Brendan Smith might not be ready for prime time just yet.
The 22-year-old defenseman sits atop Red Wings Central’s end-of-season prospect ranking — his third straight stint at No. 1 — after earning American Hockey League all-rookie accolades with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
And while all signs point toward him one day making a big impact with the Red Wings, a little more AHL time will serve him well.
“He’s going to be a significant player in the NHL, he’s going to be a guy who could possibly end up running the Red Wings’ power play at some point, but he probably needs a little bit more seasoning,” said Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. “I don’t know that he would be a regular (yet). He’ll probably be a call-up guy, but his time is not long in the American League.”
The top 10 is extremely forward-heavy, with Riley Sheahan, Teemu Pulkkinen, Cory Emmerton and Joakim Andersson earning spots six through nine. Goaltender Petr Mrazek, making his debut in the top 10, joins Smith as the only non-forward in the group.
In the Red Wings’ system, Mursak and Emmerton are considered ready for NHL duty in 2011-12, and both are out of waiver options. The full ranking, with RWC’s end-of-season analysis, is available below.
1. D Brendan Smith (–), 63-12-20-32-124, Grand Rapids (AHL).
It’s just a matter of learning the little things. “Like when he’s the last guy back with the puck, he’s got to move the puck, not try to beat somebody,” McNamara said. “Because he’s so highly skilled … he tries that. But he does phenomenal things with the puck. He beats guys, he has great patience, he makes great plays, but there’s a time and a place for those plays.”
2. LW/RW Tomas Tatar (–), 70-24-33-57-45, Grand Rapids (AHL).
He’s at a very similar stage in his development as Smith — ready for spot duty with the Red Wings but capable of taking another step on the farm. Strong on his skates, Tatar has “a real low centre of gravity and he’s not afraid to use his strength in the corners,” according to McNamara. RWC sees him as a stronger, faster, more bullish version of Jiri Hudler.
3. LW Gustav Nyquist (–), 36-18-33-51-20, Grand Rapids (AHL).
He’s right there with Tatar, although the two players certainly have their differences. Nyquist, who showed well in a seven-game late-season AHL stint, is more of a darting water-bug. “Speed, hockey sense, no fear,” McNamara said. “He was willing to go into tough areas, he has a great shot, he sees the ice and he has a good future ahead of him for sure.”
4. LW/RW Jan Mursak (–), 54-13-22-35-35, Grand Rapids (AHL).
He already has 19 games in the NHL and will step right in. He has exceptional speed and could surprise offensively as he gains experience and confidence with the Red Wings. “I wouldn’t count Mursak out in the scoring department,” McNamara said. “He has a pretty good shot, he can pick the corners pretty well, and he has the speed to get around guys.”
5. C Calle Jarnkrok (–), 49-11-16-27-4, Brynas (SEL).
The Hockey News ranks him ahead of Tatar, Nyquist and Mursak and pegs him as the world’s No. 41 prospect. His upside might be the highest among the group, but RWC wants to see him show a commitment to getting stronger before moving him up the list. He couples high-end skill with a willingness to work hard every shift — a coveted combination.
6. C Riley Sheahan (+1), 40-5-17-22-28, Notre Dame (NCAA).
The six-foot-two, 201-pound Sheahan faces a lot of scrutiny as a 21st overall pick, but it’s easy to forget he was only 18 — in his second year of college hockey — when the season started. He struggled early, but put up 15 points in his final 22 games and is the type of big-bodied top-nine forward Detroit needs. If his scoring continues to come, he’ll move up rapidly.
7. RW Teemu Pulkkinen (-1), 55-18-36-54-32, Jokerit (FIN).
Pulkkinen had a tremendous season, breaking Teemu Selanne’s rookie assists record in the Finnish SM-Liiga, and only dropped a spot because Sheahan reasserted himself with a better second half. Pulkkinen is a tremendous prospect — especially for a fourth-rounder — but has a few more question marks than the forwards ranked ahead of him.
8. C Cory Emmerton (-), 65-12-26-38-26, Grand Rapids (AHL).
Emmerton has a new three-year contract and is poised to take a job as a spare forward in Detroit. He’s not the most exciting prospect on the list, but he has evolved into a smart two-way player with good hands and does the little things well, such as winning faceoffs. “He’s one of those guys who could end up being a better NHL player than AHL player,” McNamara said.
9. C Joakim Andersson (+1), 79-7-15-22-30, Grand Rapids (AHL).
More was expected of Andersson offensively as an AHL rookie, but it is hoped that side of his game will come with patience. The rest of his game is as complete as anybody’s. “He’s the consummate professional,” McNamara said. “He’s great defensively, kills penalties all day long, has some offensive upside, and he’s a guy who can play in the NHL for sure.”
