If we have learned anything about the Detroit Red Wings development system, it’s that they like to let their prospects almost over-ripen. Ken Holland always says “this is a man’s game, so we want men on our team.”
The Red Wings haven’t had a top 10 draft pick since 1991, when they took Martin Lapointe 10th overall. Morover, the highest draft pick they’ve had since then was when they took Jakub Kindl 19th overall in 2005, and that was a lottery pick after the work stoppage, so they were lucky to get that high.
Fortunately for Red Wings nation, Detroit has become famous for finding late round gems on a consistent basis (see Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, etc). Now with the Brian Rafalski retirement, and the probable/possible retirements of Mike Modano, Kris Draper, and Chris Osgood, questions have arose about whether the Wings will use their youngsters to replace them.
Detroit has a handful of young prospects who look to be forcing Holland’s hand, and could see regular NHL ice time as early as next season. These possible candidates are forwards Tomas Tatar and Jan Mursak, and defenseman Brendan Smith.
Tatar is the youngest, and possibly most surprising of these candidates. Drafted 60th overall in 2009, Tatar immediately made the jump to pro hockey in the AHL as a 19 year old. This was a rarity for a Red Wings prospect, as they usually spend at least 1 or 2 more years with their previous team before heading to Grand Rapids.
Tatar was productive in his rookie year in Grand Rapids (16 goals and 16 assists), and was the youngest player in the league. This year he really blossomed, scoring 24 goals and 33 assists, putting together a more consistent season long effort.
Now at 20 years old, he seems poised to breakthrough in the NHL, which would make him the youngest Detroit prospect to do so in quite some time.
Jan Mursak was Detroit’s top call up option this year, and played 19 games with the Wings this past season. Mursak has great speed, not quite as fast as Darren Helm, but darn close.
He had a forgettable rookie season in Grand Rapids two years ago, but rebounded nicely last year with 24 goals and 18 assists. This year he had 13 goals and 22 assists in an abbreviated season, and also appears ready to make the jump.
Both Tatar and Mursak are aggressive forecheckers with a ton of energy, and could be primed for the big league next season. However, with Detroit’s glutton of NHL caliber forwards, they will have outplay guys like Justin Abdelkader, and potentially Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller (if the Wings resign them).
Brendan Smith is considered Detroit’s top prospect, and probably stands the best chance at making the Red Wings’ roster full time next year. Smith was a top defenseman in college, getting nominated for the Hobey Baker award in his junior season last year. This year was Smith’s first as a pro in Grand Rapids, and he did not disappoint.
He scored 12 goals and 20 assists in an offensive defenseman role, and was nominated to the AHL’s All-Star Game. An injury shortened his season somewhat, but all indications are that Smith has “it”, and appears ready to take over NHL duty.
Ken Holland may want to give him another year in the AHL, so he can get used to the longer schedule a little more (and have an injury free season), but he will be given every opportunity to earn a roster spot during training camp.
In my opinion, Tatar will be given just one more year in Grand Rapids, and Mursak will make the team (he would have to clear waivers otherwise), and may be on a 4th line rotation similar to what we saw the Wings do this season. That again, also depends on if the Wings can resign Eaves and Miller.
I believe Smith will be also be given another year in Grand Rapids. Griffins GM Bob McNamara has been quoted as saying that he could be used for call-ups, but that he still needs another year to get used to the longer schedule, and learn “the little things” on the defensive side of the puck.
Either way, bright things are on the horizon for the Red Wings, and all the fans have to do is sit back and relax.