Friday Prospects -- Class of 2009

Hello there. I'm Kyle, and this is my feature.

 

If anyone's ever read my blog (I don't blame you, I don't read it either), you'll know that my love in life is Detroit prospects. I've always followed the draft, and when I'm not watching the Wings I'm usually trying to catch some random prospects game. I find the idea of knowing future Red Wings before they get there to be thrilling, and I think many others do as well. The only problem is, with so many prospects spread out all over the world, it's really hard to know where to start.

 

Hence, every Friday I will deliver this feature. Obviously with bigger things on the agenda today, I don't expect people will be fawning all over this. But I figure since the prospects season is well under way, this would be a fine day to make my debut.

 

Every week, this should be your stop for only the freshest prospects news. I plan to target three or four players every week to profile and provide some background and info on so that anyone looking to follow prospects can start. I'll spread the love, of course -- with 39 prospects headed into the season, I'll be looking at the most well-known to the most obscure. As this is a new feature and I am an indecisive person, I'd love to hear feedback on anything that you might want to see thrown in to this feature.

 

Today's group -- the graduating class of 2009.

As we are mere hours away from the drop of the puck, I figure the group to start this feature off is obvious. While they may be the most well-known of all Detroit's prospects, I figure there could be some who haven't had a chance to watch these guys at length, and might not know where they all come from. Let's take a look at the four prospects who will wear the Winged Wheel for the first time this season.

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Ville Leino, LW, 26, 6'1, 190 lbs, signed by Detroit summer 2008 -- Leino is still one of the newest Detroit prospects, but it didn't take him very long to become one of the best. Leino rose up through the Finnish junior ranks completely undrafted, despite several impressive seasons in the junior clubs of SaPKo and Ilves. This was highlighted by 72 points in 26 games in his final season of Junior A Division-1 hockey (which is the second highest league in the very confusing and multi-tiered Finnish Junior system). He made his SM-Liiga (top professional league in Finland) debut at the age of 19, and was a regular at 20 -- quickly being acclaimed as one of the most offensively gifted prospects in Finland.

Leino's rise through the SM-Liiga was stunted in 2004-05 because of all the NHLers playing due to the lockout. He was poised for a top six role, but was instead relegated to 4th line duty in a crucial season for his development. He transferred to HPK the following season, posting back-to-back average seasons with 43 and 40 points. At the age of 24, Leino finally had the breakout season many anticipated with 77 points in 55 games en route to capturing league MVP honors.

Meanwhile, Detroit was engaged in quite the courtship with a rising Swedish star, Fabian Brunnstrom. Within a week after losing that months-long battle to Dallas, Detroit signed Leino. Since then, Leino has been nothing but impressive. Leino had been accused of Finland of being tough to coach, and a player who felt he was entitled to ice time even if he wasn't producing. Leino showed none of those traits in North America, taking a demotion to Grand Rapids in stride despite the fact that he was clearly NHL-ready. He enjoyed a successful first taste of the NHL late in the regular season on into the playoffs, and now, armed with a two-year, one-way deal, is poised to make Wings fans quickly forget about Jiri Hudler.

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Jonathan Ericsson, D, 25, 6'4, 220 lbs, drafted 9th round, 2002 -- Detroit used the final pick of the 2002 draft on a giant center playing third-tier men's league hockey in Sweden. Fast forward a few years, they have an AHL All-Star defenseman touted as one of the best prospects of his position. But let's back up a bit first.

The story on Ericsson is quite well-known. Super-scout Hakan Andersson was present one game where Ericsson's team, Vita Hasten, was short on defenseman, so the team's coach (Ericsson's father), decided to move Jonathan back to defense for a game. Andersson was so impressed that he asked if Ericsson would consider a permanent switch to defense. Two years later, Ericsson was on the blueline for Sodertalje, in the Swedish Elite League, the highest in Sweden. Despite this, Ericsson was still a relative unknown as he only managed one point over three seasons in the SEL, and was sent down to second-tier Sweden several times in his final two seasons.

That one point was enough for Detroit, and they brought him over to Grand Rapids for the 2006-07 season. Ericsson's stock shot up to the top of the Detroit depth chart. What Detroit found was a superb-skating defenseman with a steady and composed defensive game, who can make plays in the defensive zone with his long reach, and in the offensive zone with his 100+ mile per hour slapshot.

