Which Defense Prospects Are Ready For The NHL?
The Red Wings desperately need to upgrade their defense next year if they want to have a legitimate chance at playing for the Stanley Cup. The most likely options for such upgrades would include some combination of letting Kyle Quincey go somewhere else, putting Brian Lashoff on waivers, making Jakub Kindl the 7th defenseman (trading him if possible but it's not likely), signing a UFA veteran defenseman, and promoting a couple of young D prospects. This season we got to see four current Griffins make their NHL debuts on defense, and the Wings have several high quality D prospects who are ready, or nearly there. This led me to wonder... Who are the top two prospect defense candidates to be members of the Detroit Red Wings next year?
Picking the top three would be easy, narrowing it down to the top two most ready right now (or at least at the start of training camp) is significantly more difficult.
- Xavier Ouellet is in just his first pro season and already he's already made his NHL debut and has been perhaps the Griffins most consistently impressive defenseman. He's already established himself as a calm, confident, poised, player who makes great passes, is a staple on the PK, but who can also play on the PP very well and who just seems to know the right thing to do, whatever the situation. In the playoffs so far he just gets better and better and he's the real deal. I would definitely be comfortable with him on the 3rd pairing in Detroit to start the season. In a recent interview, Grifins coach Jeff Blashill said "Ouellet has a real consistency to his game, he's a really good passer and he seems to be able to find the right passing lanes, deliver the puck on time, and let the forwards do their work. He's strong on the puck, he's strong on the puck battles, and that makes him a good penalty killer. He's been very good for us here especially in the second half"
- Mattias Backman has put my expectations of his AHL debut to shame. Backman is so smooth, seems to have an intuition about what's going to happen, and it's as if he and the puck operate on the same wavelength. In addition to his surprisingly effective defense qualities, his offensive instincts and abilities are far greater than were advertised. I'd let him QB the Wings power play right now, you know, if the Wings were playing right now. Paired with Xavier Ouellet in Grand Rapids, these two are the Griffins best defensemen. Jeff Blashill spoke highly of Backman "Mattias Backman has been compared a lot to Danny DeKeyser and probably rightfully so. He skates very well, he's got a long stick, they both have skinnier bodies that they've had to build up their strength so that they can handle the rigors of pro hockey but he's got a real ability to get back to the puck and break it out, he can pass the puck real well, he's got, I think, borderline dynamic offensive ability from the blue line in. That will be a real plus in his game and he looks like somebody to me that's got a chance to play in the NHL as early as next year." Did you see what he said? "borderline dynamic offensive ability from the blue line in" After watching him in Grand Rapids I agree with that assessment, Backman's offensive abilities really surprised me.
- Alexey Marchenko was perhaps the Griffins best defenseman on a nightly basis before his season ending injury in late February and made a good impression in his NHL debut. Marchenko has the oh-so-coveted right handed shot the Wings are looking for, played on the top power play and penalty kill units, is a very good puck mover, who's calm under pressure, is a big body, and has an excellent outlet pass. Jeff Blashill said "He has a chance to be a top 4 type defenseman in the NHL. He's big, he's extremely smart, he's very poised with the puck so he' s not just a big defender, he's got a good stick defensively, and he can make those little breakout passes that are critical in the NHL game." Marchenko's injury may hurt his chances of making it onto the Wings team in training camp since he'll undoubtedly be rusty and in the process of getting back into both game shame, and speed. There's also the possibility that the Wings could take a little risk and bring him up right away because he does shoot right and they already have an idea of what he can do.
- Ryan Sproul has made a lot of progress this season, but he still has a ways to go before he's ready to play full time in the NHL. Blashill summed up Sproul's season very well "Ryan [Sproul] has done a great job, his development has been great. Coming into the year the knock on him was he needed to learn to be better defensively. He's cared and he's listened and he's learned and he gotten much better in that area of the game. he's got great great first couple steps with the puck and he skates faster with the puck than he does without it. He's got a great shot, he's a real talent, and he could end up being a real star in the NHL. He just needs to continue on the progress that he's made so far this year." Much like Brendan Smith, Ryan Sproul plays a higher risk, higher reward style game, but Sproul still makes mistakes in the AHL that are what I would call significant; sloppy turnovers, passing to the other team because he didn't look first, forgetting he's covering the point and then passing back to the point for an odd man rush. He'll outgrow making the silly mistakes (I hope), and I think it's possible he could be ready for a few games at some point next season, just not at the beginning.
It's really hard to choose which two of Ouellet, Backman, and Marchenko would have the best chance to make the Wings out of training camp, but I think Ouellet and Backman are my top two picks. Ouellet and Marchenko would have been my clear cut picks before Backman came into the picture, but he's been so impressive and Marchenko's been injured, so I'm going with the riskier pick. X [Ouellet] and Charming [Backman] were paired together throughout the playoffs and were the Griffins best pair by far. They played the most ice time, Backman on the top power play and Ouellet on the #1 penalty killing unit, and were outstanding. The way those two broke up odd man rushes, passed the puck, held the zone, and contributed offensively was impressive, especially for 2 rookies. Oh maybe if it's a close call between the three of them, the Wings would opt to keep Ouellet in GR since he's the youngest and least experienced of the three. Should the Wings decide to do the right thing and promote a prospect or two, a defense of Kronwall, Ericsson, DeKeyser, Smith, Veteran, Ouellet, Backman/Marchenko would be a heck of a lot better than what we had this year. What say you, which two young blue chippers get your stamp of approval