The Detroit Red Wings have a reputation among hockey fans and National Hockey League insiders as being one of the best franchises at identifying and developing talent selected after the first round of the annual NHL entry draft.
Much of this perception was based on the later round selections of forwards Henrik Zetterberg (7th round, 1999) and Pavel Datsyuk (6th round, 1998). Both players rank high in any list of the biggest draft day steals.
Whether perception is actually reality, though, is a different question.
Despite their reputation, the Wings have not had a lot of success getting their recent draft picks into their NHL line-up. In fact, excluding forward Johan Franzen (a third round selection in 2004), the 36 players the Red Wings have selected in the 2003-2007 drafts have only played a total of 36 National Hockey League games.
Still, one of the great luxuries of being an elite NHL franchise is the ability to be patient, and there are still some prospects in the team's system that could make an impact for fantasy owners in the next few seasons.
Here are the Fantasy Hockey Network's ranking of the Top Five fantasy prospects in the Detroit Red Wings' development system:
1. Jakub Kindl, D– Despite a nightmarish first AHL season, the 21-year old is still regarded as an elite prospect by the Red Wings' brass.
Kindl certainly has all the tools required to be a big-time NHL player, including size, skating ability, and puck handling skills. The 6'3” Czech is also a natural power play quarterback and his skill set would seem to be a perfect fit for Detroit's up tempo, puck possession game.
His -34 plus/minus rating in 2007-08, however, shows he still has a lot to learn about the defensive side of the game. He also needs to use his size more effectively and be a more consistent force at the offensive end. 17 points in a full season in the AHL will not make Red Wings' fans forget about Nicklas Lidstrom.
He still has the potential to be a top two NHL defense-man, but needs to show improvement in 2008-09, or even the patient Wings might be forced to reconsider their expectations.
2. Jan Mursak, LW– Despite a slow start in 2007-08, Murzak reaffirmed his ranking as one of Detroit's top prospects with a strong second half, sparked by a mid-season trade that sent him from the Saginaw Spirit to the Belleville Bulls.
Though small by NHL standards (5'11”, 191 lbs), the Slovenian has added almost 25 pounds to his slight frame since he was drafted in 2006.
Despite his size, the 6th round pick has a complete arsenal of offensive weapons including speed, soft hands, and well-developed hockey sense, which could make him an elite playmaker. He also plays with intensity and surprising grit for a player of his talent level.
Right now, the 20-year projects as a top six forward, but will require more seasoning in the AHL. A 2010 debut would seem likely.
3. Cory Emmerton, C – Mononucleosis shortened Emmerton's 2007-08 season, and his health problems no doubt contributed to his reduced offensive production. Although he still averaged more than a point a game (61 points in 56 games), more was expected of the 20-year old after his 2006-07 breakout season.
The St. Thomas, Ontario native is a natural play-maker. His elite level passing skills and his on-ice awareness make him a continual threat to find the open man or hit a teammate in mid-stride. Definitely a player who makes his teammates better.
To be successful in the show, Emmerton will need to improve his skating and his defensive play.
Still a long-term project, Emmerton will need some minor league experience before he's ready for NHL action. When he reaches Detroit in 2011 or 2012, he should be ready to center one of the Red Wings' top two lines.
4. Jimmy Howard, G – If Jimmy Howard was in any other team's organization, he probably wouldn't crack the list of the club's top five prospects. But sometimes opportunity is more important than talent.
That's not to say that Howard isn't a capable goalie. The 2nd round pick in the 2003 draft rebounded from a mediocre 2006-07 season to achieve one of his pre-season goals—a selection to the AHL All-Star Game.
The native of Ogdensburg, New York is a big butterfly goalie who covers the net well and plays with poise. Among his strengths are concentration, hockey sense, and puck handling.
The biggest knocks on Howard are his lack of consistency and rebound control, two things he'll have to improve to become an NHL starter.
His immediate prospects took a blow when the Wings signed Ty Conklin to serve as Chris Osgood's back-up, but considering both Osgood's age and how prone the two guys in front of him are to injury, Howard's chance may come sooner than later.
5. Brendan Smith, D – The 19-year old scored twice and added ten assists as a true freshman for the Michigan Wolverines in 2007-08, and much more is expected of the youngster in his second season of college hockey.
Smith is loaded with offensive talent. A silky-smooth, effortless skater, the Toronto native has good vision and soft hands, all the tools required for a top-end offensive defense-man.
Like most young players, the 2007 first rounder (27th overall) needs to improve his defensive game and add more muscle to his 6'2” frame. He also must become a little more selective when it comes to joining the offensive rush.
The Red Wings' brain trust regard Smith as a future top four blue-liner with offensive upside, but don't expect any big league contributions from him for at least three years. Someone to keep an eye on, but don't waste a pick this season.
Next in our continuing series, we'll look at the top fantasy prospects of another team famous for developing young players, the Edmonton Oilers.
Don't forget to check out the previous articles in the series:
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