Friday Prospects -- The Juniors

Junior hockey. Is there anything so exciting?

Well, most likely there are many things more exciting than junior hockey. But I'd like to think those who have had the pleasure of experiencing junior hockey up close have it higher up the excitement charts than those who have not.

To anyone unfamiliar with the system, here's a basic rundown of how it works. If you're a young North American hockey player working your way up the ranks (divisions are usually sorted by age, Mite, Squirt, Peewee, Bantam, etc., but the tiers are different in Canada and the United States) you'll come to the Midget level around the age of 15. If you intend to keep playing hockey at a high level and have aspirations at a professional hockey career, you have a choice to make: college hockey, or major junior hockey.

If you choose the collegiate ranks, you'll likely play Junior A hockey. This is flexible, as players can also play high school/prep school hockey (a common choice in competitive states like Minnesota and Massachusetts), midget major, or Junior B/C/D, though you rarely see anyone lower than Junior B go on to play college. The vast majority end up in Junior A. This includes leagues like the United States Hockey League (USHL) and North American Hockey League (NAHL) in the United States, and the likes of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League (OPJHL), British Columbian Hockey League (BCHL), or Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) in Canada. You can play in these leagues until the year you turn 20, but the majority of top prospects are committed to college and playing there at the age of 18 or 19 (some choose to take a year off). The benefit to this route is to preserve your college eligibility, while still playing a heavy schedule. The downside is that you don't get as much exposure, although the major Junior A leagues have made up a lot of ground on major junior hockey in recent years.

Or, if you choose the major junior ranks at the age of 15, get ready, because it's your draft year. The major junior ranks consist of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL, which actually drafts at the age of 14, though they cannot play regularly at 15), and the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). These three leagues comprise the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). Players can play in these leagues from the age of 16 to 20, so this season that encompasses birthdates ranging from 1989 to 1993. This is said to be the quickest route to the NHL, as a top 16 year old prospect would get two full seasons of CHL hockey under their belts before their draft year at 18 -- and then potentially two (or three, if the circumstances are right) more seasons of CHL hockey before turning pro. The downside to this route is you get a small monetary stipend of money each week, ruling you ineligible to play NCAA college hockey. However, the CHL has made strides in recent years at hooking players up with community/local colleges while they're in the CHL, and they also provide an educational package for players to attend Canadian universities and play hockey in the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport).

Phew.. it's complicated, but there's your rundown. I was lucky enough to have a local OHL team where I used to live in Plymouth, and I still catch a fair amount of games every year. It's also the route in which the majority of players are drafted into the NHL. I caught a unique game last week when I saw the top three players ranked for the 2010 draft in one game between Plymouth (Tyler Seguin) and Windsor (Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler). It's quite the experience to attend in person. Pretty much any game you attend you'll see at least a handful of players drafted already into the NHL, and likely a few more a year or two away. There's a lot of offense, and when you've got a bunch of teens trying to prove they're better than each other, things can get pretty heated.

This week in Friday Prospects, we'll look at three players from the '09 draft playing junior hockey. Two of them in the major junior ranks, and one collegiate-bound player in the USHL.

Gleason Fournier, D, 18, 6'0, 184 lbs, drafted 3rd round, 2009 -- Detroit has two elite offensive defensemen that they hope can one day quarterback the powerplay in Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith. But if you're looking for a dark horse to assume that position one day, look no further than Gleason Fournier.

Fournier was a hightly touted prospect out of Quebec, drafted by the Rimouski Oceanic, former junior home of Sidney Crosby. He's an example of the kind of player I mentioned earlier, who was able to play at the age of 16 and 17, so he had two full seasons of QMJHL hockey under his belt before the Detroit Red Wings came calling with the 90th overall pick. He played on a very deep blueline both seasons, not getting major minutes, but still playing an integral part on the team, as he was two years younger than most of the regulars but still got ice time.

After an 11 point rookie season, Fournier had 28 last season for Rimouski. The Oceanic hosted the Memorial Cup, which pits the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL champions against one host team. Typically, as the host team knows they will host a few years ahead of time, so they build their team to win for a certain year. It's not unusual for the host to win their league, meaning the team they beat in the Finals gets to go as well. Rimouski didn't win their league, but they were competitive in the Memorial Cup. Fournier played very few minutes, but his powerplay skills and skating ability came into play a few times.

