Forward depth highlights Red Wings talent pool

By Matthew Zarb
Photo: Despite his lack of scoring at the NCAA level, Riley Sheahan remains a promising prospect in the Wings system. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Defenseman Brendan Smith takes over as the Red Wing’s top prospect, though a number of European forwards are nipping at Smith’s heels. The Wing’s prospect list is fairly balanced, consisting mostly of smallish, quick forwards and mobile, offensive defensemen. If the Wing’s pipeline has any weakness, it is in net, where top goalie prospect Thomas McCollum has faltered and Daniel Larsson returned to Sweden. Several of the Wings prospects have already made their first NHL appearances this season, which provides invaluable experience. But with most of the Wing’s NHL blueline over, sometimes well over, 30, the need for NHL-ready blueliners should come earlier than for the forwards. Solidifying the situation in goal will also be an area of concern looking ahead.

1. (2) Brendan Smith, D, 8.0 C
Acquired: 1st Round, 27th overall, 2007

Bringing a combination of size, speed, and skill that has been largely absent from Detroit’s blue line corps for some time, former Wisconsin Badger Brendan Smith takes over as the Red Wing’s prospect list. After forgoing his senior year eligibility, Smith burst out of the gates this year with the AHL‘s Grand Rapids Griffins. Standing amongst the leaders in both rookie and defensemen scoring early this season, Smith enjoyed an excellent first half of the season, culminating in his selection to the AHL All-Star Game. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury forced Smith to miss the All-Star Game, along with half the month of January. Since his return, Smith’s overall play has taken a hit. Whether through lingering effects of his injury or from the "wall" many former collegians hit once the pro season extends beyond that of the collegiate ranks, Smith has not been the same player as he was earlier in the year. Even with the slight downwturn, Smith’s potential remains high, and separates him from all other Wings blue line prospects. Wings brass would probably prefer to bring Smith along slowly, but he could see NHL ice time as early as 2011-12.

2. (3) Tomas Tatar, C, 7.5 C
Acquired: 2nd Round, 60th overall, 2009

Perhaps there’s no equivalent in Slovak for "sophomore slump", but regardless, Tomas Tatar is showing that he doesn’t know the meaning of that term. After a promising 2009-10 season for Grand Rapids, Tatar has elevated his game this season, posting 18 goals and 28 assists in 54 AHL matches in 2010-11. When the injury bug bit the Red Wings in December, Tatar was rewarded with a nine-game stretch with Detroit. Often noted by Wing’s scouts for his passion and enthusiasm, Tatar’s emotional response to his first and only NHL goal showed just how much this youngster enjoys being a hockey player. Upon his return to the Griffins, Tatar responded by picking up where he left off, and has continued to score at a point-per-game pace through February. With an abundance of speed and hockey sense, Tatar did not look out of place during his NHL stint, and perhaps the only factor working against him is his small size. With another off-season working out with the Red Wings training staff, Tatar should acquire some additional muscle, and perhaps another, longer look with the parent club next season.

3. (6) Jan Mursak, LW, 7.0 C
Acquired: 6th Round, 182nd overall, 2006

Jan Mursak has improved to the point where he’s become the Red Wing’s top option for injury recall duty, a testament to his perseverance. Mursak has come a long way from his first pro season, where he was arguably too physically immature to compete properly. With a bit of bulking up, he has shown a willingness to battle for pucks, shedding the reputation as a soft, perimeter player that he acquired while playing in the OHL. While he may be better suited to a scoring role, Mursak has shown that he can contribute even on a checking line, where his quickness allows him to chase down loose pucks. While the shuttling between Grand Rapids and Detroit may be affecting his comfort level, Mursak has been a steady point producer in the AHL this year, posting 11 goals and 20 assists in 45 Griffins games. In addition, Mursak appeared in 18 NHL games, where he posted a single point, his first NHL goal. Assuming that he is re-signed by the Wings this offseason, Mursak should be one of the favorites for any open spots in training camp next season.

4. (4) Gustav Nyquist, C, 7.5 D
Acquired: 4th Round, 121st overall, 2008

Although his scoring pace is down a bit from last season, Gustav Nyqvist remains amongst the most dangerous offensive forwards in collegiate hockey. Recently named Hockey East’s Player of the Month for February, Nyqvist once again leads the Black Bears in scoring, with 17 goals and 29 assists for 46 points in 34 games. Though still physically small by NHL standards, Nyqvist’s innate talent and intensity continue to make him one of the Wing’s most exciting prospects. It will be an interesting off-season, as Nyqvist will have to decide whether he’d be better served forgoing his senior year at Maine and entering the pro ranks, although as a collegian, there is no real rush to sign him to a contract. Whether he stays in Orono for another year or heads to Grand Rapids, Nyqvist will still be looking at more strength training. While physical play is not an integral part of the slick Swede’s game, Nyqvist will need to acclimate himself to the pro game, where his speed and shiftiness won’t always be enough to allow him to ply his trade. Nyqvist likely won’t be a factor in the Red Wing’s lineup for at least another two seasons.

