Friday Prospects -- Top of the Class

In this week's installment of Friday Prospects, the weekly look into the world that is Detroit Red Wings prospects, we're getting ready to go to school. This week, I profile Detroit's top three prospects still playing in the collegiate ranks.

There was a long period of time in the 1990s and early '00s where if you were a college-bound player, you shouldn't expect to be drafted by the Red Wings. Between 1995 and 2004, Detroit drafted only three college-bound players, and keep in mind the draft was nine rounds at this time. However, since the new CBA changed the rules of the draft in 2005, Detroit has taken eight. Nowhere near an overwhelming majority, but a definite sign of a trend that will continue.

The reason was that, before the CBA was changed, teams held North American player rights (junior or college) for a set amount of time, while you held European player rights indefinitely. Detroit has always been a team that has liked long-term projects, so it just made more sense for them to spend those late round picks on small, skilled European players (the Pavel Datsyuks of the world) and leave them in Europe for three to five years and hope they figure it out on their own. This opposed to a North American player, who would have seen much more exposure to scouts, greatly reducing the chance to find a skilled, diamond-in-the-rough type player.

And then if it came down to a junior player or a college player, it made sense to go junior in most cases. At 18, a junior player has already spent one or two years in the league, so they will be prepared to assume a big role on their team in the next two season before an NHL team has to sign him. Meanwhile, a college player at 18 would either be a freshman, or entering college the next fall. They would not likely get big minutes until their junior year, and then an NHL team would be forced to make a decision on a player who has not had as great of a chanc

But the new CBA changed the rules -- major junior players and European players now have two years to sign, while college players have until they graduate college. Detroit saw the advantage to this, so that in some cases (if a player spent an extra year in junior before going to college), they would have five years to make a decision on a player.

That said, let's take a look at the three most promising college prospects.

Gustav Nyquist, LW, 20, 5'11, 170, drafted 4th round, 2008 -- Just looking at the name, you can probably tell what is so appealing about Nyquist. He's got two of the characteristics Detroit likes most in the drafts -- he's a college player, and he's Swedish. Not bad.

Nyquist has never been a highly-touted prospect, but he could be one of Detroit's best kept secrets. Rising up through the junior ranks of Malmo in Sweden, despite a healthy 44 points in 42 games, Nyquist went undrafted in his first year of eligibility. The second time around, while most players his age were at least getting a taste of professional Swedish hockey, Nyquist remained in juniors to preserve his college eligibility (if a player gets paid to play hockey, even just one game, they cannot play NCAA hockey. This is why major junior [OHL/WHL/QMJHL] players cannot play college, but college players can quit school and go play major junior). To add to this, Nyquist was limited to just 24 games because of injury. Despite this, Detroit found him suitable for a 4th round draft pick.

And they were immediately rewarded. Joining a once powerful University of Maine team (where Jimmy Howard once led the school to the NCAA Frozen Four, where they lost in the finals), it was clear that Nyquist was the best scoring threat they had, leading the team with 32 points in 38 games, the first freshman to lead Maine in scoring since some dude named Paul Kariya did it (albeit with a freakish 100 points in 39 games). He needed no time to transition from Sweden to the grittier college game, showing that he could still be a high skill player despite the more physical game, and even adding a gritty, no fear element to his own game.

Now a sophomore, Nyquist is quickly emerging as a dominant force in the college hockey world. Although Maine is still among the worst teams in Hockey East (their conference), Nyquist is off to a quick start with 13 points in eight games. It will be interesting to see if Nyquist, an economics major, has enough to success to force Detroit to consider signing him. Most teams wait until the completion of the junior season to sign the top guys, but their are certain exceptions when players might just have more to gain by turning pro. Should they choose to leave him, Nyquist's challenge will be to stay interested and work on his two-way game.

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Max Nicastro, D, 19, 6'3, 200, drafted 3rd round, 2008 -- Thirty picks before Detroit took a gamble on Nyquist, they picked up one of the top American defensemen on the board in Max Nicastro. Nicastro is a smooth-skating defenseman with good size, who plays a steady, reliable two-way game.

Detroit drafted the California-native after his rookie season in the USHL, the top junior league in the United States, also where most college-bound players play before college. On a very veteran roster, the rookie Nicastro picked up big minutes from the start of the season and put up 20 points in 58 games. He also spent the next season in the USHL, logging big minutes on the top pairing all season with 31 points in 57 games. He was a USHL All-Star, and won gold with the United States at the World Jr. A Championships.

Some scouts said that Nicastro was helped out by the fact that both years, Nicastro played with players more highly regarded than he. As a rookie, he played with Columbus draft pick Will Weber (now at Miami-Ohio), and the following year with 2009 Columbus first round pick John Moore (who passed on Colorado College to play in the OHL). Now a freshman at the defending national champion Boston University, Nicastro will start all over on trying to establish an identity for himself and prove that he is just as strong of a prospect as either of them.

Unlike his Hockey East rival Gustav Nyquist, Nicastro has not immediately lit it up in his first seven collegiate games, with just one assist. However, this is to be expected as Boston University boasts one of the deepest defensive groups in the nation, with five NHL draft picks, and none of them freshmen. As cliche as it is, if Nicastro stays consistent and sticks to the things that he does well, he should have no problem moving up the depth chart in the coming few seasons.

