Detroit Red Wings prospects put organizational reputation to the test in 2015-16

By Ryan Womeldorf
Vili Saarijarvi - Detroit Red Wings

Photo: Detroit prospect Vili Saarijarvi is off to a promising start to his season with the Flint Firebirds of the OHL (courtesy of Graig Abel/Getty Images)



The Detroit Red Wings find themselves in a little bit of a different position that we are used to seeing them. Granted, they still consistently find regular season success and make the playoffs in the face of long odds, but the veteran core is finding itself being more and more minimized.

The youth movement in Detroit has already gotten underway, thanks to exciting players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. Behind them, there are a plethora of enticing prospects that the Red Wings will be leaning heavily on in the future.

The Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL in particular is chock-full of prospects on the verge. Teemu Pulkkinen, Anthony Mantha, Ryan Sproul and Alexey Marchenko are just a few of the names that have had positive impacts at the AHL level and could see the ice at the Joe Louis Arena as soon as 2015-16.


Top Pro Prospect

Dylan Larkin, C, Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

Since being selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Larkin has had a quick ascension to the top of the Red Wings’ prospect list and with very good reason. Having a dynamite freshman season at the University of Michigan – where he posted 15 goals and 47 points in 35 games for the Wolverines – gave Larkin the green light to make the jump to the professional level for 2015-16.

Though the Red Wings are said to be going against tradition by having 19-year-old Larkin in the NHL already, the fact is that they have not had the luxury of ready prospects in the past. Whether Larkin finds his groove early and puts up points remains to be seen, but he starts the season on the top line. He has a relatively small window to show that this trajectory is sustainable and must outplay at least Landon Ferraro to stick, but his career so far gives reason for optimism.

Bounceback Pro Prospect

Ryan Sproul, D, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)

After a solid 2013-14 campaign, his first in the pros, in which he posted 11 goals and 32 points, Sproul took a bit of a step back in 2014-15. His offensive game was lacking a bit, though he still shows considerable potential at the opposite end of the ice.

Sproul remains one of the Red Wings’ top defensive prospects, though he could start to feel the heat of a very crowded prospect group if he doesn’t rebound this year. With that kind of motivation and arguably the best all-around skill set of any of the Red Wings’ defensive prospects, Sproul will be given all the opportunities to re-establish himself as a future cog on the Red Wings blue line.

Colin Campbell, RW, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)

Campbell is entering the second of his two-year entry-level contract with Detroit, coming off of a two-goal, five-point effort in 44 games with the Griffins in 2014-15. Campbell’s game is very straight-forward: he uses his size well (6’1, 206 lbs.) and plays a physical, hard-working game. He has below average puck handling and passing ability, making him a pretty one dimensional player.

With the crowded group of high-end prospects already playing in Grand Rapids, there may not be a whole lot of room left for Campbell unless he proves himself to be invaluable in 2015-16. He’ll begin the year with Grand Rapids, but could find himself in the ECHL before long without playing far above his pay grade.


Top Junior Prospect
Evgeny Svechnikov, LW, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)

Ignoring the always looming “Russian factor,” the Red Wings selected the big winger for two reasons: size and talent. Svechnikov has the body of a power forward even at a young age and room to grow into his sizable frame. He has also shown that he has high-end skill on the offensive end of the ice, making him just one of seemingly many now in the Detroit system that are capable of putting the puck in the net with impunity.

The 2014-15 season was Svechnikov’s first on North American ice, so he still has got quite a bit of growing (both literally and figuratively) and learning to do at the junior level. He returns to Cape Breton for 2015-16 and will likely play an even larger role than he did last season, looking to dwarf his 32-goal, 78-point effort as a rookie.

The hope for the Red Wings is that in a few years’ time, he will be ready to take his place in their top six as a premier power forward with 30+ goal potential. Until then, he will focus on his skating and the one thing nearly every forward his age has to worry about: defense.

Offensive Breakout

Dominic Turgeon, C, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

You would think with the name Turgeon that offensive aptitude would be just part of the package. Though he possesses offensive skills, the name of the game for Dominic in his three seasons with Portland has been a shutdown defensive center. He’ll likely reprise that role in 2015-16, but expect Turgeon and his considerable skills to get more of a chance to shine offensively.

Turgeon is very smart and a quality skater with good size. Given more of a role in the offensive end, this should finally be his breakout season on the stat sheet. If he can bump up his production while continuing to play a shutdown role, his stock could shoot way up this season.