5. (11) Teemu Pulkkinen, LW, 8.0 D
Acquired: 4th Round, 111th overall, 2010

With dominating performances in both the Finnish SM-Liiga and this past World Junior Championship, Teemu Pulkkinen has looked every bit the first-round talent he was projected to be two years ago. Putting an injury-plagued 2009-10 season behind him, Pulkkinen currently resides amongst the top ten scorers in Finland‘s top league, posting 18 goals and 36 helpers for an impressive 54 points. Although Finland‘s 2011 WJC team was somewhat of a disappointment, finishing out of the medals, it was through no fault of Pulkkinen, who tallied nine points in six tournament matches. Pulkkinen’s elite shooting skill, instinctive hockey sense, and less-than-stellar skating seem to point towards his development into an opportunistic sniper at the pro level, but the Red Wings hope he can be much more than that. Still only a teenager, Pulkkinen’s three main weaknesses; skating, size, and defensive accumen, are all correctable to a degree. Having just recently signed a two-year extension with Jokerit, Pulkkinen will have plenty of time to work on his foot speed and increase his strength. As the SM-Liiga is considered by many to be the European league most similar to NHL-style hockey, Pulkkinen will face many of the same physical challenges that North American players contend with, which should ease the learning curve. Pulkkinen’s lethal shot, lauded as one of the best, could also use some tweaking, as he has yet to show the quick release required around NHL nets. Having broken his wrist in 2009-10, perhaps his shot speed suffered as a result. All in all, though, Pulkkinen has Wing’s management looking like their 2010 fourth-rounder could be another steal.

6. (5) Riley Sheahan, C, 7.0 C
Acquired: 1st Round, 21st overall, 2010

Much like his first year at Notre Dame, Riley Sheahan struggled to put points on the board in 2010-11. While Sheahan cannot be pleased that he will barely surpass his freshman totals, but he has managed to contribute in other ways and continues to get ice time in Notre Dame’s defense-first system. Sheahan’s skating and ability to play a defensively conscientious style are still above-average, but rediscovering his scoring touch will have to be a priority at some point. Invited to training camp for the Canadian World Junior entry, Sheahan played effectively in the team’s exhibition series, and survived until the final cuts were made. Perhaps Sheahan’s speed and defensive awareness might’ve come in handy in the final game against Russia, where the Canadian’s checking system collapsed in the face of the shifty Russian forwards, but Sheahan seemed satisfied that he’d put forth his best effort in tryouts. Following his freshman year at Notre Dame, there was talk of Sheahan switching over to major junior, where his rights are held by the OHL‘s Erie Otters, but Sheahan returned to the Fighting Irish. Perhaps those discussions will re-emerge, but what is imperative is that Sheahan show that he can be more than an effective defensive forward in 2011-12.

7. (10) Calle Jarnkrok, C, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Round, 51st overall, 2010

Undersized, swift-skating, offensively skilled Swedish forward. Sound familiar? Those attributes were once attributed to the Red Wing’s Henrik Zetterberg, but they are also applicable to current Wing’s draftee Calle Jarnkrok. Considering that Jarnkrok considers Zetterberg his idol, the comparisons are considered most welcome. Yes, Jarnkrok has a lot of physical maturation ahead of him, and the NHL is still several years away, but already the young Swede has shown that he can compete effectively, both in Sweden‘s Elitserien and against his peers at the recent World Junior Championships. With a very respectable 11 goals and 26 assists for Brynas, Jarnkrok was nominated for the Rookie of the Year award. But his performance at the WJC, on the disappointing Swedish entry, also drew praise. Playing a style custom-built for Detroit’s system, Jarnkrok shows great skill at controlling the puck and making smart passes. His overall hockey sense, simply making intelligent plays, may be his most favorable attribute. Still, there’s plenty of work to be done, especially in the training room, before Jarnkrok can factor into the Red Wings plans. Under contract for another year at Brynas, Jarnkrok will benefit from the Wing’s patient development regime, giving him plenty of time to become NHL-ready.