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Next up, something a little different. Detroit's best college prospect right now is Wisconsin Badger Brendan Smith. WIM reader Evan "Tex" Western has been gracious enough to supply regular Smith updates, and was more than happy to write about Smith when I asked if he might be interested. Here's what he had to say about Smith:

Brendan Smith is a junior defenseman for the University of Wisconsin Badgers in the WCHA, and was the Red Wings’ first pick in the 2007 draft (27th overall). He switched to defense in his last year of junior hockey with the St. Michael’s Buzzards of the OPJHL, and is still working on his defensive game under the tutelage of head coach Mike Eaves (yes, the father of Patrick Eaves) and former NHL defenseman Mark Osiecki. However, Smith is the most offensively gifted of the Badgers’ blue-chip crop of defensemen, which includes four other players chosen in the top 43 picks of either the 2007 or 2008 NHL draft.

As a result of all the talent on the blue-line in Madison, Smith is constantly being challenged to improve defensively. His nemesis has been his tendency to jump up into the play too early, leading to odd-man rushes. As a result, Smith was benched for one game during the opening week of the season because of a lack of progress in practice and some poor decisions in the opening game against Colorado College. He has rebounded very well from that early setback, earning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week over Halloween weekend against New Hampshire, when he earned four assists in two games.

In his freshman year, Smith paired with senior Kyle Klubertanz, an Anaheim draft pick, in an effort to help get Smith acclimated to the college game, as well as have an experienced player back to help make up for any mistakes. He paired with young, stay-at-home defensemen last season and is doing so again in 2009 with freshman John Ramage, making up the third defensive pair in the rotation—though Eaves plays all his defensemen about the same amount at even strength. However, his skill with the puck and blistering shot from the point earn him ample ice time on the power play.

Last season, he manned the point on the first power play unit with WCHA Player of the Year and Hobey Baker nominee Jamie McBain, now playing with Albany of the AHL, and Smith led the team’s blueliners in goals with 9 in 31 games—all on the power play. This year he’s again on the top PP unit with Ryan McDonagh (12th overall pick in 2007) and is leading the team in points with two goals and seven assists in seven games. Not surprisingly, he’s not playing much on the penalty kill, as the other early draft picks have been taking most of those minutes due to their more refined defensive skills.

The one other concerning thing about Smith is his health. He missed at least 9 games in each of his first two years in Madison. During his freshman year he suffered from back problems that kept him out for 18 games, and he broke his wrist midway through last season, forcing him to sit out for nine contests. There’s nothing in his game that indicates that he’d be a consistent injury risk, however, as he’s not a guy who’s out of control throwing around his body around. He’s been steadily bulking up since he arrived and is now listed at 6’2", 190 (ed note: up from 170 his draft year), but he could still add some more muscle to get more physical around the net.

My personal impressions of Smith are these:  if he can stay healthy, he’ll be a constant offensive threat who can develop his positioning and skill without the puck. He may be prone to making poor defensive plays, but if he is paired with a solid defensive player and can minimize these mistakes, he can be a very effective player in the years to come for the Wings. If he keeps up his progress defensively this season, I expect him sign a professional contract after the Badgers’ season is over in March or (hopefully) April and be a productive member of the Griffins next season.

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Make sure to thank him for putting all that together, good stuff.

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Notes: The World Junior A Challenged ended this week, with Detroit's two representatives fairing quite well. Nick Jensen and the United States took the gold medal over Canada West (yes, Canada is good enough to field two teams). Jensen had three points in five games ... Adam Almqvist scored two of Sweden's nine goals at the tournament, as Sweden went 0-4 ... Jesper Samuelsson continues to get flipped all over, as he's back in SWE-2, playing three games with Sundsvall after playing in the SEL last week ... I mentioned last week that Willie Coetzee made the WHL All-Star team which will take on the Russians, but I neglected to mention that Brent Raedeke will also take part in that series (though the two will be playing separate games) ... On the injury front, Stephen Johnston has missed the last few games, and Thomas McCollum sat out one with a bruised hand ... Not sure if they're injured or just not playing, but neither Travis Ehrhardt or Sebastien Piche got into games last week ... Daniel Larsson was called up to Detroit to back up Howard after Chris Osgood sat out with the flu.

Who's Hot: The Griffins have now won eight straight ... Picking up for the departure of Michael Nylander was Cory Emmerton, who exploded for four goals (his first four of the season) and an assist in three games. He was also a +6, and his +9 rating leads the team ... Daniel Larsson continues his strong play, now sitting at a 5-2 record with a 2.70 GAA and .916 save percentage ... Francis Pare had three assists and was a +3 last week, but has still yet to record his first goal after setting (along with Justin Abdelkader) the Griffins' rookie goal record last season ... Willie Coetzee continues to be a regular in this section with 33 points in 21 games now, tied for third in the league.

Who's Cold: After a quick start, Joakim Andersson has gone a few weeks without registering a point, now with six in 18 games ... Landon Ferraro is still recovering from an injury, but he can't be happy with his -5 rating and 9 PIM, despite two assists ... He now sits at five points in 11 games ... Brian Lashoff has gone two weeks without a point, still sitting at eight in 20 games ... Thomas McCollum surrendered six goals last week in an 8-6 Griffins win.

Guest Author Note: Evan "Tex" Western is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin who has attended each Badger home hockey game and several road series since the start of Wisconsin’s National Championship season in 2005-06, totaling 96 games. Growing up in Milwaukee, WI, he grew up despising Chicago sports and chose the Red Wings as his adopted home team at a young age. He has attended a handful of Red Wings games in the past several years, including his first game at the Joe—Game 5 of the 2008 Western Conference Finals. He blogs regularly at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...We Want More!, a Wisconsin hockey blog.

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