10. G Petr Mrazek (+4), 52 GP, 2.84 GAA, .920 Sv%, Ottawa (OHL).
Along with Pulkkinen, he’s the highest riser in RWC’s 2010-11 rankings. While it would have been nice to see him tested at the world junior championship and for him to have a better playoff showing, it’s hard not to love his incredible quickness, dogged determination and big-save ability. He’s the Red Wings’ best goaltending prospect until proven otherwise.
11. LW Dick Axelsson (NR), 47-15-15-30-126, Farjestad (SEL).
Axelsson is a bizarre prospect who has elite skills but is immature on the metal side. He is coming off a good season and deserves credit for winning a Swedish Elite League championship and being named one of five candidates for most valuable player. He could be a scoring-line NHLer if he learns how to work hard, but could just as easily never play a single NHL game.
12. G Thomas McCollum (-3), 22 GP, 3.33 GAA, .879 Sv%, Grand Rapids (AHL).
McCollum’s confidence has been shaken as a pro. “Tommy has a tough time moving on from a bad goal,” McNamara said. “He has all the (physical) skills in the world. It’s just a matter of him getting mentally tough. I wouldn’t cast him on a scrap heap. He’s a battler.” At age 21, McCollum might find his way if he starts on a winning team — wherever it may be.
13. RW Mitchell Callahan (-2), 62-23-31-54-87, Kelowna (WHL).
The energizing, agitating Callahan knows his role and fills his role as well or better than anybody else in the system. Making the U.S. world junior team was a sign of how far his all-around game has come. But does he have the skill to avoid the fate of former Red Wings prospect Darryl Bootland? That’s a question Callahan will start to answer as he turns pro next season.
14. D Brian Lashoff (-1), 37-0-3-3-25, Grand Rapids (AHL).
It was pretty much a write-off of a season for Lashoff, who battled several injuries and couldn’t crack the lineup late in the year. Staying healthy will help the rock-solid 6-foot-3 204-pounder get back on track. “He didn’t get a ton of opportunity with us, but I have high hopes for him,” McNamara said. “I think he’s an NHL player and I think he’ll be fine.”
15. D Adam Almquist (–), 52-0-16-16-32, HV-71 (SEL).
The seventh-round sleeper just signed a three-year entry-level deal and has a boatload of natural talent. He is already a top-four Swedish Elite League defender, and he reasonably compares to Brian Rafalski, in both strengths and weaknesses. But until he commits to getting stronger — which he hasn’t yet — he won’t take his game to the next level.
16. C Landon Ferraro (-4), 41-10-17-27-51, Everett (WHL).
Since scoring 37 goals in his draft year, the speedy Ferraro has put up just 26 goals in 94 games over two seasons. He’ll get a fresh start as a pro.
17. D Nick Jensen (+2), 38-5-18-23-18, St. Cloud State (NCAA).
Jensen put up tremendous numbers as an NCAA freshman and his outstanding wheels and rapid development make him an exciting prospect to watch.
18. D Max Nicastro (-2), 38-5-4-9-59, Boston U. (NCAA).
Nicastro is similar to Lashoff and his physical game is coming along nicely. But his numbers declined as a sophomore and he’ll need to bounce back.
19. LW/RW Andrej Nestrasil (-3), 58-19-51-70, P.E.I. (QMJHL).
He showed enough in the QMJHL to earn a contract, but is a bit of a raw project and could use more assertiveness to complement his ample size and skill.
20. LW/C Brent Raedeke (-), 67-8-5-13-17, Grand Rapids (AHL).
Raedeke stepped right in as an AHL rookie, becoming a regular with his top-flight speed and dogged, tenacious effort on the forecheck.
21. C Louis-Marc Aubry (–), 35-13-12-25-26, Montreal (QMJHL).
Despite injuries, the six-foot-three Aubry showed he has tremendous upside and could quickly move up this list as he starts to fill out his lean frame.
22. RW Trevor Parkes (–), 60-33-29-62-32, Montreal (QMJHL).
Skating isn’t his forte, but he’s a scrappy, gritty, hard-working winger coming off a 33-goal season. He could be a solid role player in the NHL.
23. G Jordan Pearce (+1), 44 GP, 2.89 GAA, .908 Sv%, Grand Rapids (AHL).
The solid but unspectacular Pearce turned himself into a legitimate prospect by giving Grand Rapids desperately-needed stability in goal.
24. D Gleason Fournier (-1), 57-12-32-44-58, Rimouski (QMJHL).
An all-world skater, the rest of his game has a long way to come. He didn’t dominate the QMJHL as expected last season and may need ECHL seasoning.
25. D Ben Marshall (NR), 56-11-21-32-34, Omaha (USHL).
He’s showing signs of following in the footsteps of Jensen with his skating and offensive skills, and could emerge as an offensive gunner in college.