8. (12) Andrej Nestrasil, C, 7.5 D
Acquired: 3rd Round, 75th overall, 2009

Traded to the QMJHL‘s Prince Edward Island Rocket prior to the start of the season, big Czech Andrei Nestrasil enjoyed an excellent start this year. Amongst the top scorers in the Quebec League up until the break for the WJC, Nestrasil has dropped off in his production since the tournament. At the World Juniors themselves, Nestrasil had a somewhat disappointing tournament, potting only a single goal and two assists for the eventual seventh-place Czech entry. Playing mostly left wing for the Rocket, Nestrasil is second in team scoring, and continues to use his size to good effect without taking an undue amount of penalty minutes. Though his scoring pace is at about the same as the previous season, another year of experience, without any regression, can still be considered a plus. Nestrasil still has to work on his skating, which is adequate but certainly not NHL quality. His deft hands and ability to camp out in front of opposing netminders brings to mind Tomas Holmstrom, although Nestrasil has a long road ahead before he is in a position to become the new "Demolition Man" for the Red Wings. Nestrasil remains unsigned, and the Wings will need to do so before June 1st or surrender his rights.

9. (9) Landon Ferraro, C, 7.0 D
Acquired: 2nd Round, 32nd overall, 2009

Perhaps no Red Wing prospect has had a stretch of bad luck as Landon Ferraro. Since being chosen in the second round in 2009, Ferraro has been benched by his former coach in Red Deer, suffered a host of injuries, and has not progressed much, if at all, as a result. Traded to the Everett Silvertips, Ferraro was named captain prior to the 2010-11 season, and the season looked promising, culminating in Ferraro signing his entry-level contract with Detroit in November. After that, it has mostly been an uphill struggle for the youngster. The overall lack of production may be attributed to the lingering effects of Ferraro’s various injuries, including the hernia which doctors discovered in January, and subsequently performed surgery on. Only very recently returned to the ice, Ferraro needs to stay healthy and grind through the remainder of this season. Having signed an entry-level deal, Ferraro will report to the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins next season, with hope of putting his development back on track. He will need to put the disappointment of his junior career behind him, and work on keeping himself in one piece long enough to get an accurate read on his future. When healthy, Ferraro’s bundle of skills is exceptional, but with two consecutive "lost" seasons, he certainly has something to prove.

10. (NR) Mitchell Callahan, RW, 6.0 B
Acquired: 6th Round, 180th overall, 2009

Making the biggest jump up the prospect list, Kelowna Rockets winger Mitch Callahan has surprised most everyone by scoring at a pace which will double his totals from a year ago. Drafted on the basis of his potential to become an agitating checking forward, Callahan has shown that he can put points on the board when given the opportunity. While he still plays with an irritating edge, Callahan has cut down on his penalty minutes, realizing that he’s more valuable on the ice than off it. Not originally expected to be in the mix for the U.S. World Junior team, Callahan nevertheless worked himself onto the final roster sent to Buffalo. While he played somewhat sparingly, he did manage to score a goal in the tournament. Callahan still projects as a bottom-six energy player, but his offensive improvement brings an added element to his resumé. As one of the very few players the Wings have under contract that are willing and able to fight, Callahan may have just the right mix of tools to find himself in the NHL sooner than expected.

11. (8) Daniel Larsson, G, 7.0 D
Acquired: 3rd Round, 92nd overall, 2006

Refusing to spend another year in the AHL, despite a reasonable expectation that he’d be the Griffin’s #1 starter, goaltender Daniel Larsson signed a contract with HV71 in his native Sweden. While the Red Wings would certainly have preferred that Larsson stay in North America, Larsson has performed very well this season, with a 2.53 goals against average and sparkling .917 save percentage through 45 Eliteserien matches. Larsson’s spot on this list is based on his obvious talents, which are typical for a "small" goalie: good lateral movement, athleticism, and a quick glove hand. However, as Larsson is currently a restricted free agent, there is no guarantee that he will ever play another game for the Wings or their affiliates. Larsson was quick to point out that his two-year deal with HV71 included an out clause after this season, which leaves the door open for a North American return. However, Larsson would likely only come back if he was guaranteed a spot on the Wing’s NHL roster. It remains to be seen what the Red Wings plan to do with regards to Larsson, given that he is likely their most advanced goaltending prospects at this point.

