The prospect depth the Detroit Red Wings have up front is all the rage right now.
Players like Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and Anthony Mantha are garnering attention, but Detroit’s defensive prospects are just as promising.
Having a full cupboard in the farm system is an integral part to the long-term success of a professional franchise. Detroit has an abundance of young talent working their way up the ranks, and it’s sure to excite fans.
The Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit’s AHL affiliate, took home the Calder Cup last season, and 10 players from that roster have seen the bright lights of the NHL this year. That includes two of their better prospects on the blue line.
According to RedWingsCentral.com, four defenseman rank among Detroit’s top-10 prospects, all of which will find their place on this list.
The order in which they fall will be determined based on the NHL team’s need, their current success with their respective team and the skill set that they provide.
Some of these players bring an offensive fluency while others offer a two-way style more prone to defensive stability. Whatever their proficiency, Detroit is high on each and will give them ample opportunity to grow as professional athletes.
Here are the Red Wings’ five best defensive prospects.
While some of Detroit's top defensive prospects are offensive savvy, Xavier Ouellet brings grit and reliability on the back end of his two-way style.
Detroit loves flexibility and production from each position, but Ouellet does so with stability in his own zone. He can provide an offensive contribution and does so with good vision and hockey sense.
Playing in his first season with Grand Rapids, the 20-year-old from Bayonne, France, has four goals and 13 points in 48 games.
He has played in three games with Detroit, totaling three shots on goal in just under 14 minutes per game.
Drafted in the second round (48th overall) of the 2011 NHL draft, he brings confidence with and without the puck and can contribute in any situation.
The ability to play a mistake-free game is a quality that’s tough to teach, and Ouellet is the kind of player who can provide that.
Getting up to NHL speed and structure takes time, and Detroit is notorious for over-preparing their prospects. With that said, Ouellet can be a stable presence in the big club’s lineup down the road.
Considering the limited exposure Detroit’s prospects overseas receive, Mattias Backman possesses the qualities to become an asset when he transitions from Sweden to North America.
Standing 6’2” and weighing in at 176 pounds, the lengthy Swede provides impressive mobility for a player of his size. He plays a finesse style and shows good two-way smarts, but he completely lacks a physical presence.
Playing in his second season with Linkopings of the Swedish Hockey League, Backman ranks 12th among defensemen with 19 points in 48 games. His defensive responsibility is evident with his plus-24 rating—best in the SHL.
Red Wings’ director of European scouting Hakan Andersson was quoted by RedWingsCentral.com:
He’s Alexander Edler, that’s how he looks to me. He’s surprising everybody. He’s coming along very nicely. He’s good-sized, he’s really mobile, he’s playing with more confidence, he’s joining the rush more, he’s more comfortable skating the puck out of his own end when he has to. Everything he does is with more authority.
He has the potential to grow into a top-four defenseman further down the line, but he’ll have to show he can play the physical game associated with North American hockey.
While Detroit would love to add a player of his size, he’ll need to possess an essence of physicality to enjoy a fruitful NHL career.
At just 21 years old, he has plenty of time to do so.
Like Mattias Backman, Alexey Marchenko comes in with great size and mobility.
The 22-year-old stands 6’2”, 212 lbs, and he plays a good two-way style of defense. The Russian was taken in the seventh round (205th overall) in the 2011 NHL draft and is in his first season with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Detroit’s director of player development Jiri Fischer told RedWingsCentral.com:
He’s a deceptively good skater, he doesn’t look like the most explosive guy on the ice but he never gets beat and he always plays good angles. He can really move the puck out of the zone by making a great first pass or skating it out to the blue line and making the first pass.
The Red Wings aren’t the only ones impressed by his play, as Marchenko was the only member of the Griffins named to the AHL All-Star team.
Marchenko spent a season and a half in the KHL before coming stateside. His three goals and 18 points aren’t shooting the lights out, but it’s his play without the puck that’s earning praise.
When it comes to keeping the puck out of his own net, Marchenko does just that. His plus-13 is second among defensemen in Grand Rapids and tops on this list.
The Red Wings have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, but in his one game at the NHL level he was plus-two in a 5-1 win over Dallas on Jan. 4.
His reliability is something that could be more attractive to Detroit. The offensive prowess others on this list provide is intriguing, but when it comes to straight defense, Marchenko may be the most NHL ready.
Unlike Detroit’s other defensive prospects, Adam Almquist does not come with the size of a prototypical defenseman.
Instead, he brings a remarkable hockey sense and the natural talent to make up for his 5’11” stature. Mike Babcock expressed his opinion of Almquist to MLive.com:
I hate doing this, but (Tobias) Enstrom for (the Winnipeg Jets) is a star, and we’d like (Almquist) one day to be a star. He’s got to fall in love with the gym and eating if he wants that to happen. So the challenge is there for him. He’s got lots of talent and he can really move the puck.
A Jonkoping, Sweden, native, Almquist is in his second full season with the Grand Rapids Griffins and is second on the team with 33 points in 48 games. His 31 assists rank sixth among defensemen and ninth overall in the AHL.
He had a two-game stint with Detroit in November, recording a goal and a minus-one rating while averaging just over 17 minutes of ice time.
His vision and impressive shot make him very dangerous on the power play, recording 15 of his points (one goal and 14 assists) with the man advantage. If he can add a bit more muscle, he could certainly hold his own in the NHL.
Almquist is comparable to a player like Brian Rafalski and is showing he can play at a high level in the AHL.
He has the intangibles in his game necessary to become a force without the desired size for a defensive prospect.
When it comes to describing the ideal offensive defenseman, Ryan Sproul brings it all to the table.
He brings great size (6’4”, 205 lbs)and a “booming” shot. He's also drastically improved his mobility. He needs to improve his play in his own end and add weight to develop a physical element to his game.
At 21 years old, he still has plenty of time to fill out and increase his strength. He has great vision and is offensively savvy, making him quite exciting to watch.
Sproul has taken great strides in his first full season with the Grand Rapids Griffins, tallying eight goals, 24 points and a plus-six in 50 games.
While he needs to improve inside his own blue line, there is a tremendously high ceiling for a player with naturally ability like his.
Adding strength will improve multiple facets of a player’s game. A physical presence to accompany the rest of his skill set could turn him into a real force at both ends of the ice.
With a few more seasons in the AHL, Sproul could force his way onto the NHL roster whether or not Detroit is ready for him.
Detroit doesn’t have an immediate need for offense from the back end, but Sproul has the most impressive skill set and possibly the most room to improve.
Potential is a scary word, but Sproul has enough to earn him the No. 1 spot on the list.