However, that team graduated four defenseman for this season, including current Griffin Sebastien Piche, so Fournier is called upon to be a go to guy this season. A shoulder injury held him out of the Wings' camp and the start of the QMJHL season, but it didn't take Fournier long to get going. He stepped in immediately and won the QMJHL Defensive Player of the Week award after just a handful of games. He slowed down a bit after then, but has since kicked his offense back into high gear. He sits at five goals and 19 points in 21 games, on pace to smash his career high. His +6 shows his improved play in his own zone, as well. Fournier will have to spend next season in the QMJHL as well, so keep an eye out, as he could be one of the QMJHL's best.

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Nick Jensen, D, 19, 6'1, 189 lbs, drafted 5th round, 2009 -- Jensen was an unknown heading into the 2009 draft, unranked by the major scouting outlets. It's a bit of a funny story how he found out he had been drafted, as he was driving up to Minnesota from Texas on the first day of the draft, and, not expecting to be drafted, was sleeping through the latter rounds before Detroit called him to tell him the good news.

Jensen comes from the top hockey producing state of Minnesota. He played two years of Minnesota high school hockey, leading his team in scoring in both years. He then made the jump to the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers, where he started to focus on the other side of the puck. His offensive totals were still solid, with 22 points in 52 games, but he greatly improved his defensive game, going a team-best +34.

However, the Wings like Jensen for his two-way play, so it was hoped that he would continue to blossom defensively while bringing a little more of his offensive touch that he had in high school. So far this year, that side of the puck has been disappointing, with just five assists in 13 games. However, he was chosen to represent the USA at the World Junior A Challenge, where he led offensively and defensively as the Americans captured their second straight gold medal.

Jensen is in his last year in the USHL, as he will attend St. Cloud State University next season. He'll likely run into fellow Red Wings prospect Nick Oslund, who will be a senior next season.

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Mitchell Callahan, LW, 18, 5'11, 175 pounds, drafted 6th round, 2009 -- If you're a Wings fan and a fighting enthusiast, you likely already know the name Mitchell Callahan. Detroit drafted Callahan with their second-to-last pick in the 2009 draft. Unlike the obscure, high scoring European prospects they usually target with these picks, they targeted Callahan -- who put up 188 penalty minutes in his draft year.

Callahan is a bit of an unusual story. He was born in California and was not drafted into the WHL, instead, attending the Kelowna Rockets' training camp and making the team. One year later, he's property of the Detroit Red Wings. Callahan instantly became a force in the WHL, as one of the premier agitators. He's a relentless skater who will never pass up an opportunity to hit. He gets in the opponent's face and makes himself generally unpleasant to play against. And best of all, he doesn't shy away from a challenge when he needs to drop the gloves. Check out his YouTube results if you're unsure what I'm talking about.

But the Wings don't draft players who exclusively beat the snot out of other players. They drafted Callahan for this element, but also for his offensive upside. Callahan put up 14 goals as a rookie, almost all from his spot on the 4th line, where he was buried on a deep offensive team. Callahan ran into Gleason Fournier (likely in more ways than one) at the Memorial Cup, as Kelowna won the WHL championship and the WHL's bid for the Memorial Cup. They lost in the final game to the Windsor Spitfires, but in his limited minutes Callahan brought a lot of energy to his team, and even created his fair share of scoring chances.

Kelowna lost many of their top offensive producers to the professional ranks, so Callahan finds himself this season in more of a 2nd or 3rd line role. He hasn't quite stepped up to be one of the scoring leaders as some thought he might, but he's certainly pulling his weight with 21 points in 29 games, and a team high +7. And, according to his fight card, he's been keeping busy with 67 penalty minutes. He's a longshot, but could have the same kind of upside as agitators and middleweight fighters like Sean Avery, Dan Carcillo, or Alexandre Burrows.