12. (14) Cory Emmerton, C, 6.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Round, 41st overall, 2006

Time may be running out for Cory Emmerton to stake his place in the Red Wing’s future plans. Though he has performed much better for Grand Rapids this season, nearly matching his point totals from a year ago, it has not been the breakthrough year he had to be hoping for. On the bright side, however, Emmerton was recalled on January 22nd, and appeared in two Red Wings games, and joined several of the Wing’s prospects in scoring their first NHL goals this season. Emmerton’s speed is simply not at a level of fellow prospects Mursak and Tatar, so his margin for error is much thinner, as he simply cannot correct mistakes on the fly as quickly. Emmerton is not ideally suited for a checking role, though he does play the responsible defensive style that all Red Wings are expected to embrace. A strong finish to the 2010-11 season will determine if Emmerton is retained, as his entry-level contract expires at season’s end. Emmerton gives an honest effort, but has yet to take the step to the next level that he was looking for.

13. (7) Thomas McCollum, G, 7.0 D
Acquired: 1st Round, 30th overall, 2008

If Landon Ferraro is the Wing’s poster-boy for bad luck, Thomas McCollum would be the flagbearer for frustration. With a clear opportunity to seize the number one netminder job in Grand Rapids, due to Daniel Larsson’s departure and a lack of other options, McCollum has been unable to seize the moment. Steadily displaced by other netminders, McCollum has slid all the way down to the ECHL‘s Toledo Walleye, where he has played somewhat better against lesser competition. Though undeniably talented, McCollum’s problems seem to be mostly related to his confidence level, and that has likely taken a beating this season, with the mediocre play and demotions he has endured. While sitting in favor of a veteran like Joey MacDonald is one thing, McCollum has even been bypassed by unheralded free-agent signing Jordan Pearce, who was brought in originally only to provide depth. A serious dose of confidence-rebuilding and coaching will be necessary before McCollum can move forward and live up to his billing. with another year left on his entry-level contract, McCollum does have some time to right his listing ship, but positive progress next season is an imperative. With an .881 save percentage and a goals against average at 3.18, McCollum’s numbers are simply not good enough for a first-round level talent.

14. (NR) Benjamin Marshall, D, 7.5 D
Acquired: 7th Round, 201st overall, 2010

Blue line waterbug Ben Marshall was a classic late-round longshot, with high upside but obvious shortcomings. The small, slick defenseman made the transition from Minnesota high school competition to the USHL‘s Omaha Lancers, and has done fairly well. Marshall’s game, which is offensive minded, has translated fairly well even in the typically low-scoring USHL.

Leading all Lancer blueliners in points, with seven goals and 17 assists for 24 points in 44 games, Marshall also leads the team in plus/minus, with an impressive plus-22. While the offensive numbers are impressive, Marshall still faces the reality that his physical tools are held in a very small toolbox. At only 5’9 and 160lbs, Marshall will likely have difficulty facing much bigger opposing forwards, especially when he graduates to the University of Minnnesta next season. Given his size and obvious offensive talent, it begs the question of whether Marshall can make it as a defenseman.

15. (NR) Petr Mrazek, G, 6.5 C
Acquired: 5th Round, 141st overall, 2010

In his second season of North American major junior hockey, Czech netminder Petr Mrazek has put up very good numbers as the Ottawa 67’s top goalie. Sporting a 31-15-3 record, 2.83 GAA and excellent .921 save percentage, Mrazek has backstopped the 67’s to the top of the OHL‘s East Division lead. Mrazek isn’t the most technical goalie, relying on his athleticism rather than technique, but what he does have is an abundance of confidence. Mrazek’s compete level pushes him to excel, and the results thus far are very promising. While lacking the pure talent of a Thomas McCollum, Mrazek nevertheless gets the job done, and recovers quickly from surrendering bad goals, which is an underrated aspect of goaltending. While Mrazek has proved he has the mental makeup to be a successful starting goalie, he will have to keep that focus while learning the finer points of manning a goal-crease. The trick with goalies like Mrazek is teaching them to better play angles without defusing the instinctive skills that have served them in the past. Another year in major junior is looking likely, though the though the somewhat unsettled goalie situation for the Wings may cause a change in plans. Given the Wing’s preference to over-ripen prospects, Mrazek is still several seasons away from a shot in the NHL, giving him plenty of time to develop properly.

16. (NR) Trevor Parkes, RW, 6.5 B
Acquired: free agent, 2010

A classic "underdog", Quebec League winger Trevor Parkes earned himself a free-agent deal following a promising tryout at the Wings 2010 rookie camp. Parkes has shown that last season’s numbers with the Montreal Juniors were no fluke, as he has posted even better numbers this season. The 19-year-old has shown a goal-scorer’s mentality, driving the net fearlessly and using his soft hands to pot 29 goals and 27 helpers this season. Parkes still has a long way to go, as his physical attributes need improvement, especially his strength. But he does not back down from traffic and will throw checks with abandon, despite his lack of heft. The part of his game that needs little improvement is his work ethic and drive, as he has basically willed himself from an unknown, undrafted by major junior teams, to having a contract with one of the eminent franchises in the NHL.

