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.
“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 foxsports.com. “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 foxsports.com. “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 foxsports.com. “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 foxsports.com. “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 foxsports.com.
“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.
SKATERS: REGULAR-SEASON REPORT
|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|
|Nastasiuk, Zach||Owen Sound||OHL||CHL||62||23||28||51||26||-14||–|
|McNulty, Marc||Prince George||WHL||CHL||67||17||25||42||115||-10||–|
|De Haas, James||Clarkson||ECAC||NCAA||37||6||7||13||18||-12||49|
|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||–||–|
GOALIES: REGULAR SEASON REPORT
|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|
|McCollum, Thomas||Grand Rapids||AHL||46||24||12||4||2||2.30||.922|
SKATERS: PLAYOFF REPORT
|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||—||—|
|Nastasiuk, Zach||Owen Sound||OHL||CHL||5||3||1||4||2||-4||—|
GOALIES: PLAYOFF REPORT
|Mrazek, Petr||Grand Rapids||AHL||4||3||1||0||0||1.72||.936|