Six full weeks of Friday Prospects. Getting tired of this yet? Good, because neither am I. In this weekly look at the world of Detroit Red Wings prospects, we turn to the American Hockey League to look at a trio of Red Wings prospects who might be ready to make an NHL push soon.
Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson, Jimmy Howard, Justin Abdelkader, and Ville Leino represent the biggest influx of Griffins talent to Detroit ever. That would lead you to believe that the Grand Rapids system is depleted, void of high-end talent, and that just isn't the case. Grand Rapids started the season with a long road trip that saw them start the season 1-4. But the Griffins have rattled off five straight wins en route to climbing out of the North Division cellar.
Part of this was due to the two-week tryout of 600+ point NHL scorer Michael Nylander. But the Griffins are getting key contributions out of their young players as well. Here are three young players who might be ready to step up to the NHL, should Detroit's injury woes get any worse.
Jakub Kindl, D, 22, 6'3, 210 lbs, drafted 1st round, 2005 -- Remember the 2005 draft? The NHL lockout saw the draft get delayed by the lack of collective bargaining agreement. Rather than use the 2003-04 season's standings to determine draft order -- which would have made Sidney Crosby a Washington Capital -- the NHL devised a system to hold a weighted draft lottery to determine the order of 1-30. The system was based on how many times you've made the playoffs in the past few seasons. This led Detroit to their highest draft position since 1991, when they selected Martin Lapointe 10th overall, when they made Jakub Kindl the 19th overall selection.
Kindl was a big deal at the time, considered a top five draft pick on talent alone prior to the season. He was coming to North America from the Czech Republic, where he excelled in the Czech junior leagues for years, making his professional debut at 16. However, despite his high level of skill, Kindl only scored three goals in his draft eligible season, sliding him well out of the top five.
However, the following season, he re-established himself as a big time prospect. He scored 12 goals and 58 points for the Kitchener Rangers, becoming one of the most dangerous offensive defensemen in the league. Kindl made a lot of noise at training camp, and nearly squeaked his way onto the team then at age 19. He followed up this performance with 55 points in 54 games, playing upwards of 40 minutes a night, and showing that he had a bit of a mean streak with 142 penalty minutes.
He turned pro the following season, and things started to go south. Kindl had a tough time adjusting to North American hockey, and was exploited for his sloppy play in his own zone. This led to a lack of confidence in him by the coaching staff, so he didn't even get much powerplay time -- which is where he excels. His -34 rating was the worst in the league.
However, Curt Fraser restored confidence in Kindl, and with the loss of Ericsson to injury/NHL, Kindl became a top four defenseman and saw regular time on the first powerplay unit. Kindl started the season red hot, earning himself an appearance in the AHL All-Star Game. He slowed down in the second half of the season, finishing the season with 33 points and a -14 rating -- not the worst on the team, but disappointing because it was in the pluses at the all-star break.
Detroit rewarded Kindl with a tremendous shot of confidence in the form of a three-year contract extension that kicks in after this season. It's a one-way deal, so Kindl will be in the NHL next season. In what form is completely up to him. He's showed through numerous pre-season games that he has the talent to quarterback a powerplay at the NHL level, but he also showed an inconsistent defensive game and a tendency to make poor decisions under pressure. He has not started strong in Grand Rapids this season, and recently, Doug Janik was called up for injury time over Kindl. Kindl will need to turn it on offensively to avoid entering the NHL as a seventh defenseman, as he has the potential to be a top four. However, at 22, Detroit will have some time to develop him in the NHL once he gets there.
Mattias Ritola, LW, 22, 5'11, 205 pounds, drafted 4th round, 2005 -- In the same drafted that netted Kindl, Detroit picked up a player that Hakan Andersson described as the most offensively talented of any Swedish 1987-born player outside of Washington's Nicklas Backstrom (drafted in 2006, late birth date).
That was an awfully large compliment for a young player, and Ritola had trouble living up to that billing throughout his career in Sweden. Ritola was always on the radar as a prospect, playing internationally for Sweden every year since he was 15. He never posted ground-breaking numbers, but did manage over a point-per-game in the Swedish junior leagues in his draft year.
He made his SEL debut the following season, posting only three assists in 30 games for Leksand, and only six in 14 games with the J20 team when he was sent down. Leksand struggled all season and was demoted to the Swedish Allsvenskan (SWE-2), where Ritola netted five points in 23 games, but he also spent significant time with the J20 team again, as well as another team in SWE-2 and even a 11 games in the league underneath that, the Swedish First Division (SWE-3).
Despite his inconsistencies, Detroit signed him prior to the 2007-08 season and Ritola immediately made an impact with the Griffins. The skilled winger, once dubbed one-dimensional and lazy, had evolved into a very competitive two-way player with good offensive touch. Ritola put up only 22 points (on a low scoring team) but the stat that really opened eyes was his +10 rating. Only three players had positive ratings on that Griffins team, and the rookie Ritola was one. He was rewarded with a two game callup to the NHL, where he picked up an assist.
