Developing a solid prospect pool isn't easy when a franchise is constantly drawing low draft picks after successful seasons. The Detroit Red Wings, though, have always managed to find a way to pull gems out of the NHL Draft that no other team sees.
Pavel Datsyuk was a sixth-round pick in the 1998 NHL Draft. Detroit nabbed Henrik Zetterberg in the seventh-round a year later. Darren Helm was a fifth-round pick in 2005. Jonathan Ericsson was the final pick, No. 291, in 2002. Even Nicklas Lidstrom, the now-retired, future Hall of Fame defenseman, waited for 52 other players to be picked in 1989 before the Red Wings made him one of the best second-round picks of all time.
There may very well be a Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Helm or Ericsson in Detroit's current crop of prospects. It's impossible to say there will ever be another Lidstrom.
The point is that despite their overwhelming success in the past two decades-plus, including 21 straight playoff appearances, the Red Wings are still able to point to their prospect pool and say with confidence there are several future NHL players in it.
With the help of vice president and assistant general manager Jim Nill, here are Detroit's top 10 prospects:
1. Brendan Smith, D: Smith will be given the chance to start the season in Detroit's top six after playing 14 games and producing seven points last season. The opening is a result of the departures of Lidstrom and Brad Stuart (now playing for the San Jose Sharks). Smith, Detroit's first-round pick in 2007, has played primarily in the American Hockey League the past two seasons, piling up 66 points in 120 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
"He's ready," Nill told NHL.com. "He was pretty close to being ready last year, but we don't want kids sitting up in the press box. We think it's better for them to play in the American League. If they don't make your top four lines or top six on defense, it's better off they play in the American League. He played some games and played well, but he's definitely ready now.
"He's got a lot of different tools," Nill added. "He's a great skater. He's got good offensive instincts. He plays physical. He's got an edge to him. He's got a lot of different intangibles."
2. Gustav Nyquist, C: Despite his size (5-foot-10, 169 pounds), the Red Wings expect big things from Nyquist, who has seven points in 18 NHL games. He showed his promise with six points in seven games from March 9-26. He also played in four Stanley Cup Playoff games last season after getting called up because Darren Helm suffered a season-ending injury in Game 1 against the Nashville Predators.
Nyquist was a Hobey Baker Award finalist in 2010 and has played in 63 AHL games with Grand Rapids over the past two seasons. He finished tied with Tomas Tatar and Jamie Johnson for the team lead with 58 points last season, but he played in 56 games while Tatar and Johnson each played in 76.
"It's kind of the same situation as Smith; he was close to making our team last season but it was his first year pro," Nill said. "Coming out of college, historically a lot of those players start off well and hit a wall, but the nice thing with him is he never really hit the wall. He was one of the top rookie scorers in the American League even missing 20 games down there because of call-ups. He's got great offensive instincts and he's deceptive. He's a really good goal scorer."
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3. Calle Jarnkrok, C: Jarnkrok has been playing for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League for two seasons. He helped Brynas win the SEL championship last season by putting up 16 points in 16 playoff games after scoring 39 points in 50 regular-season games. He's only 20 years old, but he is already playing for the Swedish national team as well. He played all eight games in the 2012 World Championship and had an assist along with 10 shots on goal.
"The World Championships last season were split between Sweden and Finland, and the Swedish team was stocked, yet he was still one of their 12 forwards," Nill said. "He's got a little bit of Zetterberg in him -- tenacious, strong-willed. We have high expectations for him. We'll bring him to camp and if he's one of our top 12 forwards we'll sit down and make a decision. If not, he's going back to Sweden."
4. Tomas Tatar, LW: Tatar has spent the past three seasons piling up 147 points in 204 games with Grand Rapids. He had 58 points in 76 games last season. Now 21 years old, the No. 60 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft is expected to compete for a roster spot in Detroit. The Red Wings would like to see Tatar make the jump because he has gained the necessary experience and has done just about all he could at the AHL level.
"He's only 21 and he's already played three years in the American League," Nill said. "His first year was a feeling-out year, but he played pretty well. The last two seasons he has scored 24 goals each year. He's a very good prospect, and had a very good tournament in the World Championships for Slovakia. He won the silver medal and was one of the younger players in the tournament. He's going to be one of those guys on the bubble, one of the 11 to 13 forwards, and if he doesn't make the team out of camp he'll be the No. 1 call-up."
5. Tomas Jurco, RW/LW: Jurco, a second-round pick in 2011, signed his three-year entry-level contract in August and plans to start the season with the Griffins. He was a point-per-game player over three seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He comes to Detroit with a winning pedigree, having helped the Sea Dogs win the Memorial Cup in 2011. They were the QMJHL champs last season.
"He was a very big part of Saint John's championship runs," Nill said. "He has a very high skill level. This will be his first year pro, so he'll be making that jump from junior to the American League and go from there."
6. Riley Sheahan, C: Sheahan, 20, was Detroit's first-round pick in 2010 (No. 21). He turned pro at the end of last season and played in one game for the Red Wings and seven with the Griffins. Prior to turning pro he had 25 points in 37 games in his third and final season at the University of Notre Dame. He projects as a center for the Griffins this season and the Red Wings like him because he's 6-foot-2, 202 pounds.
"He is something we don't have a lot of: a big heavy body with good skills," Nill said. "We project him to be a second- or third-line center with ability to put up points but also use his big heavy body."
7. Petr Mrazek, G: Mrazek, 20, was a fifth-round pick two years ago. The Red Wings weren't sure what they had in him, but he gave them a glimpse of his potential at the World Junior Championship last season, when he starred for the Czech Republic. Mrazek had a 2.49 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in six appearances. He also went 30-13-4 with a 2.84 GAA and .917 save percentage for the Ottawa 67s in the Ontario Hockey League.
"His coming out party was at the World Juniors. Last year was a big breakout season," Nill said. "We're looking for him to turn pro. He'll be in Grand Rapids and hopefully adding to our depth. We have three goalies with the possibility of playing in Grand Rapids. If he's the No. 1 guy, then great, but if not we might rotate goalies. Right now he projects to be in Grand Rapids."
8. Teemu Pulkkinen, RW: Pulkkinen and Minnesota prospect Mikael Granlund were the two best forwards for Finland in the WJC last season. Pulkkinen, a fourth-round pick by the Red Wings in 2010, finished the tournament with 10 points in six games. He will likely return to Jokerit in Finland's SM-Liiga. He has been a full-time player for Jokerit since 2010-11.
"He's a big-time goal scorer who loves to shoot the puck. He's got the Brett Hull-type of shot," Nill said. "He was the rookie leading scorer in the Finnish league two years ago. Last year he got injured and had a down season, but he's looking to bounce back from that. He has also played some games on the national team. He really needs one more year in Finland."
9. Xavier Ouellet, D: Ouellet, a second-round pick in 2011, will compete for a roster spot on Canada's Under-20 team this season. He is playing for Team Canada in the Canada-Russia Challenge. He was third among QMJHL defenseman last season with 60 points on 21 goals and 39 assists.
"He's just a really solid all-around defenseman," Nill said. "He's got some offense to him, and he's very steady defensively. He plays a quiet but effective game. He has really jumped up and last year was a coming out party. He will be one of the names for the World Juniors."
10. Ryan Sproul, D: Sproul, 19, is a 6-foot-4 defenseman who was a second-round choice in 2011. He plays in the OHL for Saulte-Ste. Marie. He had 54 points in 61 games last season, a jump from the 33 points he had in 61 games two seasons ago.
"He has a real good shot, puts up good points, and he works," Nill said. "He's big, rangy and he can skate and shoot a puck."
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