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Wings have kids ready to step in

by Dan Rosen /

Darren Helm finished with up four points on two goals and two assists as a fourth-line center in 18 Playoff games this past spring.
Watch Darren Helm highlight video
You would think that since the Detroit Red Wings never give themselves a chance for a high first-round pick in the NHL Entry Draft that they don't have many high-end prospects, either.
Think again.
Remember that these are the Red Wings, and it's not easy to find an NHL team that has drafted better over the last decade-plus.
Just look down the roster. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup last month with 12 players they drafted on the roster, but take a look at when they were picked: Tomas Holmstrom was a 10th-round selection; Henrik Zetterberg was taken in the seventh round; Pavel Datsyuk and Dallas Drake were selected in the sixth round; rookie Darren Helm was a fifth-round pick; Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood, Valtteri Filppula and Johan Franzen were third-round picks; Darren McCarty and Jiri Hudler were second-rounders.
Niklas Kronwall was the only player on the championship squad that the Red Wings picked in the first round, but he was 29th overall in 2000.
So, is it really a surprise that the Red Wings have a mob of top prospects?
Didn't think so.
"We think we have a number of guys that we think have a chance," Red Wings GM Ken Holland told of his prospects. "I don't think we have to rush anybody. That's one of our strengths.”
Here's a look at who we, but more importantly, Holland and his staff are high on:
Darren Helm -- You'd think that with a Stanley Cup championship ring soon to be placed on his finger and his name about to be carved onto the famous trophy that Helm would no longer be a prospect, but instead just a player for the Red Wings.
That's not the case. At least, it isn't yet, according to Wings GM Ken Holland.
Helm, Detroit's fifth-round choice (No. 132) in 2004, played in 18 Playoff games this past spring and finished with up four points on two goals and two assists as a fourth-line center. He displayed poise under pressure and was one of the Wings' speediest forwards.
However, Helm played less than eight minutes a game, which is why the Wings aren't yet ready to hand him a roster spot. He's going to have to earn it.
"The question with Darren going into camp is playing time," Holland said. "In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, about five minutes a game is big time, but we hope that he can become a real good third-line center in the NHL and we have to decide in training camp what is best for his development. Is it to play 16-18 minutes a night in Grand Rapids (of the AHL), or to play five minutes in Detroit? We're going to make that assessment after exhibition season."
Cory Emmerton -- Emmerton's fourth season of major junior hockey wasn't as good as the previous two, but he closed this past season playing in Grand Rapids, where he is expected to play again next season.
Emmerton had 61 points in 54 combined games with Kingston and Brampton of the OHL. He was traded in mid-season while suffering with mononucleosis. He had 66 points in 40 games in 2006-07 and 90 points and a plus-37 rating in 2005-06, which prompted the Wings to take him in the second round of the 2006 Entry Draft.
Emmerton is a wiry 6-foot, 180-pounder. He's not ready for the NHL yet, but the Wings are watching him closely.
"He's got very good hockey sense and he's a deceptive skater," Jim Nill, the Red Wings assistant GM, told "We project him to be a top two-line player, but he's going to have to take time to develop."
Joakim Andersson -- The Swedish center was the Wings' third-round pick (No. 88) in 2007. They like him for his two-way ability and his doggedness in the corners. He's a big guy at 6-3, but he probably needs to add about 15-20 pounds to his 200-pound frame.
Andersson, who played in the 2008 World Junior Championships, will return to Sweden for another year of grooming. He is only 19 and has nine games of Swedish Elite League experience under his belt.
"He'll stay in Sweden and should be in the Swedish Elite League full-time this year, which is a big step for him," Nill said. "That's like going to Grand Rapids. We'll monitor progress from there and decide in a year if he's ready or if he still needs another year before coming over. He's a very hard working, real solid, third-line type of guy. He's going to be a shutdown type of guy."
Evan McGrath -- At age 22, McGrath is slowly coming into his own. He finished his second season in Grand Rapids with 35 points in 78 games after registering 14 points in 59 games during 2006-07.
McGrath, who had 114 points in 67 games during his final OHL season for the Kitchener Rangers, will likely be back in Grand Rapids again due to the glut of centers on the Red Wings' roster and a need for more improvement on his part.
"This is a big year for him," Nill said of the Wings' fifth-round pick (No. 128) in 2004. "The first year in the AHL you get your feet wet. The second year you want to see some progress. Now the third year, you have to start knocking on that door. He had an outstanding training camp last year and went to Grand Rapids and had an up and down year."
Mattias Ritola played in a pair of games for the Red Wings in mid-March and recorded one assist. Watch Mattias Ritola video
Mattias Ritola -- Ritola actually made his NHL debut this season. The fourth-round pick (No. 103) in 2005 played in a pair of games for the Red Wings in mid-March and recorded one assist.