Last season was a bit of a setback for Ritola. He broke his rookie offensive production with 42 points, but was limited to just 66 games due to injury. He was unable to rise up the depth chart the way Helm, Abdelkader, and Leino were, and he did not see any NHL action.
Ritola is off to a slow start in his third professional season, with five points in ten games. He must clear waivers next season, so he will need to take his game to the next level in Grand Rapids this season to get a look in Detroit. He looked very strong in the pre-season, like a typical Detroit Red Wings player -- very strong two-way play with a definite high skill level, though he keeps his game simple. However, he's getting the opportunity to take a scoring role in Grand Rapids, and Detroit would certainly take notice if to took it.
Evan McGrath, C, 23, 6'0, 200 pounds, drafted 4th round, 2004 -- Coming off of an underage (the OHL only allows for three 16-year-old players on a team at one time, just as they only allow three 20-year-old "overagers") campaign that saw him put up 47 points in 64 games, McGrath was considered to be a late first or early second round pick heading into the 2003-04 season. However, 51 points in 68 games was not quite the increase in scoring that scouts were looking for, and McGrath slid all the way to the 128th pick until Detroit grabbed him.
The following season, playing on the same Kitchener Rangers team as then-rookie Jakub Kindl, McGrath gave Detroit a little return on their investment, putting up 87 points in 68 games. He took his game even further the following season, leading his team with 114 points in 67 games (45 more than the next best scorer), signing with Detroit following the season.
His transition to professional hockey was a rocky one. He was unable to stake out a regular spot in Grand Rapids, and needed some time with the ECHL's Toledo Storm before returning to Grand Rapids. He looked stronger after his ECHL stint, but still didn't grab regular ice time in the AHL. In fact, he had one more point in the ECHL (15) than the AHL (14) despite the vast difference in games played -- 9 to 59.
In 2007-08, McGrath was able to find his own niche in the AHL, scoring 18 goals and 35 points, best among Detroit prospects. The dynamic playmaking ability that saw him score 100+ in the OHL was leaving him, but he was able to reinvent himself as a hard-working checking line player who had some ability on the powerplay. He continued his strong play last season, with 47 points in 68 games, centering one of the hottest lines in the AHL alongside rookie Francis Pare and Francis Lemieux.
He was signed to a one-year extension before training camp, and was able to clear waivers to enter his 4th full professional season. Now an alternate captain, McGrath has the opportunity to become one of the team's top two centers. He's off to a good start so far, with six points in ten games. In the pre-season, McGrath excelled, showing a very mature and smart game that make him a good candidate for a 4th line job. While he may not get that opportunity in a crowded Detroit system, there is still some NHL hope left for him.
Notes: Adam Almqvist and Nick Jensen are two Detroit prospects in the World Junior A Challenge, a tournament held every November by Hockey Canada, pitting the best of Canadian players not playing "major junior" hockey (OHL, WHL, QMJHL) against representative under-20 teams from other countries. Almqvist has one goal for the struggling 0-3 Swedish team, while Jensen has a goal and an assist for the 2-1 American club ... Almqvist also received the news that he's been signed by the HV-71 senior team, and may get a chance to make his SEL debut in the near future ... Jesper Samuelsson has been back and forth between the SEL and SWE-2, and now finds himself back in Sweden's highest division, with Timra ... Landon Ferraro returned to action after missing ten games with a knee injury, he currently sits with three points in seven games
Who's Hot: Ferraro's teammate, Willie Coetzee, has continued his rabid scoring frenzy with 29 points in 17 games now. Coetzee was named to the WHL All-Star team for the annual Subway Super Series, pitting All-Star teams from the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL against a Russian under-20 team. The games are considered an informal tryout to the World Junior Championships, so Coetzee has a major opportunity to land himself among the prospect elite ... Brendan Smith has continued to respond well from being benched, now sitting at nine points in five games, also being named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week ... Although his linemate, Columbus Blue Jackets' draftee Tomas Kubalik, was named CHL Player of the Week, Andrej Nestrasil has equaled Kubalik's point totals, now sitting at 26 points in 19 games ... Mitchell Callahan had three points and a +3 rating in two games last week, and for all fighting fans out there, he sits with 47 PIM at the moment.
Who's Cold: The Griffins only had one game since the last update, but players like Jakub Kindl, Cory Emmerton (three points in nine games), Sebastien Piche (zero points in six games), and Francis Pare (two points in eight games) will need to pick it up offensively, as the tryout for NHL veteran Michael Nylander has now ended ... He's not getting huge minutes, but Max Nicastro does not have a point through his first five games as a freshman at Boston University ... Jordan Pearce continues to struggle in the AHL, with a 4.67 GAA despite a 2-1 record.