17. (18) Gleason Fournier, D, 6.0 C
Acquired: 3rd Round, 90th overall, 2009

In his fourth and final year of major junior, Rimouski Oceanic blueliner Gleason Fournier remains an effective offensive defenseman, though his stats are behind last year’s totals by a bit. With 11 goals and 28 assists in 50 games, Fournier continues to contribute for one of the Quebec League’s also-rans, utilizing his graceful skating and passing accumen to good effect. Fournier faces the same challenge of many of the Red Wings prospects in that he needs to add serious amounts of strength and weight before he can be seriously considered for NHL action. His defensive shortcomings are related to his lack of strength, as he is often simply physically overmatched by bigger, heavier forwards in the defensive zone. If Fournier is willing to put in the time conditioning himself, he could be an intriguing prospect, as the Wings believe that speed kills, and Fournier has it in spades. Fournier needs to be signed by June, but seeing how he can handle the rigors of the pro game will give a better read on his development ceiling.

18. (13) Adam Almqvist, D, 7.0 D
Acquired: 7th Round, 210th overall, 2009

Toiling in his first full season in the Swedish Elite League, Almqvist remains an intriguing player to watch, but it is obvious that much more work is ahead. Held goal-less this season, Almqvist did post 16 helpers in 52 games for HV71, where he played in front of fellow Wings draftee Daniel Larsson. Almqvist’s cerebral approach to the game lets him anticipate plays on the ice, and makes him a natural powerplay quarterback. However, in a phrase that might as well be painted on the walls of the Red Wings scouting department, he needs to add much more weight and strength. Simply put, Almqvist is physically immature; rail-thin and standing under 6′ tall. If his body ever comes close to catching up with his skill set, the Red Wings could have themselves an incredible last round steal. With no signing deadline in place for European players, Almqvist can be safely stashed away in Sweden indefinitely, and it is obvious that he is a long term project. A breakthrough season next year could increase the possibility of trying his hand in North America, but the Wings will likely be very patient with the young blueliner.

19. (19) Joakim Andersson, C, 6.0 B
Acquired: 3rd Round, 88th overall, 2007

Though a bit more scoring was probably expected, big-bodied Swede Joakim Andersson has seen plenty of ice time in Grand Rapids this year, his first in North America. Viewed first and forefost as a defensive forward, Andersson does posses a fair amount of offensive creativity, but his priority is his checking and board play. Though touted as having above-average skill when taking draws, he will need to show better than he has this season. If not, a move to the wing may be in order, much like the Red Wings did with the player that Andersson is most often compared to, Johan Franzen. Whether Andersson can become a power forward is debatable, as his scoring totals thus far have been mediocre at best. With only 16 assists in 52 games, Andersson has had much impact on the scoresheet, but his willingness to play a robust, hard-hitting game make him stand out among the other Red Wings forward prospects. Already 22 years old, Andersson will need to improve quickly if he’s to seize a roster spot in Detroit, but for now, working on his biggest liability, his lack of foot speed and quickness, should be the priority. Signed through 2013, Andersson should return to Grand Rapids next season and fill the role of second-line center, unless Wing’s management decides to experiment and try him on the wing.

20. (NR) Louis-Marc Aubry, C, 5.5 B
Acquired: 3rd Round, 81st overall, 2010

Louis-Marc Aubry appears on this list based on his excellent, though abbreviated, body of work early this season. With 12 goals and nine assists in the first 30 games this season, Aubry looked to have taken steps towards a breakthrough year, his third with the Montréal Juniors of the QMJHL. Unfortunately for Aubry, a broken hand felled him in December, and he only returned to action in late February. It remains to be seen if the injury will be a serious setback for the 19-year-old, who already faced the steep learning curve imposed by his late growth spurt. Now topping out at 6’4, but only about 190 lbs, Aubry has a lot of work to do to fill out his frame, though his skating is already impressive for a big kid. Putting the lost injury time behind him and getting himself in better shape should set the stage for an excellent final season of juniors next year. Once his weight and coordination fill out, Aubry could project as the kind of checking center that NHL teams dream about; a defensively responsible, physical player who also can contribute offensively at times. Time in the weight room, and maybe a few extra orders of poutìne, should alleviate his physical issues, but Aubry is definitely on the right track with his development.