Monday, June 17, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 3: Forecasting the Forward Foundation

(Editor's Note: This article is the 3rd part of an ongoing series, offering an in-depth look at the Red Wing's roster and it's potential evolution in the future. Part 1 of  the series looked at defensemen, while part 2 focuses on the Wings' muddled forward situation.)

Despite the Wings' apparent logjam at forward for the 2013-14 season, a careful examination of the contracts involved and the hidden gems in Detroit's farm system suggest a massive sea change is underway in the organization. While the shortened 2013 campaign saw Mike Babcock groom a 5 pack of former prospects into full-fledged Red Wings; they represent only the beginning of Ken Holland's plan to revitalize the franchise. The 2014 offseason will see a number of cumbersome contracts wiped off the ledger and by 2016 the roster should consist only of veterans Holland actually wants to keep; assuming plans to trade Johan Franzen once his salary drops become a reality that is. Of course, this is only a boon for the organization if the young prospects in the system are actually ready to take over the open roster spots all of Holland's machinations have created. Fortunately the Red Wings' ability to identify, draft and develop talent is legendary. Although Holland gets the lion's share of the credit; guys like Joe Macdonald, Ryan Martin and treasured "Euro-whisperer" Hakan Andersson are a big part of why the Wings always seem to have a fresh wave of talented prospects on the cusp of breaking into the NHL. In fact, with the addition of numerous recently retired Wings to the front office; it can be said that Detroit's entire management team has a hand in scouting and developing players for Holland and Babcock to plug into the lineup as time passes.

Grinding Out a Future: Naturally, when looking at Red Wings' forward prospects, the same organizational rules apply as when we looked at defensemen. No matter how highly rated a forward is; he will not touch the ice at Joe Louis Arena until he's grown strong enough and smart enough to execute Mike Babcock's system. In that regard the forward most likely to find his way to Detroit soon, at least in a part time role might well be scrappy, 6' grinder, Mitch Callahan. Although his player bio lists him at 190lbs, the eye test suggests the winger is at least 10lbs heavier after two seasons of work on his core body strength in Grand Rapids. To be fair, Mitch isn't the most talented player in the organization by any stretch and he'll only be 22 years old when the 2014 season begins.  He is however strong, a decent skater, aggressive and willing to drop the gloves when necessary. Although he doesn't project to ever be more than a checking line forward, his numbers in Grand Rapids, suggest that he might provide more skill than current pugilist Jordin Tootoo. At a very minimum, he'd be considerably cheaper and is young enough that with any luck he might develop some offensive skills down the road. Regardless; necessity dictates that the Wings find someone to step into a checking line, agitator role in the near future and right now, Callahan looks like the best fit in the organization. In a similar mold is 22 year old winger Trevor Parkes. At 6'2", 188lbs he also brings size to the table and he's shown considerably more offensive touch than Callahan has. The downside is that Parkes is still very thin, lacks core body strength and a recent demotion to the ECHL makes it clear that he might be a couple years away from even a "cup of coffee" tryout with the senior Wings. Finally, the team still has 6'2", 200lb winger Andrej Nestrasil splitting time between Toledo (ECHL) and Grand Rapids (AHL). To be fair, Nestrasil is more of a chippy battler than any kind of enforcer and he's actually quite a skilled passer for a man his size. He's also a borderline terrible skater and at this point is his career it's not entirely clear how much he'll improve on that trait in the future. Nestrasil could easily be looking for a new organization by this time next year but if he does stick around, he'll have to significantly improve his skating to warrant consideration as more than a spare part, grind-line winger.

Having it Both Ways: Of course, Ken Holland knows he's not going to reload the Red Wing empire with a bunch of checking-line muckers. Over the next two seasons the team will need an infusion of skilled, two-way forwards to replace the likes of Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Cleary. Depending on how contracts and injury rehab situations break out, management might also be looking to replace Darren Helm and/or Patrick Eaves. Finally if the Wings fail to retain Filppula and Brunner it could have a cascade effect on the roster; pulling guys like Nyquist and Tatar onto the 2nd line and opening roster slots for new forwards to emerge on the 3rd line as a result. In my eyes, the two players most likely to step into this void are current Grand Rapid Griffin lynchpins; Riley Sheahan and Landon Ferraro. Of the two, Sheahan is definitely the more promising prospect. At 6'2' and 213 lbs, he practically screams "elite, rugged power forward in training" the moment he steps on the ice. Unfortunately, it typically takes years for this type of player to truly realize their full offensive potential, and in that regard Riley is no different. In the meantime, the Wings' brass will just have to settle for a strong, physical, hard skating, two-way center who knows how to use his stick defensively, kills penalties and periodically unleashes a hellacious slapshot that can fool goalies from 30+ feet out. The NHL comparison draft analysts were throwing around in 2010 was Ryan Kessler and 3 years later, that comparison still seems reasonable; if Riley can reach his full potential. Frankly, Sheahan is good enough to play with the big club in Detroit right now but consistency issues, lingering character questions and a lack of room on the roster will conspire to keep him in Grand Rapids next season. The upside for Riley of course, is that it gives opposing fans an additional year to forget who, or what a Tinky Winky is. With another season of pro hockey under his belt; look for a stronger, faster and more offensively skilled Riley Sheahan to challenge for and ultimately win a roster spot with the big club in 2014-15.

