The annual NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City is halfway done and it's time to take an in depth look at each player and see where they're at, who's impressed, and who hasn't. The tournament is an absolute top notch event that features AHL level hockey and some of the top NHL prospects from around the world. It's a test and a challenge for the players, as well as an invaluable learning opportunity. This tournament means different things to different players and not every player is evaluated in the same way, with the same expectations, or with the same significance.
Some guys are fighting to make their team's NHL rosters, others are trying to earn playing time and positions on the AHL team they'll be returning to. Some camp invites are going all out to try and continue their hockey career at a higher level than college or juniors, and others are early in their careers and are here to learn and soak everything up.
Coming into the tournament there were a few names on the roster we all expected to be the standouts for the Wings, the players who are closest to the NHL and who either are, or soon will be, fighting for a spot on the Red Wings roster. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tomas Nokse are the NHL ready or nearly ready, and they've lived up to that title so far.
I talked a bit about Dylan Larkin after the first game, and he's certainly showing he has the capability to be the best player on the ice at any given time. He has all the tools in his toolbox to be a very good NHL player. All the great things I said about him are true, but he also has things he needs to work on to be an NHL player. One of the things I saw from him in the game against Chicago was that he got frustrated and let the Hawks get under his skin and as a result he took a couple penalties. He has an elite level drive, dedication, and desire to win, but he's also 19 and is going to be playing against bigger, stronger, more skilled players who will do anything to get him off his game. He has to learn how to not let that get to him. Larkin is an amazing player but he's still young and has things to learn and improve on. I can't help but wonder if he's holding back at times on the ice or maybe he's not holding back so much as encountering a new challenge and needing some time to learn through it.
Andreas Athanasiou had a quiet first game centering Bertuzzi and Svechnikov ,but the rust fell off in game two when he was paired with Larkin and Mantha. The speedster was all over the place, making space for his linemates, stealing pucks, and streaking up the ice.. Athanasiou has speed speed speed, but he also has the hands for playmaking and puck handling and those skills were on display in the second game. Watching he and Larkin feed each other and race up the ice together was one of the most beautiful things I've seen. This tournament is a great way for him to get back up to speed (so to speak) after his injury, but watching him in his second game it didn't look like he needed any more time. Center or winger, scorer or playmaker, it doesn't matter to AA, he'll execute in exciting fashion with speed, skill, and flair.
Anthony Mantha had an ok first game, he was good when he was good, and meh other times. He was on a line with Dylan Larkin and Zach Nastasiuk and the line as a whole worked hard, but it wasn't as effective as it "should" have been given the players. In the second game Athanasiou was moved to wing and replaced Nastasiuk he was the Anthony Mantha I know he can be. The line of Athanasiou, Larkin, and Mantha was phenomenal. I touted the pairing of Athanasiou and Mantha all last season in Grand Rapids, because Mantha was at his best when he was with AA, and AA's speed and energy helped Mantha stay engaged and push his pace. What could keep Mantha engaged and all game long better than one speedster? TWO speedsters! Mantha was skating hard, he was physical and using his size and strength, and some of the passes between these guys were just so pretty. If Mantha can consistently put in the effort and focus that he did in the game against Chicago he can be so good. It's going to be very interesting to see how he does against Dallas and if he has the same linemates. He's gotten much better about staying engaged and keeping his feet moving, and there's still plenty of room to continue improving. He's on a slower path than many people anticipated, but he's on the path none the less. I think another year in Grand Rapids where he has increased responsibilities and role will be very beneficial for him.
Tomas Nosek is ready to play in the NHL. He's a versatile center who can score beautiful goals, dirty goals, make gorgeous passes, play power play and be freaking dangerous on the penalty kill, and even be a grinding center when asked to be. He played 3rd line checking center in game 1 flanked by Evan Polie and Jerome Verrier, and despite his wingers not being anywhere near elite like he had in Grand Rapids (see: Teemu Pulkkinen) he was still one of the best players on the ice. In game 2 he moved up to 2nd line center (when AA moved to Larkin's wing) and was flanked by Tyler Bertuzzi and Evgeny Svechnikov and Nosek and the entire line was great. Nosek makes his line better no matter who he's with, and he has such a range of skills and abilities that he can accomodate any style of play or linemates that he has. He scored a goal in both games so far and they were both results of him driving the net and hounding the puck until it either goes it or the whistle blows. He has these long powerful skating strides that just power him up the ice and processes the game at such a high level and so quickly that he sometimes seems sneaky when he pounces on an opportunity. He's a model of consistency, game in and game out he'll give you everything, do whatever is asked of him, and he'll do it well and make his linemates better and he's done just that in both games.
