Detroit Red Wings minor league system ready to graduate prospects to the big club

By Adam Schnepp
Tomas Tatar - Detroit Red Wings

Photo: The Detroit Red Wings have several minor league prospects who are likely to crack the NHL lineup out of training camp, including Slovakian winger Tomas Tatar. (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

 
The beginning of the 2012-13 AHL season was not kind to the Grand Rapids Griffins. On November 2nd they were 2-4-1-1 and languishing, lacking strong defensive play and goaltending. Enter Petr Mrazek, who ripped off six consecutive wins and seemed to right the  ship for the Griffins. As of January 7th, Grand Rapids was 20-10-1-2 and atop the Midwest division.

As for the ECHL, the Toledo Walleye have been near the top of the standing as well. With 42 points through 36 games, they have pulled into a tie with the North Division-leading Cincinnati Cyclones.

AHL

Petr Mrazek, G, 20

Mrazek's transition from OHL to AHL has been better than seamless; it has been one for the record books. His 6-0 start was the best ever for a Grand Rapids goaltender, and he has been stellar since joining the Griffins in early November.

The Griffins have benefited from Mrazek's athleticism and quickness. He boasts a .921 save percentage and 2.10 goals against average, good enough for fifth in the AHL, and a 12-3-1 record in 16 appearances. He is on another hot streak, winning five of his last six starts and giving up no more than two goals in each of his last nine games. While Mrazek still has work to do from a technical standpoint, there is no doubting that he has the raw skill to play in the NHL.

His ascension from quality junior prospect to one of the Red Wings' top five overall prospects has been meteoric, and Mrazek may see NHL duty sooner than other goaltenders who have worked their way through the Detroit system. Current NHL starter Jimmy Howard's contract expires at the end of the 2012-13 season and he may be in line for a greater pay raise than the Red Wings can afford to give him. Early returns are positive for Mrazek, but only time will tell whether he can be a starter for Detroit in the future.

Thomas McCollum, G, 23

The one time "goaltender of the future" in Detroit now seems destined to never meet his initial billing. McCollum has been relegated to back-up duty in Grand Rapids, and while his 2.53 goals against average and .906 save percentage are better than the past season's, they still fail to impress. Petr Mrazek has leapfrogged McCollum both on the Grand Rapids depth chart and on the Red Wings' organizational list of prospects, leaving the writing on the wall for McCollum. He may yet prove his talent at the AHL level, but likely will not be more than a back up at the NHL level.

Brendan Smith, D, 23

Long heralded as the Wings' most NHL-ready prospect, Smith has done nothing this season to relinquish that title. He will still be on the NHL roster when the NHL season begins and will be able to contribute both offensively and defensively.

His season started a bit slowly but Smith has since displayed the smooth skating, offensive acumen, and good shot that garnered him attention over the past few seasons. He leads the team's defensemen with five goals and 20 points through 32 games and is among the team leaders with a plus-nine rating. Smith is a fixture on the Griffins' first unit power play, though he is conspicuously absent from Grand Rapids' penalty kill. This is indicative of how his talent is skewed, though the improvement in his defensive game has been substantial enough to make him a no-brainer for a top-four NHL job.

Adam Almquist, D, 21

Detroit wanted to see how Almquist's game would translate to North American ice dimensions, and one has to imagine that they are pleasantly surprised with the results. Almquist's three goals are second most among Grand Rapids defensemen, and his twelve points places him third. He has earned time on the second power-play unit, while also improving his abilities in the defensive zone.

Brian Lashoff, D, 22

Having played for the Griffins since 2008-09, Lashoff is something of a veteran in Grand Rapids. During the last five seasons he has progressed from an undrafted free agent just looking for an opportunity to being a realistic choice for a call-up should the Red Wings need help on the blue line.

Lashoff plays a solid, responsible defensive game and eats up minutes on the penalty kill. He often draws comparisons to former Red Wing Brad Stuart, and while he may not quite have the same talent level as Stuart, he could soon turn into a steady bottom-pair defenseman for Detroit.

Gleason Fournier, D, 21

Being sent down to Toledo does not bode well for any prospect but being sent down three times, as Fournier has been during the 2012-13 season, is especially telling. Fournier has only played four games for Grand Rapids this season and went scoreless in his 10 ECHL games with the Walleye. He has great skating ability but has not been able to put together his defensive game enough to find regular minutes in the Griffins lineup. There may be an opportunity for Fournier to show what he can do at the AHL level now that the lockout is settled and players like Brendan Smith will be out of the Griffins lineup.

Riley Sheahan, C, 21

Off the ice, Sheahan has raised questions once thought answered after being arrested for drunk driving, his second alcohol related offense. The first was a public intoxication charge during his freshman season at Notre Dame.

On the ice, Sheahan has provided answers to nagging questions that were unanswered prior to the 2012-13 season. Does he possess the scoring touch the organization thought he had when they scouted him at Notre Dame, and can he play on special teams? The answer to both is yes.

Sheahan started the season slowly, recording only one point in October and four points in November. In December, Sheahan recorded seven points and found time on both the power play and penalty kill. He has continued that strong play in January with two goals, two assists in the team's first three games of 2013. Though he is not yet ready for the NHL, his versatility, size, and scoring ability should land him a job on the Red Wings' third or fourth line in the next few seasons.

Joakim Andersson, C, 23

Andersson has flown under the radar to some degree, but he is one of the Griffins that Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock feels is currently NHL ready. A 6'2 center who will likely end up as a third or fourth line NHL player, Andersson possesses a combination of good hands and toughness that have landed him a spot on Grand Rapids' power play.

