Red Wings European prospects season review

By Zoran Manojlovic

This past season wasn’t an overwhelming success story for the Red Wings European prospects. Several of the highly anticipated prospects didn’t have nearly as good of a season as expected.

Mattias Ritola couldn’t crack the lineup of Leksand, Christofer Löfberg had family problems, Anton Axelsson saw only limited ice time with Frölunda, Johan Ryno bounced around several teams in search of ice time and Juho Mielonen was once again hit by the injury bug.

Looking for some positive notes, last year’s second-rounder, Dick Axelsson proved to be a steady goal scorer in Allsvenskan and future teammate Daniel Larsson established himself as one of the best young goalies in Sweden. Russian late-rounder Gennady Stolyarov broke onto the big stage in the Russian Superleague with Dynamo Moscow.

Anton Axelsson, LW

Axelsson started the season on fire and was among the leading scorers on his team through the first five or six rounds of the season. But thereafter, he was almost nonexistent on the scoresheet.

His ice time was reduced dramatically as he was stuck on the fourth line and even being a healthy scratch a few times. The head coach might have misused Axelsson early on, which derailed his confidence. That is the reason why he chose to switch team in the off-season, as he will be representing Timrå next year.

Axelsson is a steady checker who always plays the game with high intensity and a lot of jump. He might not have a high upside as an offensive winger, but if he can add some more strength and become even more physical then he could have a shot at cracking the NHL some day as a third-line checking winger.

Mattias Ritola, C/W

Ritola was also having trouble with the coaching staff, as he couldn’t manage to crack the lineup of Leksand. After his ice time had almost disappeared with Leksand, Ritola was loaned out to Arboga in the same league, but he couldn’t find his game there either so it was back to Leksand before he finally was loaned out to his native town of Borlänge.

After the season Ritola was put on the plane and sent to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL for some testing. The Red Wings brass wanted to see if there was something worth keeping in Ritola, and apparently he showed enough to warrant a three-year entry-level contract with the Red Wings, which will start at the 2008-09 season.

His size, skating and skills are impressive while his work ethic and attitude are questionable. He will try to redeem himself next season with Leksand as they try to get back to the Elitserien, before moving over the pond.

Johan Ryno, RW

Ryno had the biggest expectations of any Red Wings prospect in Europe this season, including Igor Grigorenko. But he would probably want to forget this season as soon as possible.

He started off on the wrong foot, having to recover from a back injury right before the regular season started. That set him back a few months conditioning-wise, and it took him two team changes and more than half the season to get back on track.

Once he arrived late in the season with Timrå, the team was suffering several injuries, which gave him a chance to step up, and he sure did. He was producing at nearly a point per game during a short stint.

During his time in Timrå, Ryno found his game and was playing with confidence. He will need a full season with that kind of confidence and consistency before he moves over the pond. His size, skating and natural ability with the puck is a rare combination that could make him a star in the NHL one day. He has signed an entry-level contract with the Red Wings and will make his pro debut next season.  

Igor Grigorenko, RW

Grigorenko had a very solid but unspectacular season in Russia, while playing for his home team Lada Togliatti. He was an assistant captain on a pretty young team, and he finished the season second on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 27 points in 49 regular season games.

Those numbers are slightly down from his previous season in which he recorded 13 goals and 34 points in 51 games, but his overall game has improved. He’s more confident with the puck and his skating ability is pretty much the same as it was before his car accident.

He was making plays with the puck, getting his nose dirty and contributing offensively. After signing a contract with the Wings just recently, it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to crack the Red Wings lineup for the next season. If all goes as expected, then Grigorenko would be a solid third or fourth line winger who gets about 10-12 minutes of ice time on a semi-regular basis.

Dick Axelsson, LW

Axelsson missed a big part of the start of the season because of a transfer disagreement between his former club Huddinge IK and Djurgården. He spent the preseason with Djurgården by turning heads of the coaching staff forcing them to offer him a contract to play in Elitserien, but his former club Huddinge didn’t want to lose him for nothing so Axelsson didn’t play at all for the start of the season.