The next group of players are turning pro this year and joining the Griffins or Walleye full time and have all been to Camp or the Tournament before.
One of the many things I love Tyler Bertuzzi is that I can count on him to be exactly who is his all the time. It doesn't matter who his linemates are or what team he's playing against, he's agitating, energetic, going to the front of the net, knocking pucks out of the air with his stick, jumping a foot off the ice to grab it, making plays, and pissing people off. So far in the tournament, Bertuzzi has been exactly what I expected him to be, because that's who he always is and the fact that he hasn't surprised me is actually a good thing. He's gotten stronger and he's strong on his skates too. He has the ability to do "little" things to opposing players that just drive them nuts and frequently either makes them take a penalty, or gets them off their game. For example, Bertuzzi's pestering of Chicago's Sam Jardine directly led to the fight between Ty Stanton and Jardine. Bert drove Jardine nuts and he lashed out and got into a fight which 1) put him in the box for 5 minutes and 2) was the 1st of 2 fights for Jardine which got him ejected from the game. That's just what Bertuzzi does, and he's learned to be disciplined so he walks the line, getting others in trouble but staying out of it himself.
Zach Nastasiuk has played wing in both games so far and while he's busting his butt, he looks like he's playing a role he's not used to. He thrives in the 2-way defensive center who leans on people, out grinds and out works them, and it tough to play against because he'll wear you out and grind you down. I think Nasty has more offense in him than he often shows, and maybe Nelson hopes to draw more offense out of him be reducing some of his defensive responsibilities; if that's the case I think it's going to take Zach some time to get used to the change. I've never ever questioned Zach's maturity, professionalism, or work ethic and if this is a lasting role change for him, I know he'll work through it and persevere. I feel like Zach is so used to being extra responsible for everyone else, that he's focused more on that than finding offense for himself and I'd like to see more offense from him because I know he has more to offer. I'm interested to see how Nelson uses him this upcoming season.
Jake Paterson has played the best hockey I've seen him play in these first two games. I've watched him in plenty of camps and tournament, and in Saginaw and Kitchener, and he always had a good foundation and a lot of potential. What I've seen so far is a goalie who's now fully ready to start his pro career. He's been stellar through 2 games 52 of 54 shots, and one of the goals scored on him was when Chicago had a 2 man advantage. He's been tested with 2 breakaways and had to come up huge when his team lagged and was faltering. He's much more under control, positionally sound and his reflexes are so quick that he's making saves he might not be "supposed" to make. His rebound control has also improved and he's sending pucks to the corners more instead of out into traffic where he then has to make a second save. I've had a high opinion of Paterson for a while now, and yet he's surpassed even my expectations. After seeing him play in this tournament I've very disappointed he'll be in Toledo and not Grand Rapids, because he's playing like a goalie who could challenge for starter in the AHL. It's a two game sample, but knowing Paterson like I do, this isn't a fluke, he's really improved his game last year going back to juniors. Patty has always been a eerily calm goalie no matter what the game situation and that hasn't changed. What has changed is his positioning in the crease. Jake has always been a goalie who played a little too deep in his crease, but so far he's playing out at the top of the paint, challenging more aggressively, and his mobility has improved so he's able to come out, challenge aggressively, and then move quick enough to react to whatever the shooter does. Each of the individual improvement Jake made in the last year have culminated in a drastic improvement in his play and he's a huge reason the Wins have won both games so far.
The Wings signed Robbie Russo as a free agent this summer after the Islanders opted not to sign him. I didn't know much about him other than what I read and a few highlight clips, so I came into the tournament with an open mind and no expectations for him; just waiting to see who he is and what he can do. I'm very pleased with what I've seen and he's been a standout defenseman for the Wings in both games. He's a very good skater, definitely a natural puck mover, and he reads the ice so well that he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He uses his stick a lot to take away shooting and passing lanes or snag the puck from the other team's stick. The more I watch him, the more his style of play reminds me of Nick Jensen, and I'm a big Jensen fan. I think Russo will come into Grand Rapids and immediately (or at least very quickly) become a steady, reliable, impactful defenseman.
