This year is no exception, particularly with former Hobey Baker Award finalists Gustav Nyquist and Brendan Smith powering through the ranks. Both were front and center for the Red Wings during the Traverse City Prospect Tournament here at Center ICE Arena this week.
Nyquist grew up in Malmo, Sweden, but his English is impeccable and after three productive seasons at the University of Maine, during which he was a Hobey Baker finalist two straight seasons, he appears ready to take the next step.
"I thought it was a great experience to get in eight games last year in Grand Rapids and obviously felt it was a big step to take from college to pro hockey. The guys are bigger and stronger in the corners and in front of the net … it's tougher to get rebound goals. You really have to be careful not to turn the puck over in places on the ice." -- Gustav Nyquist
"He has a smaller body but really plays with good intensity," Detroit Director of European Scouting Hakan Andersson told NHL.com. "When I watched him in Sweden (in 2007-08), he chased the puck all the time and when he got the puck, he made things happen and created chances. That's why we had him on my list and why we drafted him."
Nyquist didn't slow down when he joined the Black Bears in 2008-09, scoring 13 goals and 32 points in 38 games as a freshman. He led the nation with 61 points (19 goals) as a sophomore and topped the team with 51 points (18 goals, 33 assists) as a junior in 2010-11. He will forego his senior season at Maine and begin his professional career with Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.
"I thought it was a great experience to get in eight games last year in Grand Rapids and obviously felt it was a big step to take from college to pro hockey," Nyquist told NHL.com. "The guys are bigger and stronger in the corners and in front of the net … it's tougher to get rebound goals. You really have to be careful not to turn the puck over in places on the ice."
Nyquist had a goal and 4 points in eight games for the Griffins at the end of 2010-11 and might need a full season in Grand Rapids in 2011-12.
"He still maybe needs to add some strength, but he thinks the game like a Red Wing and is very smart," Wings Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell said. "It all depends how he does in Grand Rapids. He'll go there, be a point producer, play the power play and develop."
Smith is a player many consider to be NHL-ready after spending a full season on defense in Grand Rapids, where he totaled 12 goals, 32 points and 124 penalty minutes in 63 games.
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Smith, drafted in the first round (No. 27) in 2007, spent three seasons at the University of Wisconsin before turning pro in 2010-11. He was a Hobey Baker finalist in 2010 -- when he scored 15 goals and 52 points in 42 games -- and is thought of as a Niklas Kronwall-type of player.
"Sometimes I'm too overly aggressive pinching the puck or keeping the puck in," Smith told NHL.com. "Sometimes backing out is never the wrong play, it's the right play. These are things I have to learn and what (GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock) have told me. Everyone makes mistakes, but it's how you learn from those mistakes that make a difference.
"The toughest part for an offensive defenseman is to pick and choose spots. Obviously, you're supposed to produce as an offensive defenseman, but you also have to be reliable defensively, so it's a tough position, but that's what I've been paying attention to."
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Smith will be given every opportunity to earn a roster spot at training camp and will provide a great competition on the back end with Jacob Kindl and Mike Commodore to nail down a roster spot.
"When I come and watch these kids at this (Traverse City) tournament, I say to myself, 'Who's going to play in the NHL?'" Babcock told NHL.com. "I watch every team and I say the same thing every game because the level of hockey is so high. Everyone can skate, everyone can handle the puck. There's no room for players just looking good out there … you have to be really good."
Smith was asked if he'd prefer more quality playing time in Grand Rapids over limited ice time in the NHL.
"That's a tough one," he said. "If I play five minutes a night, that's not going to help me -- but on the other hand, even though I might play low minutes, I'd still be practicing against the best players every day and have a chance to learn from Nick Lidstrom. The best-case scenario is I'm playing between 15 and 20 minutes and learning from everyone.
"If I'm in the AHL, it won't be bad since I'll be playing 20-plus minutes and that's obviously going to help me get to where I want to be."
Babcock said that because the club isn't strapped for cap space, there will be more competition for spots during training camp. As a result, Nyquist and Smith are in the running for NHL jobs.
"There's no question both players have an ability to pass and skate, but it's their ability to play without the puck that I'm interested in," Babcock said. "We're in a half-a-goal League. Every night the scores are 3-2 or 2-1, so you have to generate offense for your team and not for the other team. That's the growing pains for a young defense and we're going to play in the toughest Western Conference that, I feel, there's ever been. In order to do that, you got to be mistake-free and that's hard for young players."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale