Detroit Red Wings maintain deep, diverse top-20

By Brandon Peleshok
Photo: Defenseman Brendan Smith (Right) has gradually developed into one of the more promising puck-moving defensemen in the AHL. Smith is expected to battle for a spot in the NHL top seven as soon as the 2012-13 season. (Photo courtesy of Tony Ding/Icon SMI)

Despite continually drafting in the bottom 20 of the NHL draft, the Detroit Red Wings have managed to maintain an impressive group of prospects over the years. A number of players have stepped up this season, including Brendan Smith, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco, Xavier Ouellet, and Petr Mrazek. With young players becoming increasingly more important in the salary cap era, it is vital that the Red Wings' prospects continue to break-out if the team is to maintain their long reign of success in the NHL.

1. (1) Brendan Smith, D, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2007

Maintaining his number one spot on the Top 20 list is defender Brendan Smith. Projecting as the most NHL-ready player on the list, the 23-year-old blue liner has seen limited time with the team because of the Red Wings preference to have their prospects over-ready for NHL duty. Standing at 6'2, 190lbs, Smith provides a solid mix of both offensive and physical play. While his defensive play was a concern early in his career, it has improved considerably during his time in the AHL.

A five game suspension put a damper on the beginning of Smith's season, but he has still been able to post 32 points in 47 games with the Griffins. Through two separate call-ups with the Red Wings, he has looked very comfortable with the team and scored four points in nine games with the team. While Detroit is a bit crowded on the blue line, it is likely that some space will free up and Smith's time in the AHL is behind him.

2. (3) Gustav Nyquist, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, 2008

While Gustav Nyquist has been pegged as a top prospect in Detroit's system for a number of years, few could have predicted the way he has broken out during the 2011-12 season. The 22-year-old Swedish native had a very solid pre-season with the Red Wings, showing tons of offensive potential and instinct. Jumping into his first pro season with the Griffins, he continued his stellar play with remarkable consistency throughout the year.

Nyquist ranks second in the AHL in rookie scoring, and eight overall in the league. Through 53 games with the Griffins, the 5'10, 180lbs winger has put up 19 goals and 35 assists. Much like Smith, Nyquist could very well find himself as a member of the Red Wings if several current players move onto another team or retire.

3. (2) Tomas Tatar, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2009

Tomas Tatar's offensive output has seemed to plateau a bit, but that does not mean he has not grown as a player. His drop on the list has more to do with Nyquist's stellar play, and less with the way Tatar's game has progressed this year. While the 21-year-old's offensive instincts are still solid, the 2011-12 season has been one of defensive growth for Tatar.

Playing primarily on a line with AHL veteran Jamie Johnson, he has put up a respectable 14 goals and 40 points through 58 games. The 5'10, 180lbs winger will likely spend the 2012-13 season back with the Griffins, looking to build upon his offensive numbers while maintaining his improved defensive ability.

4. (5) Tomas Jurco, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2011

At 6'2, 193lbs, Tomas Jurco already possesses the size to be an effective player at the NHL level. The 19-year-old Slovak native has some of the best hands in junior hockey, exhibiting high-end goal scoring and playmaking ability. While he was lost in the shuffle last season amidst other offensively gifted Sea Dogs' players, Jurco is now an integral part of the team's output.

Jurco is having a career year with the Saint John Sea Dogs, scoring 68 points through 47 games with the team. In addition, he is playing in more high traffic areas, and showing that he can withstand the physical rigors of the game. At his current rate of development, Jurco could find himself at the top of the prospect list in the following years.

5. (7) Calle Jarnkrok, C, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2010

Jumping up a couple of spots on the list, Swedish native Calle Jarnkrok closes out the top five prospects. With his offensive game improving every year, Jarnkrok is becoming an ever-increasingly important piece of the Red Wings' future. His two-way game has drawn favorable comparisons to current Red Wing and fellow countryman, Henrik Zetterberg.

At 6'0, 176lbs, Jarnkrok does not boast much size, but makes up for it in hockey smarts and skill. The 20-year-old is the second leading scorer on Brynas, with 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points through 50 games. His contract with Brynas ends after the 2012-13 season, so Red Wings fans will have to wait another season before seeing Jarnkrok turn pro.

6. (4) Teemu Pulkkinen, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2010

Teemu Pulkkinen is, perhaps, the purest goal-scorer on the Red Wings Top 20 list. That is not to say that the Finnish sniper has not had an off year. With just 16 goals and 21 assists on the year, down roughly 20 points from last season's totals, it is fair to say that the 20-year-old has certainly had his fair share of struggles.

