucleosis. Hudon already has more points in 16 QMJHL games (7) then he did in 34 games last season (5).
The most interesting story of this young season may be the curious case of Teemu Pulkkinen. After breaking the SM-liiga rookie record for assists in a single season in 2010-11 Pulkkinen has slumped, and his downturn in point production has been steep. He has a paltry five points in 18 games this season with Jokerit, who is middle of the pack in SM-liiga scoring.
Unlike Pulkkinen, Martin Frk has shown off his scoring touch early and often this season. He has shown that offseason knee surgery has not slowed him down at all, recording eight goals and 15 assists in 18 QMJHL games. He has yet to go more than two games without recording a point.
Tomas Jurco, Mitchell Callahan, and Trevor Parkes are all current Griffins. Jurco has top six NHL potential and is adjusting his game to the more competitive AHL after previously spending time in the QMJHL. Callahan may project as a role player, but his role on the Griffins as agitator is important. Parkes plays a similar role to Callahan and has already surpassed his two-goal total over 44 games last season with three goals in his first 10 games this season.
William Coetzee spent his first full AHL season with the Griffins in 2011-12 after splitting time between the ECHL and AHL in 2010-11. He is currently assigned to the Toledo Walleye and could find himself a Griffin once again if there is a 2012-13 NHL season and roster spots open.
When it comes to blueliners, the Red Wings are well stocked. Smith is an elite talent who plays in all situations for Grand Rapids and is ready to make the jump to being an everyday NHL player.
Adam Almqvist, Brian Lashoff, Gleason Fournier, and Max Nicastro also call Grand Rapids home for the time being. Almqvist is looking to adjust to the differences in the North American game in his rookie AHL season. Lashoff is the seasoned veteran of the group and though he does not have much offensive upside his steady game makes him a likely call up if the Red Wings run into injuries. Fournier did not spend the entirety of his rookie pro season in Grand Rapids but early indications are that he will stay with the club this season due to strong play. He is showing more physicality than he did in the past, an indicator that he worked on his weaknesses during the offseason. Nicastro is looking to improve his game during his rookie AHL campaign, though unlike Almqvist he is adjusting his game from the more defensive-minded NCAA.
The CHL is home to Detroit's two most highly-touted defense prospects after Smith, Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet. Sproul started his third season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds strong before falling victim to a broken arm that could sideline him for two months. Ouellet has been raising his profile recently, earning first star of the week honors in the QMJHL after notching eight points in three games. Richard Nedomlel is refining his game in the CHL as well. He projects as a steady, stay-at-home defenseman and has good size that he uses to his advantage.
Two prospects playing in Europe are Mattias Backman and Alexei Marchenko. Marchenko is the Red Wing's lone prospect in the KHL and has recently seen a three-fold increase in his ice time for CSKA Moscow. Backman, a member of the Swedish Elite League's Linkoping HC, has been logging major minutes and is the leading scorer among defensemen on his team.
In the NCAA, Ben Marshall and Nick Jensen are both playing a large part in their team's respective success. Marshall is one of the Minnesota Golden Gophers' top six defensemen, though he has also been slotted in as a winger on the second line. He lacks size, and his future may be at forward if his defensive game does not develop. Jensen was a preseason All-WCHA selection and has taken on a greater leadership position with St. Cloud State.
Mike McKee and James De Haas, two 2012 draft picks, are both playing at the Junior 'A' level in 2012-13. McKee is a big, bruising defender and will attend Western Michigan University starting in 2013-14. De Haas is playing for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL and was named to Team Canada West for the World Junior 'A' Challenge. He will attend Clarkson University in 2013-14.
Unlike their supply of defensemen, the goaltender cupboard is almost bare for the Red Wings.
The bright spot so far has been the meteoric rise of Petr Mrazek. After making a name for himself at the 2012 World Junior Championship, Mrazek turned pro this year and was initially assigned to the ECHL's Toledo Walleye. Collective struggles by Jordan Pearce and Thomas McCollum have led to Mrazek being called up to Grand Rapids after just three games in a Walleye sweater.
Speaking of McCollum, the former first round pick has battled Mrazek for ice time in what may be the most important season of his career. He needs to show more consistency to remain a part of Detroit's long term plans.
Third round draft pick in 2012 Jake Paterson is tending the net for the CHL's Saginaw Spirit. His statistics are not fantastic and he has appeared inconsistent, but he has faced a lot of shots and been left to fend for himself at times. He will be given plenty of time to improve and refine his game.