When all was said and done, Axelsson was back with Huddinge for one final year in Allsvenskan. He didn’t take long time to get on the scoresheet as he put up nearly a point-per-game in the (13 goals, 8 assists in 25 games) as well as 113 PIMs.

So far Axelsson has been proving his worth as a second-round pick, but he will have to continue his development next year in Elitserien with Djurgården. His size, skating, scoring touch and skill are very encouraging. He has to add some bulk and improve his play away from the puck. He is almost a surefire bet to get a contract next summer with the Red Wings.

Daniel Larsson, G

This 21-year-old netminder had an impressive rookie season in Elitserien with Djurgården. A team with a lot of youth all over the roster provided a nice development place for Larsson. He stepped up after a very good season in Allsvenskan the year before, and just seemed to be improving with the challenge.

He played in 24 games and posted a 2.53 GAA as well as .911 save percentage. Those numbers are very respectable for a 20-year-old rookie. During short stretches, he even pushed the No.1 goalie, Teemu Lassila (a former Nashville pick), to the bench with his strong play.

For the upcoming season, Larsson will be the go-to guy on the team and will be looked upon delivering a solid effort night in and night out. That will be a big challenge for the young netminder who is a strong candidate for getting a contract with the Red Wings after next season.

Gennady Stolyarov, RW

Stolyarov was a gamble back at the 2004 NHL entry draft, being selected in the eighth round. But this was a conscious move by the Red Wings, who are known for going after talented players who seem to have some kind of a drawback in the latter rounds of the draft.

Stolyarov spent the next two seasons playing quietly in the lower Russian leagues, before emerging with Dynamo Moscow during the last season. He played in 37 games scoring 6 goals and 9 points as well as 39 PIMs.

His season wasn’t anything earth-shattering, but his game had improved a lot since his draft day. He’s a better skater and more responsible defensively, although he still needs to address that part of his game. He also has to gain a lot of strength as he has been pushed around by the veteran defensemen in the Russian Superleague.

With a good season in the Russian Superleague, Red Wings might be forced to offer him a contract. His size and skill are still there, he just has to improve year by year, and he might make it one day to the NHL.  

Lost prospects

Five prospects who are no longer in the Red Wings system are Stefan Blom (D/F),
Mikael Johansson (C) and Andreas Sundin (LW), Christofer Löfberg (C/W) and Juho Mielonen (D).

Blom has disappeared from the elite hockey stage, playing with Bålsta in the fourth best league in Sweden. His selection back in the 2003 draft was an unexpected one, as he didn’t offer much more than solid size and respectable skating. His hockey skills and sense are questionable and it seems that he will settle down as a low rank minor leaguer.

Johansson on the other hand has been improving consistently since being drafted. He was a very solid soldier for Färjestad this past season, contributing with 7 goals and 16 points in 55 regular season games. He has the skill and hockey sense, but his work ethic and conditioning needs a lot of improvement. Plus, his small stature makes it even harder to be in the fight for an NHL contract.

Sundin had a very productive season in the Finnish second tier league, scoring 21 goals and 41 points in 45 games. Next season he will be playing in Sweden with Bofors of Allsvenskan, in hopes that it will propel him back to Elitserien for the 2008-09 season. It will be interesting to see what he can do in Allsvenskan after his one-year stint in the Finnish hockey environment.

Löfberg, who is a big guy with very soft hands and a lot of intensity on the ice, had a rough season. He had some personal issues within his family, which might have gotten his attention away from hockey. His lack of scoring and intensity made him drop from the second line to the fourth line and even in the press box.

For next season Löfberg has moved down a division and will be playing with Rögle in Allsvenskan. This could prove to be a very smart move as Rögle is a good team for young, talented prospects to develop in. For now he looks like a long shot of making it to the NHL, but his size, skating and skill level are still on demand. His rights have been released by the Red Wings, but with a productive year he might be back on track to North America.

Mielonen is a skilled defenseman with solid size and mobility, but injuries just can’t seem to stop coming for him. He has been injured for most part of the last two years. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy and that is the primary reason why he wasn’t given a contract by the Red Wings.

But, as with fellow prospect Löfberg, Mielonen could be a guy who in a couple of years from now makes a name for himself in Europe and then moves over the pond, a few years older than the regular NHL rookie.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.