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Blue-chip blueliners ready to challenge

Published Saturday, May 3, 2014, 7:35 p.m. under 2013-14 RWC Reports
Mattias Backman

Mattias Backman (Credit: Mark Newman)

An influx of young forwards propelled the Detroit Red Wings to their 23rd straight playoff appearance this season. The next influx of youth is expected to come on the blue line — and it might be on the way sooner than later.

The Red Wings have six legitimate NHL defense prospects currently playing in the AHL post-season with the Grand Rapids Griffins, and all of them will battle for whatever full-time jobs are available with the Red Wings in training camp next season.

Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko, Ryan Sproul and Adam Almquist have already received brief NHL call-ups, while Mattias Backman and Nick Jensen are next in line.

“We have six real NHL prospects (on the blue line) we are super, super excited about,” said Red Wings director of player development Jiri Fischer. “They are legit NHL prospects. Availability (of jobs) is limited … We are super excited about our youth, our depth … Now, we hope these guys will be able to bridge over to the NHL and have success at that level.”

Each of the six is unique. Ouellet plays a heads-up, two-way game; Marchenko is mobile, steady and mistake-free; Sproul has tremendous size and dynamic skating and shooting skills; the undersized Almquist is one of the best offensive defensemen outside of the NHL; Backman is a finesse defenseman who can play at both ends of the ice; and Jensen is an incredible skater and defensive stalwart.

Who is the best bet to graduate?

“To put certain guys ahead of others, it may not be fair,” Fischer said. “It depends on availability (of jobs) and need.”

If the Red Wings are looking for a power-play boost, Almquist is the easy frontrunner. He finished third in AHL defense scoring with four goals and 49 assists for 53 points in 73 games, anchoring the AHL’s seventh best power-play unit at a rate of 20.2 percent.

The 23-year-old, drafted in the seventh round in 2009, is also the only one of the six who isn’t waiver exempt, so it’s now or never with the Red Wings. He would likely catch on with another team or head back to Sweden if he doesn’t make the Red Wings roster.

In the best case, Almquist will develop into a Brian Rafalski type.

“He makes everybody better on the power play, the way he distributes the puck, his smarts, his demeanor … He never panics with the puck, he always gets plays done, and he was really fun to watch (in Grand Rapids),” Fischer said.

The question has always been whether the 5-foot-11 178-pounder has the strength and all-around game to do more than just play on the power play in the NHL.

“That’s been kind of the story for the past several years since we’ve drafted him, and all he’s done is gotten better,” Fischer said “He’s gotten stronger ever year, more muscular every year, and now it’s going to be up to (head coach) Mike Babcock to see where Adam would potentially fit on the roster and if he can run the power play. If not, decisions are going to be made. But at the AHL level he’s done everything we’ve asked of him. He’s run our power play in Grand Rapids and done a phenomenal job.”

Sproul, who just turned 21 and was named to the AHL all-rookie team, would also be in the mix for a job if the need is for offense. The 6-foot-4 205-pounder was second among rookie defense scorers with 11 goals and 21 assists for 32 points in 72 games. His defensive play, long a weakness, has steadily improved throughout the season.

“He’s got a great first couple of steps with the puck, he skates faster with the puck than without it and he has a great shot,” Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill told “He’s a real talent — he could end up being a star in the NHL.”

“He’s as dangerous as anybody in the AHL,” Fischer added.

Ouellet, Marchenko and Backman, meanwhile, have the most well-rounded, polished games of the group.

The 6-foot, 200-pound Ouellet has seen the most NHL time of any of the defense prospects, with four regular season games and a big vote of confidence in the playoffs when he was recalled to replace Jakub Kindl in Game 5 of the first round against Boston.

Still only 20, Ouellet has above-average offensive ability but also “can play good defense” and “competes really hard,” according to Fischer.

“He’s got a real consistency to his game,” Blashill told “He seems to be able to find the right passing lanes and deliver the puck on time and let the forwards do their work. He’s strong on the puck, he’s strong in puck battles, and that makes him a good penalty killer.”

Marchenko, who played in the AHL All-Star Game, might have been considered for the call-up to replace Kindl had he been healthy. The 6-foot-2 212-pounder earned rave reviews in his first North American campaign before suffering a season-ending high-ankle sprain on Feb. 23.

