Why, yes -- it is Saturday.
Apologies for the unannounced holiday break. Obviously, as both Christmas and New Year's were on Fridays, these article took a seat on the back-burner. I wasn't planning to do one last week (since most leagues take a holiday break anyway). I thought I might have time yesterday, but college football and the Winter Classic were just far too interesting for my own good. I decided that even though it's not Friday, it would be okay to do this on Saturday. That's right, I'm breaking all the rules. It's my article, I'm the boss. Well, I guess Casey's actually the boss. But that's okay too -- I'll be punished swiftly and justly as usual.
Since we last left off... things have fallen apart. The Griffins have fallen apart beyond all comprehension. The injury bug is spreading down throughout Detroit's system. Four prospects have found new homes. Three are chasing glory at the World Junior Championship.
This week, we'll feature the remaining un-profiled prospects who have suit up this season, two in Sweden, one in Ontario.
Anton Axelsson, LW, 23, 6'0, 187, drafted 6th round, 2004 -- It's certainly taken a while to get this deep in the prospect rankings, but that doesn't mean these players are scrubs. In fact, Axelsson might be one of the most NHL ready prospects Detroit has.
The brother to former Boston Bruins' forward P.J. Axelsson, but with no relation to Detroit's Dick Axelsson, Anton was drafted by Detroit out of the Frolunda junior system. His numbers were not earth-shattering, as he is known more as a defensive specialist, but Axelsson wasn't exactly buried in the obscure ranks of Sweden, and in fact was able to represent Sweden internationally at the U17, U18, U19, and U20 levels. He spent the following season in the Swedish SuperElit (junior) league as well, increasing his offensive output from 17 to 42 points.
Axelsson was making his mark early, debuting and sticking in the SEL at 19. It's a league where generally it's very hard for young players to make an impact at that age, but most legitimate top prospects out of Sweden are able to crack the league at 19 or 20. Axelsson spent 12 games in the SuperElit league, with 17 points, but also spent 39 in the SEL, registering six points. He also represented Sweden at the World Junior Championships, scoring just one goal in six games.
It would have made sense to bring Axelsson over to the AHL after this, but despite his brother's success in the NHL, there have always been rumors that Anton was not interested in coming to North America. He's spent the last four seasons in the SEL, one more with Frolunda before three with Timra, where he's an established third line checking line winger. He plays much like his brother does. They're both excellent skaters with that same relentless tenacity when going after the puck. They can hold their own physically, but neither are big. And they're capable of producing points (Anton's best is 10 goals and 20 points in 07/08), but not earth-shattering numbers.
Because there is no current transfer agreement with the IIHF, Detroit holds Axelsson's rights indefinitely. It looks as if Anton is well on his way to a long and productive career in Sweden, but should Detroit find what they need to convince him to come over, then Detroit will have another near-NHL ready prospect on their hands.
Johan Ryno, LW, 23, 6'5, 210, drafted 5th round, 2005 -- No prospect has been more criticized or just frustrating to deal with than Ryno, since Detroit acquired his rights in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. The towering Ryno gave something to Detroit that they were never truly able to acquire, because of their typically low draft positions, in a giant winger with good hands and offensive skills.
Detroit drafted Ryno out of Swedish Division 1, which, as you may recall, is the third highest level of Swedish men's hockey. Typically, players of his age wish to play in the junior ranks, so they can be evaluated amongst their peers, but Ryno preferred a more physical blend of hockey. He was productive despite being one of the youngest in the league, with 38 points in 29 games.
Ryno's stock skyrocketed the following season as he took his talents to the second highest level of Swedish hockey in Oskarshamn. Combined with an impressive WJC performance (five points in six games), Ryno was a sought after recruit by many elite SEL teams. He landed in Frolunda and struggled mightily, with no points in 14 games. He was loaned out to AIK of SWE-2, where some of his offense came back, before rejoining the SEL with Timra to close out the season. His 11 points in 25 games there were quite good for a 20-year-old, so it was no surprise when he earned a contract from Detroit that summer.
His professional career started off very well. Despite very poor foot speed, he earned rave reviews from Mike Babcock in the pre-season and started off leading all Detroit prospects in AHL scoring with seven points in 12 games. He then got homesick, and decided to transfer back to the SEL for the rest of the season, where his nine points in 30 games did not meet expectations. Detroit and Ryno agreed the following season to let him stay in SWE-2 for the season, where he was promised top line minutes. He broke his leg in the team's fourth game, missing most of the season. When he returned, his rhythm was not quite on, but he did manage 13 points in 21 games.
Detroit wanted him back in North America this season, but Ryno decided he did not wish to play in the AHL and would go back to Sweden if he did not make the NHL (keeping in mind that a jump from SWE-2 to the NHL is almost unheard of). He actually looked pretty good in the pre-season, but went back to Sweden as expected when Detroit cut him. To make matters worse, he's in SWE-2 and he's having his worst season since being drafted, with six points in 25 games. Detroit is still high on him, but it would take a miracle for Ryno to earn another contract after playing just 12 games in the AHL in three season under contract.
