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Invitees look to impress at Wings' camp

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Colgate forward Kyle Baun, the grandson of former Red Wings defenseman Bob Baun, working in practice at Day 3 of the team's development camp on Sunday. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Overlooked by NHL teams in their respective draft years, Blake Clarke and Kyle Baun are participating in the Red Wings’ development camp with one common goal – to earn a free-agent contract.

The pair is among 25 undrafted junior and college players participating in the five-day camp in northern Michigan this week. The invitees are free-agent eligible, meaning they can sign a contract with any NHL team.

“There are only seven rounds in the NHL draft. Lots of guys end of slipping through the cracks for multiple reasons,” said Jeff Blashill, the AHL Grand Rapids coach who is running the on-ice practices this week at Centre Ice Arena. “Maybe they’re late bloomers. There are definitely guys out here who are going to sign NHL contracts. I don’t know who for sure, but there will be guys who play in the NHL.

By no means does not being picked in the draft mean it’s the end of the NHL road for some of these guys. The journeys for Clarke and Baun have led them on different courses, but neither young star is ready to concede his dream of one day playing for an NHL franchise.

“I think I was a little bit of a late-bloomer, so the draft wasn’t exactly what I was looking for,” said Baun, a 6-foot-2 forward who is entering his third collegiate season at Colgate. “Looking back on it now I think it was almost a positive being a free agent because I kind of have the opportunity to pick a team that is interested in me.”

The league is filled with examples of undrafted players who latched on as free agents. Last season, the Red Wings’ roster boosted two such cases with defenseman Danny DeKeyser and center Luke Glendening making considerable contributions in Detroit’s quest to make the playoffs for a 23rd straight time. Both Michigan-born players went undrafted, attended the Wings’ development camp, and eventually signed a free-agent contract after their collegiate playing days.

“I coached Dan DeKeyser when he was a freshman at Western Michigan, and I saw him start to get 20-something options in what team was the right team to give him the best chance to get to the NHL,” Blashill said. “Whether it’s Clarke or someone else, these guys are going to have that option.

“It doesn’t matter if you were drafted in the first round, the fifth round, the seventh round or not drafted at all. That doesn’t dictate if you’re going to make it. There are other opportunities that other guys don’t have and one of those is a great opportunity in the fact that you can kind of pick and choose your team.”

It’s interesting that the 22-year-old Baun is at the Wings’ camp. His grandfather, Bob Baun, played for the Red Wings in the late-60s and early-70s. But it was his heroics 50 years ago that hockey folks remember most.

The elder Baun, now 77 years old and living outside of Toronto, scored an overtime goal while playing with a broken ankle – which he suffered earlier in the game when he was struck by a Gordie Howe shot – that lifted the Maple Leafs to a Game 6 win in the Stanley Cup finals at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium.

“Yeah, he obviously scored the goal that ended up getting them to Game 7,” Kyle Baun said. “He’s always taking me out fishing and telling me the stories. It’s been a cool experience to follow up in his footsteps. It’s a big part of my family.

“But he was more of the diehard Leafs’ guy. He’s obviously shared a few (stories) and obviously it was a heated rivalry with the Original Six and stuff like that. But, yeah, he’s a Leafs’ guy.”

This is a busy month for Kyle Baun. Following the conclusion of the Wings’ camp on Tuesday, he is heading to the Boston Bruins’ development camp, July 9-13, in Wilmington, Mass.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to be exposed just being around the organizations and it’s a great learning experience,” said Baun, who has produced 25 goals in two seasons at Colgate.

OHL Saginaw forward Blake Clarke is among 25 college and junior players at this week's development camp, hoping to play well enough to earn a pro contract. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)

Clarke has taken the junior hockey route, and was once considered to be a ‘can’t miss’ first-round pick in last weekend’s NHL draft in Philadelphia.

But the 6-foot-1 left winger, who has spent the past two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, is still trying to shake off the most-frustrating year of his young life. Ranked as one of the top North American skaters heading into the 2014 NHL draft, Clarke’s stock plummeted.

“It was a very disappointing year for me,” said Clarke, who had just two goals in 54 OHL games just a season after producing 19 goals and 51 points in 68 games for the Brampton Battalion.

Last summer, Clarke suffered a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, which started a downward spiral for the St. Louis, Mo., native.

“Going into the year highly ranked and seeing it slip away is obviously a very disappointing thing, but I’m really happy to be here,” said Clarke, who finished the 2013-14 OHL season in Saginaw. “I’m really happy that Detroit wanted to take a look at me. I haven’t lost confidence in myself throughout this. I know I had an injury and I had a setback, a little loss of confidence, but my goal was to come out here and impress Ken Holland and the rest of the staff and do what I can to earn a contract.”

Campers were back on the ice Sunday morning to learn another of the Wings’ core puck-possession habits.

“The coaches have been talking a lot about the four core principals of Red Wings’ hockey,” Clarke said. “That’s been a real formative thing for me, just talking about puck support in the defensive zone, how to angle guys off, stuff like that. It’s definitely been a pretty big learning experience so far.

“It definitely fits skilled players but you just can’t be skilled you’ve got to compete, be hard on your stick. That’s what today’s whole practice was about, being hard on your stick, winning battles.”

Baun will return to college in the fall, where he hopes to make strives toward a pro career. Meanwhile, Clarke plans to return to Traverse City in September for the NHL Prospects Tournament and the Red Wings' training camp.

"That’s going to be a great two weeks for me just to come in and play with those types of guys," Clarke said. "Even getting out there with some of the NHL guys would be awesome.”

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