All things considered, Pulkkinen still had a very strong WJC-20 tournament, scoring 10 points through seven games; contributing to Finland's impressive fourth place performance. At 5'10, 198lbs, he has added the necessary size to compete at the NHL level, but still needs to shore up his defensive game. With his contract with Jokerit of the FNL running through 2012-13, Pulkkinen will have at least another year to hone his craft before making the jump to North America.

7. (9) Xavier Ouellet, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 48th overall, 2011

If Xavier Ouellet continues to progress the way he has, the Red Wings could have a very solid offensive defender on their hands. His elite skating ability has allowed him to lead all Blainville-Boisbriand Armada defensemen in scoring, while increasing his physical play and improving his defensive positioning in the process. He has also worked to size to his frame, weighing in at 6'0, 185lbs.

Captaining the Armada, Ouellet has managed to put up points at a near point-per-game pace. In 61 games with the team, he has potted 21 goals and 37 assists for 58 points. If he can continue his torrid scoring pace and strong all-around play, the 18-year-old stands an outside chance at joining a very stacked defense corps on Canada's 2012-13 WJC-20 team.

8. (6) Riley Sheahan, C, 7C
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2010

While dropping down on the list a bit, Riley Sheahan is still managing to put together his best year at Notre Dame to date. Through his first two years at the school, he struggled to find his name on the scoresheet with any kind of consistency. Although Sheahan has slowed down quite a bit as the season has worn on, the 6'2, 210lbs center has scored 25 points through 37 games.

The 20-year-old junior projects as one of Detroit's safest prospects, already possessing the size and two-way game of an NHL player. If Sheahan's offensive game can catch up with his hockey intelligence, the Red Wings could wind up having a power forward type player on their hands.

9. (16) Ryan Sproul, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 55th overall, 2011

Amidst a disappointing year for the OHL's Soo Greyhounds, Ryan Sproul stands out as a major bright spot on the team. Standing 6'3, 185lbs, he has a frame that will allow him to turn into a solid all-around NHL defender in the future. Through 59 games with the Greyhounds, Sproul has managed to put up 19 goals and 30 assists for 49 points, leading all defensemen on the team. On a team littered with minus player, his plus-14 stands out as the best rating on the entire team. While he is still a number of years away from becoming an NHL player, the future looks very promising for the 19-year-old blueliner.

10. (14) Petr Mrazek, G, 7C
Drafted 5th round, 141st overall, 2010

Petr Mrazek may not have size on his side, standing just 6'1, 184lbs, but he does have the skill and desire to become a legitimate NHL goaltender one day. While his numbers for the Ottawa 67's are down a fraction from last season's (2.81 goals against average, 917 save percentage), they are still impressive and he remains one of the best goaltenders in the OHL. His most impressive feat, though, occurred at the WJC-20 as a member of the Czech Republic team. The 20-year-old netminder put up a very impressive 2.49 goals against average and .928 save percentage during the tournament and in the process eliminated a highly skilled US team with a 52 save performance.

11. (NR) Nick Jensen, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 150th overall, 2009

Leaping his way onto the Top 20 list, the previously unranked Nick Jensen makes one of the biggest jumps of all Red Wings' prospects. Jensen possesses all the skill to project as a top four defender, relying mostly on his offensive game to make an impact on the ice. He has high-end skating ability, coupled with great offensive instincts and a solid first pass.

In his second season with St. Cloud State, the 21-year-old blue-liner has put up six goals and 26 assists for 32 points in 38 games. At 6'1, 195lbs, Jensen also has the size to compete at the NHL level, and will look to shore up his physical and defensive game to become a more complete player.

12. (11) Jan Mursak, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 182nd overall, 2006

With an ankle injury the sidelined him for roughly three months, Jan Mursak did not start off his first full season with the Red Wings the way he would have liked. The speedy 24-year-old has upside as a third line winger, capable up putting up points while maintaining a strong two-way game. At the moment, Mursak has been afforded an opportunity to play on Detroit's fourth line due to injuries on the team. Through 17 games with the team, the 5'11, 190lbs winger has put up a goal and two assists.

13. (20) Joakim Andersson, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 88th overall, 2007

Having what can be described as a career year, 23-year-old Joakim Andersson has made huge strides in showing he can become a legitimate NHL player one day. Already having the proper size, (6'2, 205lbs) Andersson was heading into the 2011-12 season looking to develop the scoring touch that would bring him to the next level. Playing in the Griffins top 6 for the majority of the season has afforded him that opportunity.