Ericsson officially became a Detroit regular late last season, and he played in 22 post-season games, scoring four goals. The AHL is now a thing of the past for Ericsson, as he will start the season on Detroit paired with Brett Lebda. While still a raw player who needs to use his size better in the defensive zone and minimize his mistakes with the puck, Ericsson has the potential to be a large part of the committee that will need to fill in for Nicklas Lidstrom when his days are done.

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Jimmy Howard, G, 25, 6'0, 210 lbs, drafted 2nd round, 2003 -- The Wings commitment to finding and grooming a homegrown goalie began in 2003 when they made Jimmy Howard their first pick of the draft. Howard had just completed his freshman season at the University of Maine, and was poised to become the starting goalie after splitting time in his first year.

And start he did, as Howard won the job for the playoffs by leading the nation by a large margin in both save percentage (.956) and goals against average (1.19). He led Maine on a very deep playoff run all the way to the National Championship game, where they fell 1-0 to Denver. The following season, Howard's numbers were not quite that good, but you can hardly be disappointed with a 1.92 GAA for a goalie suffering from mono in front of a slightly weakened lineup.

The Wings' intention for years was to bring Howard along very slowly and give him as much time as possible in the AHL before bringing him up. Howard spent the next four years in the AHL, save for nine games spread out over three years in Detroit. Howard established himself as starting goalie, but he was never able to shake inconsistency to rise to the elite level AHL status.

Now out of AHL options, Howard starts the season as Chris Osgood's backup goalie. He's got his fair share of doubters, but he's finally been given the chance to be a regular he's earned after working closely with Detroit for six seasons following his draft. He's been told that as long as he wins, he'll play, and he'll most likely look a little more consistent playing behind one of the deepest defenses in the league, opposed to a Griffins blueline who's talent and depth fluctuated from year-to-year.

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Darren Helm, C, 22, 5'11, 195, drafted 5th round, 2005 -- When the Wings drafted Helm in 2005, they drafted a player who had the speed and work ethic that they like to see on their checking line. Unranked by every major scouting service, Helm was not exactly what you might call a household name.

As a rookie with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers, Helm's 24 points probably had something to do with scouts not lining up to see him. The next season, however, scouting services and teams throughout the league wished they had reconsidered. Helm exploded for 79 points, the most on his team. He took his game even further the following season, leading the Tigers to an appearance at the Memorial Cup as well as playing a checking line role for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.

Helm turned pro the following season, but struggled to find a regular spot in a very young and inexperienced lineup. However, a late season NHL callup opened eyes yet again to just how good he was, and Detroit kept him for the Stanley Cup run as the team's 4th line center. Despite being this impressive, because he didn't need to clear waivers to play in the AHL, Helm played most of last season in Grand Rapids.

Helm proved in last year's playoffs that he can be more than just one of the fastest players in the league. He quickly became a fan favorite with a few big playoff goals as well as one legendary penalty kill in the Chicago series. With 41 playoff games to his 23 regular season games, Helm will finally get his chance this year to be an every day player for Detroit. His season debut will be delayed a few weeks as his shoulder heals, but Helm has absolutely forced his way onto a team that brings its youth along very slowly. He will get an opportunity to lead the next generation of Detroit's checking line.

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Who's Hot: A 2009 pick, Tomas Tatar came to Detroit's training camp and earned a contract, starting the season in Grand Rapids ... 2009 7th round pick Adam Almqvist, the highest scoring defenseman in the Swedish Junior League last season, has 8 points in 2 games.

Who's Not: Johan Ryno impressed Detroit at training camp and then went back to Sweden instead of playing in Grand Rapids, making it unlikely he gets another contract ... 2009 top pick Landon Ferraro only has one goal in his first five games.

Notes: Brian Lashoff (Kingston, OHL), Brent Raedeke (Edmonton, WHL), and Jamie Tardif (Grand Rapids, AHL) are Detroit prospects who have been named captains of their respective clubs ... Justin Abdelkader made Detroit's opening day lineup, but may go to Grand Rapids when Helm is healthy ... Dick Axelsson, Cory Emmerton, Gleason Fournier, and Ryan Oulahen all start the season on the injury list, though none sound like they will miss extended time.

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