Although he isn’t as gifted in the offensive zone as Almquist or Sproul — or even Ouellet or Backman — he moves the puck efficiently and finished with three goals and 12 assists along with a plus-11 in 49 games.

The 22-year-old is the type of dependable blueliner coaches love.

“He has a chance to be a top-four defenseman in the NHL,” Blashill told “He’s big, he’s extremely smart, he’s very poised with the puck. He’s not just a big defender, he’s got a good stick defensively but yet he can make those little breakout passes that are critical in the NHL game. He has a real chance to be a real top-end guy.”

“He’s smart, he doesn’t get beat, he makes a great outlet pass,” Fischer added. “Very safe. Very steady. I think he’s got a good future.”

The slender 6-foot-2, 176-pound Backman recovered from a slow start with Linkoping of the Swedish Hockey League to finish with a league-leading plus-26 rating along with six goals and 15 assists for 21 points in 54 games.

Backman has played in all situations since joining the Griffins in late April and recorded two goals and two assists in four games in the first round of the playoffs against the Abbotsford Heat. He stepped right in on the No. 1 power-play unit when Almquist went down in Game 1 with a lower-body injury.

The 21-year-old has been compared to Vancouver Cancuks defenseman Alexander Edler by Red Wings director of European scouting Hakan Andersson. Blashill likens him to Danny DeKeyser.

“He skates very well, he’s got a real long stick,” Blashill told “He’s got a real ability to get back to a puck, break it out, he can pass the puck real well, and he’s got — I think — borderline dynamic offensive ability from the blue line in. He looks like somebody, to me, that’s got a chance to play in the NHL as early as next year.”

Jensen is the oldest of the group — turning 24 in September — but also has the fewest pro games of the group. Not as highly touted as the others, Jensen was originally drafted for his offensive potential. But his game evolved in college to the point where he was named the 2013 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year as a junior at St. Cloud State.

The 6-foot-1, 193-pounder didn’t play his first AHL game until Dec. 6 because of a serious shoulder injury, but had nine assists and a plus-12 in 45 games. Fischer said he’s “done a great job” for the Griffins.

“The future’s bright on defense with a lot of prospects who have a chance,” Blashill told

“Every one of them is unique, every one of them is exciting,” Fischer added. “It’s fantastic for our organization.”

NOTES: An interesting note about the aforementioned blueliners: Sproul, Marchenko and Jensen all shoot right — something Babcock is seeking since all seven of the Red Wings’ regulars shoot left … Remaining waiver exemptions for the aforementioned defensemen are as follows: Sproul (two seasons/159 NHL games); Ouellet (2/155); Backman (2/80); Marchenko (2/79); Jensen (2/60) … The Griffins ousted the Abbotsford Heat 3-1 in the best-of-five first round and move on to face the Texas Stars in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals starting Thursday … Almquist missed the final three games with a lower-body injury and it’s not clear when he’ll return … Right-winger Teemu Pulkkinen hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs for the Griffins, leading the team with two goals and three assists and a plus-4 … Backman, Sproul and center/winger Andrej Nestrasil each had four points … Right-winger Mitchell Callahan returned to the lineup with a full cage after missing eight games with a horrific facial injury. He had two assists in two games … Goaltender Petr Mrazek had a 1.72 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage in the first round. He’s started 28 straight playoff games for Grand Rapids and that streak is unlikely to end anytime soon … Anthony Mantha and the Val-d’Or Foreurs ousted the Halifax Mooseheads in seven games to advance to the QMJHL final against the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. Mantha had eight goals and three assists against the defending Memorial Cup champion Mooseheads. The 19-year-old right-winger has two assists in the final and the Foreurs are tied 1-1 with the Drakkar. Game 3 is Tueday … Tyler Bertuzzi and the Guelph Storm are tied 1-1 with the North Bay Battalion in the OHL final. Bertuzzi hasn’t registered a point in his past four games but does have 14 points in 15 playoff contests. Game 3 is Tuesday … The next RWC Report will appear after the end of the AHL Western Conference semifinals.