Nipping on Sheahan's heels in the quest to earn a permanent home in the Motor city is undersized, lightning-bug fast center; Landon Ferraro. The three things you need to know about Ferraro are that he's tenacious, his draft day comparison was David Krejci (which is hard to say with a straight face in 2013), and he can flat out fly with a pair of skates on. He's the son of former 400 goal scorer Ray Ferraro and based on video evidence; the apple certainly didn't fall far from the tree in the Ferraro family. Landon's problem has been and remains a notable lack of size and upper body strength. The game day program lists him at a generous 6', 174lbs, and he might actually be a lot closer to 5'11" and 170lbs with his skates off. Ferraro has also struggled to meet expectations at times; after a 37 goal season in the WHL, he regressed mightily over the next 3 years. At this time last year, the sense was that Ferraro was a first round bust who might some day develop into a 3rd line center. Thankfully, Landon really turned his career around this past season in Grand Rapids and put himself firmly back on Ken Holland's radar in the process. Unfortunately for Ferraro, his size and time wasted trying to find his game at the professional level all but ensures he'll be back in Grand Rapids for the entirety of next season. Interestingly enough, his waiver exemption runs out in 2014-15; if he isn't ready for a promotion to the big club by then, he might very well be shipped out of town before he ever cracks the Red Wing lineup. Rounding out the Wings' clutch of two-way center prospects is the thus-far disappointing, former 3rd round draft choice Louis-Marc Aubry. At 6'4" and 205lbs; Aubry possesses both the size and natural talent to eventually be a solid 3rd line center in the NHL. He's a strong skater, has great awareness, wins faceoffs, blocks shots and plays well without the puck. The mystery thus remains, why hasn't he been able to put all of that together into a single credible season in professional hockey? Over the course of two seasons in Grand Rapids, Aubry has struggled mightily to adapt to AHL level competition; at this point the NHL remains a distant dream.

The Skills that Pay the Bills: As a general rule; Red Wings' personnel types are not prone to bouts of hyperbole. In this regard, when multiple members of the organization go out of their way to compare a young prospect to Henrik Zetterberg; it's a pretty safe bet you have a very special player on your hands. That special player is 21 year old, Swedish play-making center; Calle Jarnkrok. If everything goes according to plan, Jarnkrok will be a household name in North American hockey sometime within the next 5 years; just in time to replace the waning contributions of an aging Zetterberg and a likely retired Datsyuk. As of this very moment, Calle is simply one of the best players in the entire Swedish Elite League; last season he racked up 13 goals and 42 points in 53 games, all while competing against grown men in one of the better professional leagues outside of North America. Jarnkrok is off-the-charts smart, he has exceptional vision, floats an extremely soft pass and has the kind of stick handling skills to literally "rag the puck" for entire shifts. He's also a relentless worker, a world class skater and an elite weapon in power-play situations; there's simply a whole like to like about Jarnkrok's game, even this early in his development. What's keeping Calle out of the NHL right now is the same thing that's holding back many of the Wings' best prospects; at 5'11", 174lbs he simply isn't big enough or strong enough to compete at this level yet. At both the IIHF world championships and during his 9 game stint in Grand Rapids he struggled to produce much offensively, primarily because of this lack of strength. Early indications are that Jarnkrok will be brought to training camp in 2013-14 with a real chance to earn a roster spot on the team immediately. If I had to guess however; I'd say that the 10lbs of raw muscle Calle needs to put on to realize his potential in the pros will simply be "a bridge too far" for one offseason's worth of development. Whether or not the Wings send him to Grand Rapids or back to Sweden will likely be a function of his personal preferences and how much muscle he's able to develop in Europe. If it looks like his progress has stalled, Holland will likely be eager to get him to North America; where they can keep a closer eye on, and exert a greater level of control over, his core strength training. (Edit: actually, it appears that Jarnkrok will be playing in North American regardless; former assistant GM Jim Nill said he'd be assigned to Grand Rapids if he failed to make the senior club in late December. Sorry folks; thanks for the reader catch by The Zetterberg Era.) Whether it's now, next year or even 2015-16; at some point Calle Jarnkrok is going to be big enough for the NHL and all signs point to him continuing the Red Wings' tradition of elite, play-making centers for years to come.     