Through 55 games with the team, Andersson has a career best 35 points. During a five game call-up with the Red Wings, Andersson was pointless, but still looked fairly comfortable. He is Grand Rapids' number one penalty killer, and has all the tools to become an effective shutdown center for the Red Wings in the coming years.

14. (15) Adam Almqvist, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 210th overall, 2009

At 5'11, 174lbs, Adam Almqvist has always faced questions about his size and ability to compete physically in hockey. While his offensive capabilities have never been in doubt, those capabilities may be hindered if he does not bulk up. Through 42 games with HV-71 of the SEL, Almqvist has posted three goals and eight assists, which put him on pace for totals similar to his 2010-11 numbers.

It should be noted, however, that Almqvist has made strides in his defensive play, making better decisions on both sides of the puck. While the 21-year-old appears to have hit a bit of a snap this season, his true test will come when makes the jump overseas. Almqvist is expected come to North America for the 2012-13 season, where he will suit up as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins.

15. (NR) Marek Tvrdon, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2011

Making his first appearance on the Top 20 list is 6'2, 212lbs winger Marek Tvrdon. With all the tools of a future power forward, he has shown himself capable of scoring important goals and playing a physical game. Drafting Tvrdon has proven to be a risk worth taking for the Red Wings, as the 19-year-old winger has put up 27 goals and 39 assists for 66 points through 57 games. The Vancouver Giants forward has scoring line potential, and could see his stock rise considerably if he can put together another impressive year during the 2012-13 season.

16. (12) Cory Emmerton, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2006

A veteran on the Top 20 list, Cory Emmerton has worked to change his game in order to be an effective NHL player. Pegged as a playmaker in his junior years, the 23-year-old Emmerton has struggled to put up points at the pro level. In his first full season as a member of the Red Wings, the 6'0, 190lbs center has spent most of his time on the fourth line, where he has put up six goals and four assists in 58 games. In order for Emmerton to maintain his spot on the team, he will have to become more physical and improve his point totals a bit.

17. (10) Ben Marshall, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 201st overall, 2010

Ben Marshall's transition to college hockey has been a bit of an up-and-down battle. Early in the year, the speedy 5'9, 175lbs defender struggled to find his footing, often making questionable decisions with the puck and poor defensive plays. However, as the year has worn on, Marshall has settled down and finds himself on the Golden Gophers' second defensive pairing. The freshman players has scored three goals and nine assists through 37 games, and will certainly look to improve his offensive output in his sophomore season. At just 19-year-old, Marshall will have plenty of time to develop his offensive and defensive game at the college level.

18. (8) Landon Ferraro, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2009

While Landon Ferraro may not post goal totals similar to those he has with the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL, he has added other dimensions to his game that may allow him to be an effective NHLer one day. The 20-year-old centerman's drop on the Top 20 list does not necessarily reflect a poor season, but a change in the type of player that he projects to become.

At 6'0, 174lbs, Ferraro has shown himself to play much larger than his size would indicate. He has become a solid forechecking player, utilizing his speed and physicality in the offensive zone. In his first year at the professional level, Ferraro has posted eight goals and nine assists in 46 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins, primarily playing on their third line.

19. (NR) Mattias Backman, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 146th overall, 2011

At 6'2, 169lbs, Mattias Backman possesses the frame, but not necessarily the size of a future NHL player. He boasts strong skating ability and an impressive two-way game, projecting as a very safe and smart defender. While he has not put up overly impressive numbers, one goal and seven assists through 42 games, Backman has played an effective all-around game for Linkoping of the SEL all year long. Perhaps the 19-year-old was at his best as a member of Team Sweden during the WJC-20 tournament, scoring three points through six games, while maintaining the poise of a veteran.

20. (19) Mitchell Callahan, RW, 6C
Drafted 6th round, 180th overall, 2009

Rounding out the Top 20 list is gritty forward Mitch Callahan. Weighing in at 6'0, 190lbs, he does not have the size of a conventional scrappy hockey player, though that does not stop him from dropping the gloves on a consistent basis. On top of his right points, the 20-year-old winger has also put up 88 penalty minutes for the Griffins, leading all forwards on the team. If he can find his scoring touch, he could turn out as an agitating third line forward, providing a type of truculent play that is currently absent in the Red Wings' lineup.