Stephen Johnston, C, 19, 6'1, 190, drafted 6th round, 2008 -- Detroit took a big risk on Johnston when they drafted him 181st overall in 2008, hoping that Johnston could have a development similar to another Detroit draft pick. Detroit drafted current Florida Panther Shawn Matthias in 2006 after just a decent regular season with a strong playoff on top of it. As a fast skater with good size, Matthias had his way with the OHL in his final two seasons en route to becoming one of the top prospects in the world.
Johnston was Matthias' teammate in his final season of junior. After just nine points in the regular season, he had seven points, including five goals, in 21 playoff games on a veteran-laden lineup. Detroit was hoping that Johnston was just a good player hidden on a deep roster, and he would have a breakout OHL season in his second season of major junior. He showed flashes, but put up just 36 points in 58 games, granted on another strong Belleville Bulls club.
This season, however, Johnston was expected to step onto the top line, as Belleville graduated most of the players head of him on the depth chart. His season has been nothing short of disastrous. Two separate injuries have kept him out of more than half of his team's games, and when he has been in the lineup he's only produced 10 points in 18 games. He's currently been out a month, with no news on any sign of return.
Johnston will need an NHL contract this summer for Detroit to continue to hold his rights. As it stands right now, that looks unlikely. However, production isn't everything, and Johnston has always been a player who looks like he is capable of more. He was very good when I saw him in his checking line role, creating all kinds of mayhem with his speed and sense in the offensive zone. If Detroit still believes he has the offensive touch they thought he might when they took a flier on him two years ago, Johnston could find himself in the AHL next season.
Notes: Mattias Ritola was recalled last week, appearing in three games with Detroit. He hasn't produced a point, but he's seen time on the second line and the powerplay, and hasn't looked out of place. He made the trip with Detroit on the upcoming four game Western road trip, so he has a chance to make his case for a lineup spot next season ... The injury bug has found it's way down into Grand Rapids. The Griffins have missed Ritola, Doug Janik, and Kris Newbury due to NHL recalls, and Jakub Kindl, Jan Mursak, and Sergei Kolosov have also all missed time with injuries. With Tomas Tatar in Saskatoon for the WJC, their lineup has been depleted and they've been forced to sign players to tryouts just to field a full lineup. The Griffins dropped seven of their last eight games to close out 2009 ... Because of the struggles, Thomas McCollum has been sent to Toledo of the ECHL, and Jordan Pearce has been recalled to fill in for him ... Dick Axelsson has been told by his Swedish club Farjestad that they do not wish to add him to the roster, leaving the 22-year-old's future in limbo without a team ... Brent Raedeke was traded from the lowly Edmonton Oil Kings to the Brandon Wheat Kings, one of the WHL's top teams. They will host the Memorial Cup, guaranteeing that Detroit will have one prospect in the prestigious tournament ... Jesper Samuelsson was recalled to the SEL after about a month in SWE-2 ... Prospects Gennady Stolyarov and Ryan Oulahen are due back this month after both missing the entire season up to this point.
Who's Hot: It's been a rough two weeks for the Griffins, but Jan Mursak leads the charge with four points in his past six games. Cory Emmerton also finished 2009 strong after a rough month of December, with four points in seven games ... Before being recalled to Grand Rapids, Jordan Pearce started to find his game in Toledo, going 5-3 in the past three weeks, lowering his GAA from over 4 to 3.52, and raising his save percentage from around .850 to a much more respectable .892 ... Gustav Nyquist was the only collegiate prospect to play in the past two weeks, recording five points in two games to give him 30 in 19 on the year. He is currently tied for first in the nation in scoring ... Brent Raedeke had two goals in his first two games with Brandon ... Landon Ferraro returned from an injury and scored two goals and an assist in two games ... Teammate Willie Coetzee had six points in five games ... Agitator Mitchell Callahan had four points in three games last week and is now third in team scoring.
Who's Cold: The Grand Rapids Griffins are, for the most part. It starts in net, where Daniel Larsson went 1-4-1 in the past two weeks, his GAA rising from 2.48 to 2.85, and save percentage falling from .918 to .904. Thomas McCollum, now demoted to the ECHL, was worse, going 0-2, GAA up to 3.42 from 2.87, save percentage from .893 to .877 ... Despite injuries, the Griffins have signed two free agents instead of recalling Sebastien Piche. Piche has 8 points in 12 games since being demoted, but seems to be falling right off the depth chart ... Evan McGrath and Jamie Tardif both wear letters in Grand Rapids, but are worst on the team with a -11 and -10 rating, respectively. Both had just one point in the past two weeks ... Prospect Gleason Fournier had just one assist last week despite going +7.
World Junior Championships: Sine I last updated, Max Nicastro was the final cut off the USA roster. Brian Lashoff made that roster, putting up two points in four games as the US racked up a 3-1 record, the one loss coming in heart-breaking fashion to Canada. Lashoff is the team's top shut down defender, having been faced with the task of shutting down likely #1 overall pick this June in Taylor Hall, keeping him off the scoresheet. The US must win tonight against Finland to move into the final four, where Canada and Sweden await. Tomas Tatar avoided relegation today with Slovakia, as they defeated Austria 3-2. Tatar has three goals and two assists in five games, with a team best +2. Andrej Nestrasil and the Czech Republic also face relegation if they lose to Latvia. Nestrasil has had a strong tournament, playing big minutes while putting up four points in four games.