Of course, as anyone who's been following the Red Wings for the past couple of decades can tell you; the Wings' seem to find their superstar forwards in pairs. Steve Yzerman had Sergei Federov, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have become inseparable in Red Wings lore; if Jarnkrok is the next great center, who will be his partner in crime on the wing? Based on sheer talent alone, that would likely be 20 year old, Slovakian magician Tomas Jurco. To say that Jurco is an elite puck handler would be completely unfair; Tomas can do things with a puck that nobody has ever thought of trying before! Jurco is however, more than a youtube sideshow. He's a blazing fast skater, an accomplished play-maker in the passing game and has a quick release to pair with his strong, accurate shooting. In short, Tomas Jurco was born to make goals at the highest levels of hockey.  As if that weren't enough to entice Wings' fans; he's also blessed with a 6'2" frame and has already bulked up to 193 pounds as a 20 year old. The NHL comparison being whispered around the front office is Marion Hossa and while a lot of things would have to go right for Jurco to eventually justify those comparisons; there's no question he has the body and the natural talent to do so. Tomas produced a respectable 14 goals and 28 points during his rookie year in the AHL last season, and has thus far looked pretty good during the Griffin's run to the Calder Cup finals this spring. The key for Jurco moving forward will be his ability to step up next season and become a scoring leader in Grand Rapids. Tomas has the talent to dominate at the AHL level and at his age, the Wings have plenty of time to wait for him to do so before calling him up to the big club. Exactly when that occurs will be entirely up to Jurco; he's definitely good enough to steal someone's job before his waiver options expire if he works hard enough.

While the final forward in this category is nowhere near the hockey player that either of the first two are, Teemu Pulkkinen makes this list because he does have one skill that's extremely valuable to NHL clubs; he can put the biscuit in the basket at a truly elite level. Pulkkinen's scouting report reads like a min/maxed video game character: he's a pure sniper with a great shot who excels on the power-play because of his sick one-timer and assassin's mentality in the offensive zone. He's also a notably poor skater, short (but stocky) and ambivalent at best about defense. He has been compared to Jari Kurri but his skating implies that Hakan Andersson's suggestion that he's a "poor man's Brett Hull" is likely more accurate. Those scoring at home however will note that both players are in the Hall of Fame and combined for 1, 342 goals at the NHL level. If Pulkkinen is even 75% as good as scouts suggest he might be, Teemu will have a long and glorious career in the Red Wings' organization. Unfortunately, due to his poor skating and defense; it's very difficult to get a good read on exactly when Pulkkinen might join the senior club in Detroit. As it stands right now, the team believes he would be nothing more than a power-play specialist in the NHL; some would even say that's all he'll ever be. If Pulkkinen can improve his skating and defense however, even marginally; Ken Holland would have yet another mid-round (4th) draft robbery on his hands in short order. Pulkkinen will get a chance to earn a spot on the senior team this fall; if he doesn't make it, he'll spend the season in Grand Rapids. If I had to guess, I'd say that Teemu's road to the NHL will be a little longer than most; look for him to check in with the senior Wings on the 2015-16 edition of the "Kid line" at the earliest.

The Next, Next Wave: With both the present and the immediate future locked up, the challenge for Ken Holland them becomes planning for the distant future. Time stands still for no organization and the Wings brain trust are already working on a plan for when this wave of prospects must be replaced by another. Although predicting the hockey fortunes of teenage boys is an inexact science at best, names to watch out for in the future include Marek Tvrdon, Andreas Athanasiou and Martin Frk. Although nothing is written in stone; Tvrdon and Frk both have the size, skill and shooting prowess to grow into functional power forwards. Athanasiou on the other hand is a speedy play-maker who needs to be paired with strong shooters to capitalize on all the chances his hands and stick create. Right now all 3 players are listed as wingers but, Andreas has shown some aptitude for the center position and it will be interesting to watch if the Wings eventually move him there full time to create yet another new "kid" line in the distant future. Right now, this is of course all speculation however; Athanasiou will play in Juniors again next year, Tvrdon has graduated to the ECHL after 3 injury-filled years in the WHL and Martin Frk is slated for his rookie season in Grand Rapids. By the time any of these young men realize their NHL dreams, much of the current senior roster will be retired and Holland will be faced with a whole new generation's worth of challenges to maintain the degree of excellence expected in Hockeytown.

(Editor's note:concluded in Part 4 here.)

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