WINNIPEG, MB – Xavier Ouellet played well enough during training camp and preseason to make the Red Wings at the start of the season. However, the young defenseman was a casualty to too many good, young players and not enough roster spots.
A tough decision needed to be made before opening night, and Ouellet, who was waiver exempt, headed to AHL Grand Rapids.
Now, the highly-touted blueliner coveted by coach Mike Babcock, will get his chance when he makes his season debut with the Red Wings against the Winnipeg Jets tonight.
“I’m really excited,” said Ouellet, following the Wings’ morning skate at MTS Centre. “I’ve been doing really good down there and was just waiting for an opportunity and I guess I have it tonight.”
Babcock likes Ouellet for his hockey sense and his ability to play calm under pressure.
“He seems to play like a veteran guy,” Babcock said. “He’s under control even early (last season) when he made big mistakes early in the game he’d settle right down and play. So we’ll watch how it goes. You make these decisions based on information you have and then what you do is you watch and see if you’re right or not.
“I just want him to compete, move the puck, go back and play like he can. He played real well for us in training camp. We didn’t really have any room for him. We called him up. … He’s competitive, he moves the puck for us, moves the puck good on the penalty kill, good on the power play, so we’re gonna play him.”
Ouellet replaces Brendan Smith in tonight’s lineup. Smith, who suffered a hand infection following a fight in Tuesday’s win at Columbus, was placed on seven-day injured reserve on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Jakub Kindl will be a healthy scratch for the third straight game.
The 6-foot-1 Ouellet was understandably distraught by his demotion last month, but he’s mature enough to know there’s a bigger picture for him.
“Obviously my goal was to make the team, so I was a little disappointed but it’s part of the job,” he said. “All I have to do is play hockey, take care of my game and they’re going to decide when I’m going to play.”
Ouellet is currently tied for first in scoring among Griffins defensemen with five points 13 AHL games this season. The rookie blueliner is also tied for first on the team in shots (44).
Last season, Ouellet produced 17 points, including four goals, in 70 games with Grand Rapids.
Ouellet appeared in four regular-season games with Detroit during the 2013-14 campaign. He made his NHL debut with the Wings in a 1-0 shootout loss to San Jose Sharks on Oct. 21. Ouellet also mad his Stanley Cup playoff debut last spring, playing in Game 5 of the Wings’ opening-round series at Boston.
As teammates in Grand Rapids, Riley Sheahan said Ouellet was very good at communicating on the ice, especially to his forwards.
“He’s so easy to play with as a centerman,” Sheahan said. “It’s pretty amazing how quick he can get back to pucks and how he can evade defenders, and his first passes are always good ones. As a defenseman with those skills I think he’ll find success at this level and we’re happy to have him in our lineup.”
The 21-year-old, who was born in Bayonne, France, was Detroit’s second choice, 48th overall, in the 2011 NHL draft, just wants to keep things simple against the Jets.
“You’re really excited,” said Ouellet, who will be paired with defenseman Brian Lashoff. “You just got to stay focused and focus on what you have to do. I know exactly how I have to play so I have to focus on that.”
DATSYUK STILL OUT: Top-line center Pavel Datsyuk did not participate in the team’s morning skate. However, the 36-year-old Russian did skate afterwards for the first time since Sunday when he suffered a setback from a sore groin that sidelined him for three of the past five games.