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Notes: Jakub Kindl was called up to Detroit after Brian Rafalski had a sore back, and made his NHL debut in Detroit's 4-1 loss to Edmonton. Kindl was a -2, but was really not at fault for either goal he was on the ice for. He played on the top powerplay across from Nicklas Lidstrom ... Four Red Wings prospects were named to preliminary World Junior Championship rosters ... Tomas Tatar will be released from Grand Rapids for two weeks to compete for Slovakia ... Andrej Nestrasil has a good chance at cracking the Czech Republic's roster ... Brian Lashoff and Max Nicastro are among the 11 defensemen left on USA's radar. With four spots virtually locked to other players, it seems unlikely that both will make it, but there's a good chance at least one will ... Brendan Smith was named the WCHA Defensive Player of the Week ... Travis Ehrhardt was recalled back to Grand Rapids after spending last weekend with the Toledo Walleye in the ECHL. He had a goal and an assist in 3 games, while going +4 ... Willie Coetzee and Brent Raedeke competed for Team WHL in the annual Subway Super Series, where the CHL all-star teams take on the Russians. Coetzee appeared in one game, scoring a goal. Raedeke played in both, and was one of the most impressive players on the ice in the game I saw (which did not include Coetzee) with his energetic skating ability.

Who's Hot: Who isn't? Tomas Tatar continues to light it up in the AHL, with three points in three games last week, giving him nine in his past six, and a +6 rating to go along with it, giving him a team best +9 ... One of the biggest benefactors to Tatar's play is linemate Jan Mursak, who continues to role with four points in his last three games, 11 on the season ... Brendan Smith was giving his PotW honors for his four points in two games, good for 17 in 13 on the season. At this point, he has to be in the mix for Hobey Baker honors, given to the top collegiate player each year (the Heisman of hockey, if you will) ... Sergei Kolosov is hot by his standards, scoring his first goal of the season and going +2 last week. Kolosov is a likely Olympic candidate as well for Belarus ... Adam Almqvist scored his first SEL goal and added another assist as he now finds his "brief tryout" in the SEL extended to seven games ... Despite missing 9 games with his U-20 team now, he still is second in the league in scoring and is ahead of any non-HV71 players by six points ... Landon Ferraro enjoyed his best week of the season with three points in two games, for 12 in 17 on the year ... Profiled players Gleason Fournier and Mitchell Callahan each had four points in three games, as did the Andrej Nestrasil, who had been cooling off after a hot start ... Gustav Nyquist had five points in two games last weekend ... After becoming a regular on the cold list,  Joakim Andersson had three assists in three games, his first points in a month.

Who's Cold: Despite his promotion, Kindl had come off a string of three games that saw him rack up no points and a -5 ... Captain Jamie Tardif was also a -5 ... Kindl and Mattias Ritola were both -4 in the same game, which puts Ritola at  a -6 on the season, while still struggling to find the back of the net ... Jesper Samuelsson has been up and down between the SEL (with Timra) and SWE-2 (with Sundsvall). He spent all of last week with Sundsvall and went -4 ... For a player with his skill, four points and a -6 in 13 games in SWE-2 is unacceptable ... I guess he's not "cold" if he's getting better, but after a bad start with Toledo, Jordan Pearce's numbers have improved for the third consecutive week, but I put him in this section because he's still 2-5-1 with a 4.61 GAA and a .854 save percentage. Also I put him in here because there are way too many players in the other section.

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Handy Archive:

October 2 -- Ville Leino, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Jimmy Howard
October 9
-- Joakim Andersson, Jesper Samuelsson, Adam Almqvist
October 16
-- Landon Ferraro, Tomas Tatar, Andrej Nestrasil
October 23
-- Daniel Larsson, Thomas McCollum, Jordan Pearce
October 30
-- Brent Raedeke, Brian Lashoff, Willie Coetzee
November 6
-- Jakub Kindl, Mattias Ritola, Evan McGrath
November 13
-- Brendan Smith, Gustav Nyquist, Max Nicastro
November 20
-- Bryan Rufenach, Julien Cayer, Nick Oslund
November 27
-- Cory Emmerton, Dick Axelsson, Jan Mursak

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