Kurt Etchegary was a Wings development camp invite in 2013 and signed an ECHL contract with the Toledo Walleye this summer to turn pro. He plays with energy, determination, and likes to get under people's skin. He's 5'11" 190# and not "big" by any means, but he's fearless and plays like he's as big as the big guys. He was Captain of the Quebec Remparts and it's easy to see by his demeanor, leadership by example, and attitude. One of the things that I've noticed about him both in games and practices, is that he loves playing hockey, he's having fun no matter what. I think he enjoys going up against bigger guys and daring them to keep up, and I sometimes that irritates other players because he "shouldn't" be able to do what he does. I liked Etchegary when he was a camp invite and I still like him; I love his attitude, his demeanor, and the way he plays as if he has no limits.
Andrew Prochno is a defenseman who also signed a Walleye contract this summer and to be honest (because why wouldn't I be?) I haven't noticed him that much. That's not necessarily a bad thing... He's been the "safe" partner for Robbie Russo and that pairing as a unit has been solid. Prochno's skating is ok, he's not speedy, and he doesn't have exceptional vision or anticipation, but he did he job and didn't stand out. That's the type of defenseman I expect him to be, safe and mostly unnoticed.
Then we have the Wings' younger guys who will be returning to juniors
Evgeny Svechnikov has been a very pleasant surprise. I watched him in person for the first time in Development camp, but there's so much of a player's game you can't see in a scrimmage that I wasn't sure how good he would be yet. His strength, power, and physicality have really impressed me, especially for an 18 year old who's playing in the Q. He's tenacious and relentless in the corners and puck battles and he has an edge and bite to his game that I didn't expect. He has quiet stretches where you don't notice him, then appears out of nowhere with a lethal sniper shot on net. He's very young and this is his first experience playing at this level and has a lot to work on, including his all around game, strength, and how to find more shooting/scoring opportunities when facing bigger and better players. That will come with time though, and really that's what his job is in this tournament, to get a taste of hockey at the next level and use these experiences to grow and sharpen his skills. He and Tomas Nosek have had some very good chemistry together already;l they just seem to feed off each other.
Joe Hicketts is a veteran on defense for the Wings in this tournament despite only being 19 years old, and he's the only D man with previous tournament experience. He was the Wings best D man in both game, which is both a testament to his play and an indication of how green the team's defense is. Against the Hurricanes he had a fantastic game, he was taking away shooting and passing lanes, moving the puck efficiently and was the anchor and clean up man in his pairing. When his defensive partner Justin Lemcke got hurt in the second period Hicketts saw quite a bit more ice time and even with rotating partners he looked like the veteran who could handle anything. Against Chicago Hicketts was overwhelmed, and it was a reminder that he needs his last year in the WHL to prepare to turn pro. On an individual level he was roughed up more physically and Chicago took every opportunity to hit him and try unsuccessfully to bully him. The Hawks players really keyed in on him, forced him to make passes or plays faster than usual, and being rushed led to him being more vulnerable to the physical punishments. That being said, Hicketts was still the the best, or at least top two along with Russo, defenseman in a game where the entire team struggled more, plus he had to cover more for his new D partner, Jalen Chatfield. Given all the circumstances he had an ok game to his credit, and playing in this tournament is a great learning experience for him to prepare for the AHL. Size is always going to be his biggest challenge and he possesses the ability to overcome those challenges, but he's still learning and that's what this tournament is about.
Vili Saarijarvi: My expectations of a newly drafted 18 year old defenseman in his first tournament, is that he comes in, soaks everything up, and learns as much as possible. When I watch Saarijarvi though, I sometimes forget that he's an 18 year old who's playing in his first tournament. His skating is fantastic, both his speed and lateral mobility, his puck handling skills rival many of the forwards, and his vision and patience on the ice keep him out of trouble (for the most part) against bigger guys who want to squish him like a bug. There are still times I'm reminded that he's 18 and going to the OHL, but he surpasses the reasonable expectations for someone in his position. There were numerous times Saarijarvi would skate back into his own zone, grab the puck while in flight, transition back towards the neutral zone, and pass the puck with precision onto a forward's stick while they were in full flight. It sounds simple, but Vili does it so quickly and smoothly and so little time is wasted that often times the forwards don't have to slow down or stop and wait, then get going again with the puck. It keeps the team moving with speed and gives the opposing team less time to react or get into better position to slow or stop the oncoming players. Speed is pressure and the faster a team plays and the quicker their players are, the less time the other team has and the more likely they make a mistake. There were still times I was reminded that he's 18 and 5'9" 161# it was mostly in the game against Chicago. Saarijarvi had most of the same struggles against the team that Hicketts did, big guys trying to squish you, and more pressure to make decisions and act quicker which led to more mistakes. Saarijarvi may quickly become the most elite d-man in the Wings prospect pool, but he also has a lot to improve upon and has a lot of physical growing and strengthening to do. This tournament is a trial by fire for him and is exposing the areas he needs to work on the most, and that will help him become better.