The Wings like his hands and his skill, but he needs to prove that he can bring it on a consistent basis. He likely isn't going to be a big scorer if he makes it to the NHL -- he had 22 points in 72 games for Grand Rapids this past season -- but he can be a fundamentally sound forward.
"He came over from Sweden this year and that was a big step for him," Nill said. "He did fairly well. The big thing now is does he go forward this year, stay the same, or go backward? He has high-end skills and has to learn to take it to the net more."
Johan Ryno -- The Swedish winger was expected to be a key contributor for the Griffins this season, but he returned to Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League after playing 12 games and registering seven points in the AHL.
Ryno, a fifth-round pick (No. 137) in 2005, was uncomfortable with the North American game and North American ice, but at 6-foot-5 he's definitely a prospect for the Wings. He'll return to Sweden for another year.
"He's a big kid with good size," Nill said. "He just wasn't comfortable in North America yet. We're going to leave him in Sweden and see if he can get his game going over there and then bring him over here. He's got a chance with skills to be a second-line guy, but it will depend on development."
Justin Abdelkader -- Abdelkader, the Wings’ second-round pick (No. 42) in 2005, found himself in a pair of NHL games late in the season after finishing his career at Michigan State. He acquitted himself nicely with six shots and two penalty minutes over 33 shifts.
The Wings like Abdelkader because of his size -- he's 6-2 and 220 pounds -- and because he plays with an edge. He also can produce as he had 40 points in 42 games for MSU this past season and 95 points over 125 collegiate games.
"He was a real good college player and we think he can be a real good second or third-line NHL player," Holland said. "He's big and he's strong. He likes to play physical. Our team is built with skill. He doesn't have that skill, but he's got the physical dimension and he's going to be that third line guy that can play left wing or center. He finishes checks and he's also mentally strong. He'll chip the puck in."
"He was a second-round pick and he's a forward prospect we'll leave in Sweden. He has a high ceiling." - Ken Holland on Dick Axelsson
Dick Axelsson -- The brother of Boston forward P.J. Axelsson, the 21-year-old finished with 25 points in 47 games this past season, his first in the Swedish Elite League.
Axelsson, who is 6-foot-2 and roughly 200 pounds, brings intensity and aggressiveness to the ice for every shift. The third-round pick (No. 62) in 2006 needs to develop some consistency as well as some more jump in his offensive game.
"He was a second-round pick and he's a forward prospect we'll leave in Sweden," Holland said. "He has a high ceiling."
Jan Mursak -- The Wings' sixth-round pick (No. 182) in 2006 is a prospect the Wings certainly like for his goal scoring and playmaking. Mursak had 64 points on 17 goals and 47 assists splitting time between Saginaw and Belleville of the OHL this past season.
The Slovenian -- Los Angeles star Anze Kopitar is the only other player from Slovenia in an NHL organization -- was traded to Belleville halfway through the season and helped the Bulls with 24 points in 21 playoff games.
He had 80 points in 62 games with Saginaw in 2006-07.
"We had him in Grand Rapids during the playoffs two years ago after his season was over and he was one of our best players," Nill said. "We're excited to see him turning pro. He's not a big guy, but has speed and plays hard for his size."
The Wings believe Jakub Kindl has the makings of a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman. Watch Jakub Kindl highlight video
Jakub Kindl -- Kindl's stats from his first full season as a pro could fool you into thinking he's not a big-time prospect. To the contrary, he is, and this is despite the fact that he was a minus-34 for Grand Rapids this past season.
The Wings believe Kindl has the makings of a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman, one who is both adept at making the first pass to get the puck out of the zone and can contribute on the other end. He had 17 points in 75 AHL games, but had 127 points and a plus-42 rating over 176 OHL games for the Kitchener Rangers from 2004-07.
Kindl was the Red Wings' first-round pick (No. 19) in 2005.
"I thought he had a real tough first half of the year defensively," Holland said. "He was a big minus (player), but he realized that you have to be good in your own zone. He has to get physically stronger. He's a long shot to make our team out of camp next year because of our depth at defense, but his strength is his ability to go back and get the puck and make the first pass, which is so valuable in today's game."
Jonathan Ericsson -- Ericsson is another Swedish prospect the Red Wings are high on. He's 6-foot-5 and he's mobile, which already puts his name high on their prospect list. Ericsson is also making better decisions with the puck now than he used to, which should give him a chance to crack Detroit's top seven out of training camp.
Ericsson, drafted No. 291 overall in 2002, played eight games for Detroit this past season and had one assist. He played in 69 games for Grand Rapids and put up 34 points and a plus-4 rating. Ericsson was one of the Wings "Black Aces" throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, meaning he practiced with the team every day but never suited up for a game.