New Team in 2015-16
Vili Saarijarvi, D, Flint Firebirds (OHL)

Saarijarvi made the jump to the North American game in 2014-15, playing 57 games for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. Prior to that, he played for Karpat of the SM Liiga’s junior league. It must also be mentioned that he is just returning to the defensive side of the puck after spending years as a forward.

Having said all that, Saarijarvi is an intriguing prospect. His size (5’9, 163 lbs.) is an obvious issue that he will have to battle for the rest of his playing days. Still, he has tremendous offensive instincts and abilities, showing the ability to rush the puck up the ice and quarterback the power play. Both Saarijarvi and the Red Wings are excited to have him playing right in Michigan, where they can watch his development carefully.


Top Amateur Prospect

Mike McKee, D, Western Michigan (NCHC)

The Red Wings don’t have a lot to offer on the collegiate or junior level at the moment, especially with Larkin graduating to Grand Rapids. That leaves big defenseman/winger Mike McKee as the top amateur prospect in the group.

McKee is big (6’5, 249 lbs.) and nasty as they come, leading the USHL in penalty minutes back in 2011-12 and racking up 136 more in two seasons with Western Michigan. He is mobile and possesses a hard shot, though he’ll never be known for his offensive prowess. Simply put, McKee is big and plays like a bully. NHL teams love defensemen like that. He has the potential to be a contributor on the bottom pairing down the road if he can keep his aggression in check, stay out of the box and use his physicality to intimidate opposing forwards.

Offensive Breakout

Chase Pearson, C, University of Maine (Hockey East)

Drafted out the USHL in the 5th round of the 2015 NHL Draft, Pearson is still very much a raw prospect at this stage in his development. It’s clear that his size (6’2, 186 lbs.) at such a young age is what got him noticed, but he is also responsible defensively. Modeling himself after two-way centers like Rod Brind’Amour, Pearson will strive to not only be effective in his own end, but with the puck on his stick.

Making the jump to the University of Maine, Pearson’s playing time as a freshman could be sparse but he should make the most of it. The collegiate level is as close as it comes in terms of physicality and toughness to the NHL and Pearson should make himself right at home. Expect him to cause a stir as a freshman before heading into a big sophomore season.


Top European Prospect
Joren Van Pottelberghe, G, Linkoping (SHL)

Taken with the 110th overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, Van Pottelberghe isn’t the flashiest netminder on the planet, but he certainly does a good job. He had a busy 2014-15 season, playing in multiple tournaments for Switzerland as well as making the jump from the SuperElit (junior) league to the men’s SHL.

Van Pottelberghe already has good size at 6’3, 187 lbs. and displays exceptional hockey IQ and patience. He is not the most athletic goaltender in the world, but he plays his angles well and puts himself in position to make most saves. Van Pottelberghe will likely spend the next two or three seasons overseas before challenging for a roster spot on the pro level.

Offensive Breakout
Axel Holmstrom, LW, Skelleftea AIK (SHL)

Holstrom is an intriguing package. He has good size (6’1, 198 lbs.) already and plays with high energy. He still has a lot to work on in terms of his skating, but he has good offensive upside and has produced at every level he has been at so far.

The 2015-16 season will be something of a make-or-break season for Holmstrom. He had a solid debut in the SHL in 2014-15, scoring 10 goals and 20 points in 44 games before breaking out in the playoffs to the tune of 18 points in 15 games. If he is going to establish himself as a potential NHLer, he will need to build on his skating and show that his previous production is something that can transfer to each new level.

Unsigned for 2016-17

Julius Vahatalo, LW, TPS (Liiga)

Vahatalo has been a consistent performer in the Finnish junior leagues over the last couple seasons, producing at a better than point-per-game pace for the TPS under-20 team. He made the jump to the men’s league in 2014-15, with less-than-spectacular results. He was given significant ice time for a rebuilding TPS, though he managed just one goal and one assist.

The 2015-16 season will be a big one for Vahatalo if he hopes to secure a contract from the Red Wings. He’s got intriguing size at 6’5 and shows good offensive ability. He will never be much of a skater especially at his size, though he is far from a liability. Vahatalo needs to show that he can score consistently against more experienced players and overcome his skating speed enough to be a contributor at the next level.

Follow Ryan Womeldorf on Twitter via @kindofawriter