Taken 88th overall in the 2007 draft, Andersson has seen his stock steadily rise. He initially struggled in the AHL before having a breakout 51 point 2011-12 campaign, continuing that pace this year with eight goals and 17 points in 28 games. Andersson has also shown leadership ability, having been named an alternate captain in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. He figures to have a good chance of making the Red Wings at training camp.

Landon Ferraro, C, 21

The most interesting storyline in Grand Rapids during the 2012-13 season may be that of Landon Ferraro. Entering the season it appeared that he may never regain the scoring touch he displayed during his junior career. Those fears have been assuaged by a 33 game stretch that has seen Ferraro record 25 points, five more than he had in 56 AHL games in 2011-12.

Much like Riley Sheahan, Ferraro is used on both the Griffins' power play and penalty kill. His rekindled offensive abilities and solid defensive play mean that he could still become the third or fourth line center that the Red Wings drafted him to be.

Louis-Marc Aubry, C, 21

Point production has not been a strong suit of Aubry's during the 2012-13 campaign. He produced two points in October and two points in November and then followed that up with a December that saw him go pointless. To be fair, Aubry was not drafted because of his scoring ability. He has good enough hockey sense that he has skated in 30 games for the Griffins so far. Though his defensive game and attention to detail is good enough to get him into games, it remains to be seen whether his inability to score means that he will be relegated to the role of a career AHL player.

Brent Raedeke, C, 22

Raedeke was supposed to take a step forward in the 2012-13 season after improving slowly over his first two AHL seasons. Instead he seems to have taken a step backwards, appearing in only 18 games for the Griffins, and he was briefly sent down to Toledo at the end of December after appearing in only three AHL games that month.

He works hard and skates well, but Raedeke has not had a good run of late with only one point and  12 appearances since November 3rd. The end of the lockout could give him a chance to reestablish himself in Grand Rapids, but he has been unable to carve out a consistent role with the club of late.

Tomas Jurco, RW, 20

Made famous by his incredible YouTube videos, fans likely thought they would see more highlight reel moments from Jurco in the 2012-13 season than they have received to this point.

Jurco has immense offensive upside including incredible hands, but he has only potted four goals and five assists in 32 games. Time is on Jurco's side, as 2012-13 is his first professional season. The Red Wings will allow Jurco the time needed to develop, but a good step forward would be seeing if he can work his way onto one of Grand Rapids' power play units.

Mitchell Callahan, RW, 21

Energy and grit are Callahan's specialty, and he brings them every game. He has a well-developed defensive game that has garnered him penalty kill minutes, but he lacks scoring ability with only one goal and four points in 28 games. Callahan likely will not make the NHL, in part because of Detroit's logjam of NHL-caliber forwards and in part because of his questionable skating and scoring. Regardless of his NHL future, Callahan is a valuable piece of the puzzle in Grand Rapids.

Trevor Parkes, RW, 21

The jury is still out on Parkes. He has been in and out of the Griffins' lineup, having played in 23 games during the 2012-13 season. He was a big time scorer in the QMJHL but that has yet to translate to points at the AHL level, having notched only 14 over 67 AHL games in 2011-12 and 2012-13. At 6'2 Parkes has NHL size and plays a physical game, but it has not been enough to earn him regular playing time with Grand Rapids.

Gustav Nyquist, LW, 23

The 2011-12 season showed that Nyquist was already an NHL-caliber player and the 2012-13 season has done nothing to change that. He can skate, score, and defend with the best in the AHL and is clearly ready to join the Red Wings when the NHL resumes play. In the meantime Nyquist has found ice time on the Griffins' power play while also scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace. He leads the team with 32 points and is tied for second with 12 goals through 33 games this season. His plus-10 rating is also tied for the team lead as Nyquist has paced the club at both ends of the rink.

Tomas Tatar, LW, 22

Tatar got his first taste of life in the NHL during the 2010-11 season and if he continues to play the way he has during the 2012-13 season then that will not be his last. Tatar can flat-out score and is not afraid to go to the difficult parts of the ice to generate his scoring chances despite being on the small side at 5'10. He leads the team with 13 goals and is second with 29 points in 33 games. He has been a primary producer in the Grand Rapids offense, and his six power play goals and 105 shots this season also lead the squad. Tatar will end up as a top-six forward assuming his offensive skill translates to the NHL.

Andrej Nestrasil, LW, 21

With the exception of a couple weeks spent with Grand Rapids in the middle of December and early January, Nestrasil has spent most of his 2012-13 season in the ECHL. He is having a better season in 2012-13 than he did in 2011-12, leading the Walleye in scoring with 31 points in 31 ECHL games already this season and putting up points in 11 consecutive games from November 30th through the end of 2012. Nestrasil is not afraid to go to the tough spots on the ice to generate offensive opportunities, and this ability to take punishment and still create will help him if he sees more ice time in the AHL during his most recent call-up.

ECHL

Max Nicastro, D, 22

Nicastro can move well for a large framed player, but that was not enough to keep him at the AHL level. Sent down to the ECHL for five days at the end of November and again on December 27, Nicastro has already played more ECHL game (eight) than he has AHL games (five). His development may be better served by playing in the ECHL instead of sitting in the press box in the AHL during his first professional season. He has registered one goal and four points in eight games so far this season with the Toledo Walleye.

William Coetzee, RW, 22

A breakout 2009-10 campaign with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels earned Willie Coetzee a spot in the Detroit organization. Since then, however, things have not gone exactly as planned. Parts of two AHL seasons saw Coetzee largely lose his scoring touch, so the Red Wings opted instead to have Coetzee start the 2012-13 season with the Toledo Walleye.

So far that decision has proved wise, as Coetzee is scoring at virtually a point-per-game pace with 14 goals and 31 points in 32 games. He has yet to skate in a game at the AHL level as it appears that giving Coetzee time to regain his confidence in the ECHL may be the best move for his longterm development.

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