"When I talk to the coaches, they're excited," Hakan Andersson, the Wings chief European scout, told "They think he's ready to play. I think circumstances were one reason why he didn't play, but if we had two guys injured they would throw him right in there. They think he's ready to be an NHL player."
"He's still learning what to do in his own zone, but we like his natural skills like skating ability, ability to join the rush, hockey sense and his hands." - Ken Holland on Brendan Smith
Brendan Smith -- Smith is another in a full lot of defensive prospects. He was the Wings' first-round pick (No. 27) in 2007 and will be entering his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin after an injury-plagued freshman season.
Smith had six points in his first four games, but just six more in his next 18. He had some back problems that forced him to miss the last six weeks of the season, but Holland said he saw Smith in November and "he was starting to make good strides.”
"Growing up he was a winger and he converted to defense, so you know he can skate and handle the puck," Holland said. "He's still learning what to do in his own zone, but we like his natural skills like skating ability, ability to join the rush, hockey sense and his hands. He's got to get physically stronger. His dad is a big man and we're hoping he can grow into his body."
Kind of like how Kyle Quincey has. Quincey another Wings' defensive prospect, but he can't officially make's list of Wings prospects because he is not officially still a rookie.
Quincey played in six games in each of the past two seasons. By definition a player loses eligibility for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year if he plays in at least 25 games in the preceding season, or six or more in each of the two preceding seasons.
Quincey, who also played in 13 playoff games for the Wings in 2006-07, is a true, stay-at-home defender.
"We like Kyle because he's gritty," Holland said. "He's a little different, a defensive-defenseman. He can make the first pass, but he's more of a stay-at-home and he's got a lot of grit to his game."
Jimmy Howard -- The Red Wings are hoping Howard is ready to take the next step so they can make him Chris Osgood's backup this season. However, he'll have to beat out Ty Conklin, who signed as an unrestricted free agent earlier this month.
The 24-year-old Howard, who played three years at the University of Maine and the last three primarily in Grand Rapids, has the size to be an NHL goalie (he's 6-foot, 205 pounds) and Holland said his mobility has improved considering he's lost 20 pounds.
Howard, who played four games in each of the last two seasons for the Wings, has a combined record of 69-54-8 with a 2.72 GAA and .909 save percentage in 141 AHL games. His GAA in his eight NHL games is 2.56 with a .915 save percentage.
"To me it's about consistently playing at each level," Holland said of the Wings' first pick (No. 64) in 2002. "He was a real good college goalie at Maine. He was then the top AHL rookie goalie, but then he struggled. He came back this year and wound up playing in the AHL All-Star Game and was the AHL Goalie of the Month in December. Being a good pro is about being a good player for a long stretch of time. It's not about having a good weekend."
Thomas McCollum -- The Amherst, N.Y., native was the second goalie taken at last month's draft in Ottawa as the Wings made him the 30th overall selection. He was the top-rated North American goaltending prospect by NHL Central Scouting.
McCollum, who has played the last two seasons for the Guelph Storm, was a third-team OHL All-Star this past season with a 25-17-6 record, 2.50 GAA and .914 save percentage.
His numbers as an OHL rookie were slightly better: He won 26 games, posted a 2.39 GAA as well as a .918 save percentage. McCollum is very much in the mold of Howard -- he is big goalie at 6-2 and 205 pounds with good lateral movement.
"We liked other players, but given that (Dominik) Hasek is retiring and Chris Osgood is 35 years of age, it was one area that we thought it was a good time to get depth," Holland said at the Draft.
"He plays deep in his net like a lot of those European guys do. It's time for him to come a little further out of his net. Part of being a good goalie is blocking areas, and you can't rely on reflexes in the NHL because the players are so good." - Ken Holland on Daniel Larsson
Daniel Larsson -- Larsson, a Swedish prospect, is the third goalie who could be competing to be Osgood's backup this fall. He's six feet tall but weighs only around 175 pounds so he's not as big as the other two.
Larsson, who is 22, was named the top goalie in the Swedish Elite League as well as its Rookie of the Year this past season by posting a 2.29 GAA and a .921 save percentage in 46 games for Djurgardens.
Holland said the plan was for Larsson to play in Grand Rapids this coming season, but he will be in camp with the Wings. Larsson was the Wings third-round pick (No. 92)  in 2006. They signed him to his first North American pro contract in May.
"I saw him in Vancouver at the World Juniors about three years ago and I saw him this year play a game in the Swedish Elite League," Holland said. "He has real good lateral movement, good legs and a good glove. He needs to get out of his net a bit. He plays deep in his net like a lot of those European guys do. It's time for him to come a little further out of his net. Part of being a good goalie is blocking areas, and you can't rely on reflexes in the NHL because the players are so good."
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