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On the Wings of Tomorrow

Kuffner, Hirose and Fulcher all got a taste of the NHL last year and hope to use that experience to get back to the NHL and more in the September prospect report

by Bob Duff @asktheduffer / Special to DetroitRedWings.com

When the Detroit Red Wings held their development this summer, left winger Ryan Kuffner found himself in a unique position, perhaps even the central figure in an NHL first.

Kuffner, 23, was attending his first development camp with the Red Wings. He was also a veteran of 10 NHL regular-season games with Detroit.

Playing in the NHL first, attending your first development camp second.

No, that's not how the formula generally works.

After the Wings signed Kuffner as an NCAA free agent out of Princeton toward the end of the 2018-19 season, he was immediately assigned to the big club to give him a taste of the NHL.

When he showed up for his first taste of development camp, everyone around him knew that he'd been where they all seek to go -- to the show.

"This was my first time at the camp so it's my first time seeing all these guys," Kuffner said of the other Wings prospects he found himself among, after spending the final few weeks of the NHL alongside and competing against the world's best players.

The experience level may be different but what he saw while surrounded by the rest of the Wings' future was a burning desire to get to where he's already been.

"They're just all competitors and they all want to out-perform one another," Kuffner said. "That's a great environment to be in for sure."

Naturally, since he'd been there and done that, there were a lot of questions from the up-and-comers.

"Maybe a little bit," Kuffner admitted. "If anything, it's just like what I could learn from it, what it was like. But I just tell them, what I would pass on, I was able to experience it and figure out what I had to do to make it to that level.

"So I think I just try to share whatever I have, because there are older guys that I try to ask questions as well about their experience. Whatever's going to make me better."

After winning the NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Kuffner, along with left-winger Taro Hirose and goaltender Kaden Fulcher, head to main camp armed with the confidence and experience they all gained from a brief late-season taste of life in the NHL.

"I think it was good for them when they signed to come in and get some NHL games," said Shawn Horcoff, Detroit's director of player development and assistant director of player personnel. "A lot of these kids that leave college or leave junior don't realize how good pro hockey is, especially the NHL. They always seem to take for granted even the level of the AHL.

"So anytime they can come in and get a little taste of what that level is and what it's like before they go into the summer, they're at a huge advantage because they know, the majority of them come up and they know what they need to work on."

Kuffner finished in a tie with teammate Joe Veleno for the prospect tournament points lead with eight.

For Hirose, who previously attended Detroit's 2018 development camp as a free agent, that first sampling of NHL life was productive. He collected 1-6-7 totals in 10 games after joining the Wings as an NCAA free agent from Michigan State.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: 😝😝😝 pic.twitter.com/hlo645FMEX

That didn't make his time any less awe inspiring. The players he suddenly found himself lined up against were no longer idols. They were peers, and more importantly, opponents to be defeated.

"Ending my season at Michigan State to the next couple of days playing at Madison Square Garden (against the New York Rangers in his NHL debut) was definitely surreal," Hirose said. "When you're in warmups (against the Pittsburgh Penguins) and see Sidney Crosby, that was sort of a wow moment.

"We played (Evgeni) Malkin and (Phil) Kessel and those guys and sort of seeing what those guys do on a shift-by-shift basis, how effective they are, it was definitely something … there's a lot of good players and those guys take it to the next level."

Younger players new to the pro game are told that things will happen faster -- that every player will be just as good as them, and that they'll need to be a step quicker, a split-second smarter, in order to survive. But most need to experience it first-hand before they truly grasp the concept.

Hirose and Kuffner no longer need to imagine what that feels like. They've lived it. In the process, they've been given a crash course in what they'll need to do in order to survive and ultimately thrive at hockey's highest level.

"I think it's just trying to learn the game, be a student of the game, watch what the best players in the world are doing," Hirose, 23, said of what he learned during his first taste of the NHL life. "Obviously, those guys see things like that and they see things that I don't see.

"Just being able to pick their brains, like guys on the team, what they're seeing on plays, seeing things that maybe I don't see. So I'm trying to learn all the time."

Even though he was held pointless during his 10-game NHL stint, the pointers Kuffner picked up during that time only figure to make him better as a player as his game continues to grow.

"First, I think it's a huge learning experience," Kuffner said. "I think a lot of it is just individual skill, what I have to work on and a lot of it is you're playing against bigger guys. You hear that a lot but it's about spinning out in the corner and working on the stuff that you see out on the ice, just in-tight skills that are the difference maker for sure in the pros that so many of those guys do so well.

"I was able to witness it but it's just one thing I really have to work on."

Author of 51 goals and 96 points in his last two seasons at Princeton, Kuffner also discovered that he may be required to reconfigure his game in order to find a role in the big leagues.

"I think for sure I have to adjust," Kuffner said. "That's completely normal. I think it's the same thing when you're going from minor hockey to Junior A back home. It was the same sort of adjustment period. You've got to learn and you've got to adapt as quickly as possible. It's the same thing from minor hockey to junior and then junior to college is also the same thing.

"The first year of college is one of the hardest years I ever had. To work with everybody and even struggle a little bit my first year of college, I think it was only going to help me the next few years and that was all that mattered for me. It's just whatever I could do to help the team and then just be competitive as I can to push everybody else around me as well."

Like Kuffner and Hirose, Fulcher was another prospect overlooked on draft day who fought his way to a pro contract as a free agent out of the OHL.

Last season was his first as a pro, and Fulcher saw action at three different levels -- with the ECHL Toledo Walleye, at AHL Grand Rapids and finally, part of one game between the pipes for the Wings.

"(The NHL) really wasn't something you expected in your first year at all, even the call-up to Grand Rapids," Fulcher admitted.

All of the advice he received about what to expect at the NHL level, it may sound like cliches, but Fulcher's here to tell you every bit of it is fact.

"I think the speed and the shot speed was definitely going be something to get used to, and I think that has been. I think being better with your hand-eye and your hands is one of the biggest things I've had to work on this year to kind of make sure I'm seeing those shots and reacting well to them and putting them in good places."

In their brief tenures as Wing, each among this trio of future hopefuls sought to school themselves on the ways of the NHLers ahead of them on the depth chart.

Fulcher quietly studied the methods of Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard to see what tidbits he could glean in order to become a better goalie.

"I think just the way he prepares for a game is phenomenal," Fulcher, 20, said. "He doesn't really care what anyone sees him doing before the game. What works for him, works for him.

"Just watching his routine, and the way he goes through it, his level of preparation is top-notch."

Now in Traverse City, each member of this group shares a unique bond. They've tasted the NHL life.

For sure, it was only an appetizer but the knowledge they were able to feast on during brief their time in Red Wings dressing room will only serve them better as they pursue a bigger piece of that pie.

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