Adam Marsh hasn't played yet, but he's finally cleared by the team to play and he'll see his first action tonight against the Dallas Stars.
Dominic Turgeon has been a very good, sometimes surprisingly good player through two games. I wrote after Development camp that he was faster and more offensive than last year and that's carried over into the tournament. He has more jump in his step and more speed that allows him to capitalize on how well he processes and anticipates the game. Dom grinds and works his butt off and the defensive minded center reads the game so quickly and efficiently that he's already a step ahead of most everyone else. One of his goals for the upcoming season is to add more offense to his game that compliments his defensive/shutdown capabilities. So far in the tournament he's been everything I've come to expect from him defensively and he's creating more offensive opportunities both for himself and his linemates, and numerous times I saw him rushing up ice with the puck & driving the net. This is the best I've seen Dom play and with his work ethic I know he'll accomplish what he sets out to do. I like seeing the more offensive Turgeon and his increased speed and skating really help him execute physically what his brain is processing.
And finally the camp invites
I like what I've seen from Nick Betz, he's big (6'5" 221#), skates decently and seems to be at his best when he's checking, grinding, and making space for his linemates (Dominic Turgeon and Kurt Etchegary/Zach Nastasiuk). He's not a flashy player at all but seems like a safe winger who compliments his linemates.
Jerome Verrier has only played in one game and looks like he's also sitting out against Dallas. He played with Tomas Nosek and Evan Polei against the Hurricanes and was exactly what I expected him to be, energetic and agitating with a great shot.
Conor McGlynn centered the Wings' 4th line between Evan Polei and Kurt Etchegary against Chicago, and after seeing him play in only one game, I don't really have much to say. He didn't stand out in a good or bad way, and I think he had an ok game, there just wasn't really anything notable about him. Maybe something catch my eye in the game against Dallas.
Evan Polei isn't going to create much offense or score many goals, but he will grind the opposing players down and knock them into next week if he thinks they deserve it. At 6'2" 227# he's an intimidating presence and feels his job is to keep opposing tough guys honest and call them out and beat their butts when they're not. His most notable accomplishment so far has been to beat the snot out of the Blackhawks' Sam Jardine ( At 4:25 of the highlight video) after Jardine first hit Ty Standon with an elbow to the head, then later took Evgeny Svechnikov out with an elbow to the head and a trip. Polei kicking Jardine's butt felt like sweet, satisfying, justice. I wanted so badly to punch Jardine myself and when Polie squared off with him, everyone in the arena was on their feet cheering. That's what Polie brings to a team, he's a big intimidating, grinding, smashing, glove dropping punisher who says he wants to keep other players honest. It's perfectly fitting that my autocorrect wants to constantly change "Polie" to "Police".
Justin Lemcke got an "upper body" injury in the 2nd period of the game against the Hurricanes so I've had a limited viewing, but he was paired with Joe Hicketts and kept up nicely. His 6'2" 201# frame compliments Hicketts' well and until he got hit in the head against the boards, he was someone I was keeping an eye on. He'll return against the Dallas Stars and get a better chance to show what he can do.
Ty Stanton has really impressed me so far. He's bigger and stronger than last year and paired with Vili Saarijarvi he's the more imposing, physical, agitating, "Safe" guy on the pairing and I really like how those two have played, complimenting each other well. He's been one of the most surprising invites and I'm very intrigued.
Jarrett Meyer hasn't played yet and will be a healthy scratch against Dallas.
Jalen Chatfield played against Chicago, paired with Joe Hicketts since Justin Lemcke was injured. Chatfield has unlimited enthusiasm and energy on the ice, is a pretty good skater, and possesses good puck skills; what he needs more of is focus and patience. I think part of the reason Joe Hicketts struggled so much more against Chicago is because he had to make up for more mistakes from his partner. Chatfield can get caught chasing the puck too much and get out of position, forcing his partner to compensate and try to cover for him. In the 3rd period Coach Nelson moved Chatfield from the top pairing with Hicketts and slotted Robbie Russo in his place. Chatfield has a bit of potential, but he has to learn more focus.
Matt Mancina hasn't played because Jake Paterson is killing it.
Connor Ingram also hasn't played because Jake Paterson is killing it.