Almquist, Adam Grand Rapids AHL PRO 73 4 49 53 56 +9 129
Callahan, Mitchell Grand Rapids AHL PRO 70 26 18 44 51 +23 194
Jurco, Tomas Grand Rapids AHL PRO 32 13 19 32 14 +10 91
Marchenko, Alexey Grand Rapids AHL PRO 49 3 15 18 14 +11 34
Sheahan, Riley Grand Rapids AHL PRO 31 8 10 18 12 -2 51
Sproul, Ryan Grand Rapids AHL PRO 72 11 21 32 49 0 155
Glendening, Luke Grand Rapids AHL PRO 18 5 7 12 18 +8 26
Jarnkrok, Calle Grand Rapids AHL PRO 57 13 23 36 14 +19 99
Pulkkinen, Teemu Grand Rapids AHL PRO 71 31 28 59 34 +18 201
Frk, Martin Grand Rapids AHL PRO 50 3 9 12 22 -12 45
Jensen, Nick Grand Rapids AHL PRO 45 0 9 9 8 +12 40
Tvrdon, Marek Grand Rapids AHL PRO 1 0 0 0 0 0 3
Ferraro, Landon Grand Rapids AHL PRO 70 15 16 31 52 -3 195
Aubry, Louis-Marc Grand Rapids AHL PRO 38 2 2 4 16 -1 48
Fournier, Gleason Grand Rapids AHL PRO 25 0 2 2 4 +4 19
Parkes, Trevor Grand Rapids AHL PRO 36 6 3 9 27 +5 51
Nestrasil, Andrej Grand Rapids AHL PRO 70 16 20 36 24 0 115
Ouellet, Xavier Grand Rapids AHL PRO 70 4 13 17 22 +3 92
Nedomlel, Richard Grand Rapids AHL PRO 3 0 0 0 2 -2 1
Campbell, Colin Grand Rapids AHL PRO 13 1 0 1 5 -2 18
Nastasiuk, Zach Grand Rapids AHL PRO 5 0 0 0 0 -2 6
Athanasiou, Andreas Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 1 2 3 0 0 4
Backman, Mattias Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 0 0 0 0 -1 1
Janmark, Mattias Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 0 0 0 2 +1 3
Parkes, Trevor Toledo ECHL PRO 27 17 17 34 20 0 106
Frk, Martin Toledo ECHL PRO 15 5 8 13 10 -11 27
Nicastro, Max Toledo ECHL PRO 58 0 16 16 28 -18 112
Nedomlel, Richard Toledo ECHL PRO 60 8 10 18 150 -16 111
Tvrdon, Marek Toledo ECHL PRO 22 9 4 13 6 -8 59
Aubry, Louis-Marc Toledo ECHL PRO 18 7 7 14 10 -4 62
Jensen, Nick Toledo ECHL PRO 3 0 0 0 0 -2 4
Mantha, Anthony Val-d’Or QMJHL CHL 57 57 63 120 75 +34 286
Hudon, Philippe Victoriaville QMJHL CHL 57 19 12 31 75 -1 125
Athanasiou, Andreas Barrie OHL CHL 66 49 46 95 52 +25
Nastasiuk, Zach Owen Sound OHL CHL 62 23 28 51 26 -14
Bertuzzi, Tyler Guelph OHL CHL 29 10 25 35 49 +9
McNulty, Marc Prince George WHL CHL 67 17 25 42 115 -10
Wheaton, Mitchell Kelowna WHL CHL 57 7 21 28 38 +31
Tvrdon, Marek Kelowna WHL CHL 29 11 16 27 24 +8
Janmark, Mattias AIK SEL EUR 45 18 12 30 56 -6 99
Backman, Mattias Linkoping SEL EUR 54 6 15 21 16 +25 68
Melen, Hampus Tingsryds SWE-J20 EUR-JR 11 0 5 5 14 -6 17
Bodin, Rasmus Linkoping SWE-J20 EUR-JR 14 0 2 2 2 -3 5
De Haas, James Clarkson ECAC NCAA 37 6 7 13 18 -12 49
Marshall, Ben Minnesota BIG-10 NCAA 39 3 15 18 56 +8 79
McKee, Mike W. Michigan BIG-10 NCAA 21 1 0 1 54 +1 11
Pope, David W. Kelowna BCHL USHL/JR-A 45 27 23 50 20


Paterson, Jake Saginaw OHL 45 24 18 2 2 3.41 .906
Coreau, Jared Grand Rapids AHL 5 0 4 0 0 4.39 .873
Mrazek, Petr Grand Rapids AHL 32 22 9 1 3 2.10 .924
Coreau, Jared Toledo ECHL 19 1 12 5 0 4.10 .873
McCollum, Thomas Grand Rapids AHL 46 24 12 4 2 2.30 .922


