If the Detroit Red Wings are going to continue being successful in this “new NHL” it’s going to have to start on the farm. Everyone knows that for the better part of a decade the Red Wings were able to supplement their core roster through free agency or deadline trades. The draft wasn’t the way the Wings won their Cups. Most of their draft picks were traded away or slotted so late in the draft that the resulting players were usually unimportant in the grand scheme of the NHL.
Now there’s a salary cap and the ability to identify and cultivate young talent is at a premium. It’s not like the Red Wings have a poor history when it comes to drafting players. A lot of the guys who supplied the power behind the recent rash of Stanley Cup wins were home grown talent. Guys like Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom, Sergei Fdorov, Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Slava Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Martin Lapointe, Tomas Holmstrom, etc. were all guys either drafted by or acquired early enough in their careers that their development as players can be attributed to the Red Wings organization.
There is no doubt that the franchise is paying for their sins when it comes to sacrificing young talent for veteran players in an attempt to win. The cupboard has been bare for the last handful of years outside of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. But I’m here to tell you that farm system for the Red Wings is most definitely on an upswing and that there are a few bright spots (some brighter than others) that you should be on the look out for.
We’ll start with the position that everyone in this town cares the most about: Goaltending.
Jimmy Howard (22 yrs old, 6’0 215 lbs) – Jimmy has been anointed the goalie of the future for the Red Wings ever since he was drafted in 2003. He was a dominate collegiate goaltender for the University of Maine, posting a save percentage above .950 in his sophomore season. Last year was his first in Grand Rapids and he performed well. His career path thus far has drawn some obvious comparisons to that of Ryan Miller in Buffalo. They are both big, American goalies who can be ultimately streaky but when they are on they can win games by themselves. Jimmy has shown flashes this year but he has had an up and down year at best. Personally I’ve been a little disappointed by how Jimmy has performed this year but my expectations were probably a little unrealistic. It’s still to be seen when it will happen, but Jimmy Howard will be the starting goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings in the next couple of years.
The blue-line is where the Wings are the deepest with their youth. If you count Nick Kronwall and Brett Lebda the organization has six defensemen under 26 years old who are bonafide NHL level players. Derek Meech (22 yrs old, 5’11, 197 made the AHL All-Star game this year and has really come on in the last two seasons to prove he deserves a shot in the big time. He’s certainly no bruiser but he will fit in well as a 4th, 5th or 6th defensemen in the NHL. Kyle Quincey (21 yrs old, 6’2, 215) is likely the defensemen that you will see the soonest in Detroit. He’s a defensive defensemen with a little bit of bite to his game. He’s had some concussion issues that have likely cost him some call-ups already. It will be more of a surprise if Quincey is not a Red Wing next year. On to the two guys who I think the average fan should be the most excited about:
Jakub Kindl (19 yrs old, 6’3, 202 lbs) - I’ve personally seen Jakub play six or seven times and his growth has been obvious. He’s offensively gifted enough to be an impact play on an NHL level. He’s very skilled and can skate extremely well. The only problem I have had watching him play is his inconsistency. He will make a jaw dropping pass one time down the ice and the next he will give it away in his own zone. He looked much better this year at Kitchner than he did last and is only going to get better. This is a kid who damn near made the NHL team as a 19 year old this year. Don’t be surprised if you see him in Detroit sooner rather than later and he has the potential to be a top pair d-man in his career.
Jonathan Ericsson (22 yrs old, 6’5, 218 lbs) – It seems like I have been talking about Ericsson forever. He is a converted defenseman (he played center until the 2004 season) who has every physical tool you could hope for. He’s huge and he’s not afraid to assert a physical presence. His time spent as a forward has allowed him to develop a really good skating stride and solid mobility for a man of his size. He’s got a big shot and can play on the PK and the PP. His raw potential is immense. The problem is that, as a converted defenseman he has a lot of playing he needs to do to fully understand the position. His debut in North America this year has been better than anyone hoped for. He’s shown some offensive ability (22 points in 39 games) and defensive understanding beyond his experience. I love this kid and in my opinion he will be a star in the NHL.
Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky and Valterri Filppula all made the jump from the minor leagues to the NHL club this year and there are more forwards behind them waiting for their shot at the big time. Igor Grigorenko (23 yrs old, 5’10, 209 lbs) has been the teams most heralded offensive prospect for a couple of years now. He had a major set back in 2002 when he was in a serious car accident that he is just now fully recovering from. You will see Grigs next year in North America and hopefully like what you see. Jan Mursak has Datsyukian offensive skills and has been having a monster year in Saginaw this year. Justin Abdelkader is a local player who is currently playing at MSU. He doesn’t project to be more than a 3rd line, hard forechecking type of player, but he is likely to be a huge fan favorite when he gets his shot in the NHL. Here’s two more guys who I think you should know:
Cory Emmerton (18 yrs old, 6’, 190 lbs) – The first chance I had to watch Cory was at the Traverse City camp this year and immediately he was one of my favorite there. He is an elite playmaker. His vision is great and he seems to have that “thing” that makes great playmakers great. Whether you want to call it hockey sense, intuition or smarts he definitely has “it”. He’s been scoring huge numbers in the OHL this year and doesn’t show signs of slowing down. He and Ericsson are my favorite Wings prospects right now. This kid has the chance to be special. He can play center or left wing right now.
Johan Ryno (20 yrs old, 6’5, 209 lbs) – I admittedly don’t know as much about Ryno as I do most of these other prospects but everything coming out of the organization about him has been positive. He’s got tantalizing size to go with a reasonable package of skill. He seems to be a hard worker and understand the game well enough. He’s got a huge upside and has really picked up his play after changing teams in Sweden.
That’s all for now, I’ll just leave you with a sleeper in the system that I’ve got a really solid feeling about (call it one of T Fos’s bunion moments):
Gennady Stolyarov (20 yrs old, 6’4, 203 lbs) – He was a late round pick by the Red Wings in 2004 (257th overall) and is still raw. He plays on the Wing and has a really fascinating combination of size and skill. His work ethic and maturity have been questioned but from the reports coming back this year he has started to get it.