Nestrasil, Andrej Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 2 2 4 0 +3 10
Sproul, Ryan Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 2 2 4 4 +1 9
Pulkkinen, Teemu Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 2 3 5 2 +4 16
Backman, Mattias Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 1 3 4 0 0 9
Parkes, Trevor Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 1 0 1 12 +2 7
Fournier, Gleason Grand Rapids AHL PRO 1 0 1 1 2 +2 0
Athanasiou, Andreas Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 0 1 1 2 +3 7
Janmark, Mattias Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 0 1 1 0 0 11
Nastasiuk, Zach Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 0 1 1 0 0 4
Almquist, Adam Grand Rapids AHL PRO 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
Frk, Martin Grand Rapids AHL PRO 1 0 0 0 0 0 2
Campbell, Colin Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 0 0 0 2 0 0
Ferraro, Landon Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 1 1 2 2 +2 10
Jensen, Nick Grand Rapids AHL PRO 4 0 0 0 0 +1 8
Ouellet, Xavier Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 0 0 0 2 0 2
Callahan, Mitchell Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 0 2 2 4 -1 6
Jurco, Tomas Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 1 1 2 2 -2 3
Sheahan, Riley Grand Rapids AHL PRO 2 1 1 2 0 -1 8
Pope, David W. Kelowna BCHL USHL/JR. A 6 2 4 6 2
Backman, Mattias Linkoping SEL EUR-PRO 11 0 5 5 6 +4 16
Janmark, Mattias AIK SEL EUR-PRO 10 1 3 4 24 0 22
Mantha, Anthony Val-d’Or QMJHL CHL 18 18 9 27 33 +13 84
Hudon, Philippe Victoriaville QMJHL CHL 5 3 1 4 6 -1 13
Athanasiou, Andreas Barrie OHL CHL 11 3 9 12 2 +1
Nastasiuk, Zach Owen Sound OHL CHL 5 3 1 4 2 -4
Bertuzzi, Tyler Guelph OHL CHL 15 8 6 14 22 +10
Wheaton, Mitchell Kelowna WHL CHL 14 0 5 5 8 +3
Tvrdon, Marek Kelowna WHL CHL 14 5 8 13 14 0


Mrazek, Petr Grand Rapids AHL 4 3 1 0 0 1.72 .936
Paterson, Jake Saginaw OHL 5 1 4 0 0 4.67 .889
  1. RomaGoth says:

    @Adam Banks – McKee was moved to wing this past season at Western Michigan, he does not appear to be a defense prospect anymore, and not sure if he is even a real threat to earn a contract or make the NHL down the road. Very, very limited offensive upside and still takes dumb penalties.

    YVR – I would keep Kronner, DD, and Smith. I still believe Kindl has enough upside to be useful but probably not in Detroit with all of these prospects coming up the next few years. I would also keep Lashoff, he makes for a nice 7th defenseman who can play when needed and doesn’t make very much money.

    Keep all of the prospects and let them show us who deserves to stay in Detroit.

  2. Pswingset says:

    In regards to the possibly of Mrazek cracking the wing’s roster this year, I keep thinking that if they resign Gus to a one year deal, (if that’s something he’s even interested in) then the wings may have an interesting situation, possibly a best case scenario depending on how you feel about Gus and Mrazek. The scenario being: with gus’ health a serious question, couldn’t the wings potentially give Mrazek around 12-18 NHL games this year just as a injury replacement to Gus? I honestly don’t remember how many games Gus was injured for, but I believe it was around that number. Holland might be thinking they can have Mrazek start 50ish games in grand rapids like they probably would like him to, and also continue to get him more NHL experience than he would have with a healthy backup for Howard in preparation for Mrazek’s inevitable promotion to Detroit.

    So to sum up:
    -Sign Gus for one more year WITH the expectation that he miss some time, but otherwise as a very good backup to Howard.
    -Start Mrazek in GR. Get him 50 or so games there and bring him up when Gus is hurt.
    -Wings get above average backup goaltending either way, and your future franchise goalie gets more NHL starts than he otherwise would.
    -Win win win? Is it crazy to sign somebody that you know will miss more time than average just to get the kid in the show more often? Doesn’t sound so crazy to me. Thoughts?

  3. StevieY says:

    I think Mrazek needs to be the backup in Detroit next season. He only played 32 games in Grand Rapids this year during the regular season. If Howard plays 51 games like he did this year, that will give Mrazek 31 games at the NHL level. He is NHL ready now and the Wings will save almost $1 million by having Mrazek as a backup instead of Gus. This will also push Howie to be the #1. By the end of the season I see Mrazek being #1 going into the playoffs and Howard traded next summer so that eith McCollum or Patterson can be the backup.

  4. AB says:

    I like keeping him on the farm as long as possible and I say this because Mrazek is already better then Howard and I’m not one for a goaltending controversy. Why do I think Mrazek is better then Howie? 1)His stats in the AHL and NHL are better and 2) stats don’t tell the whole story but its obvious when you watch him play – Mrazek is better, he’s more athletic and quick, way better with the puck and (much like Jimmy has shown) can raise his game when needed.

    So you basically are creating a goalie controversy that can perhaps wait a year. Would you the Wings be better with Mrazek right now? Absolutely, problem is they are paying Jimmy. Also it’s not like Jimmy is chump change he’s certainly in the top 1/2 of the league maybe even top 3rd but it seems Mrazek has Rask, Quick, “top 5″ potential.

    So to make a long story short I’d resign Gus next year, keep Mrazek in the minors and start Jimmy 60+ games. Year after though I’d look to trade Howie or tell him he’s a backup. Mrazek is just too good to not be the starter by the ’15-’16 season.

  5. Levi says:

    I do agree it is better to keep Mrazek in GR just for the starts however I would in no way tell him he is the starter in ’15-’16. Positions are earned and Howard earned his spoty by beating out Osgood so same goes for Mrazek. Rookies have to earn there stripes nothing is given. Same goes for Mantha. Lots of people on here want to see him with the the Wings next season but the NHL is not the QMJHL. He is a big boy amoung little boys in the Q not men. I think a year in GR would do wonders for Mantha plus our roster is way to crowded right now.

    On the defensive side let’s be honest we are not getting much return for Kindl on a trade, maybe 3rd rounder if we are lucky. Best bet is to go for Niskanen if not then I would look at Boyle. Boyle for a year would do good things for our young guys especially Sproul when he gets the inevitable injury call up.

  6. Hockey Fan says:

    I want Matt Greene for the d. and big Buff(see what the wings can do with him) I say sign Gus bring up Mrazek when need during the season and dress the 2 best in the play offs

  7. AB says:

    Levi – I think his Calder Cup, good showings in the NHL and in international play are a good start. He’s “earning” it right now and doing awesome (better then Jimmy ever looked).

  8. Levi says:

    Yes that is all well and good but until he takes the job like Howie did ie. a 37 win season when Osgood was suppose to be the starter he will have to take his licks on the bench or in the minors. His junior and AHL accomplishments and stats are amazing but they don’t mean anything until he steals Howies job and we have all seen Howie battle before and he won’t just give it up. I want to see Mrazek play as much as the next guy but throwing a guy to the wolves is not good for development at all, unless you are in the mold of a Crosby, McKinnon etc which none of our prospects are.

  9. YVR says:

    So the Wings need a veteran, a right shot, dman say some. I say just move Kindl and Lashoff (allthough I can see the merits of having a cheap 7th dman) and with Quincey moving on because he will get more money elsewhere, the Wings have 3 openings on D next yr. Sign P.K.Subban, a rh shot who would be perfect in Detroit with the 75-80% population Black American (is that political correct), and bring up Ouellet, who is most ready to play in the show, and either Sproul or Marchenko. I prefer Sproul as Marchenko missed too much time last yr with injuries. PK is a perfect fit with an up-and-coming Wing team.

  10. Bob says:

    I would love to get Subban on our squad, but if I’m Montreal and especially given his play in the playoffs right now, I’m matching any offer sheet that’s thrown his way. It would have to be a sign and trade, however then you’d be selling the farm for one guy. Probably better off going the free agent route.

  11. Nathan says:

    I think Boyle is the best option. right handed PP specialist. Marchenko Spoul and ouellet will all get call ups when the enevitable injuries occur.
    let the D be Kronner-smith (i think he deserves some PP time and first pairing) DK-Ericcson Boyle- lashoff/almquist. let the kids get the proper time to play see if almquist has any value in camp can’t be much worse than meech or lebda was. and if he is then waive him and bring up a kid and bench lash, he’s the 7th guy either way. Quick Launch

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