Welcome to the 2015 edition of Top Shelf Prospects. As the summer progresses, I will be featuring each NHL team’s top prospects, following the order of the first round of the 2015 NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) —you can find all the articles here.
Because we already published an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in 2015, as my reports on them will not have changed — I will, however, link you to those articles. Instead I will focus on prospects that were acquired in past drafts, examining their progress and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of their respective NHL team. I will also choose one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the fourth round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a darkhorse to make the NHL.
For those wondering, the determining factors for defining who is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not set in stone, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Death, Taxes, and the Detroit Red Wings making the playoffs; three things that we have been able to count on for the last two and a half decades. The Wings once again made it to the NHL’s big post-season dance last year, but a less than accomodating dance partner in the Tampa Bay Lightning took the team out in 7 games.
This brought about an off-season of change in Detroit. Coach Mike Babcock was one of the hottest free agents on the market, and he choose to take his talents to Toronto for a mega-contract. In his place is Jeff Blashill, the head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins who ascends to the NHL post. Added on Free Agency day was Mike Green, who signed a three-year deal with the club. They also added centre Brad Richards who comes in fresh off a Stanley Cup Championship with the rival Chicago Blackhawks. The Wings did buy out Stephen Weiss’ contract, but that shouldn’t be considered a major loss, he has had a very minimal impact since arriving with the club. Other minor losses include Erik Cole and Jonas Gustavsson. The question now for Detroit concerns developing the prospects and getting enough firepower to replace Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, and others who will eventually leave the club.
Players Drafted: Evgeni Svechnikov, Vili Saarijarvi, Joren van Pottelberghe, Chase Pearson, Patrick Holway, Adam Marsh
Graduations: Tomas Jurco, Peter Mrazek (47 GP overall and was team’s starter in playoffs)
Detroit Red Wings Prospects
Top Prospect: Dylan Larkin, Centre
Born Jul 30 1996 — Waterford, MI
Height 6.01 — Weight 192 [185 cm/87 kg] – Shoots Left
Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in Round 1, 15th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
In his freshman year with the University of Michigan, Dylan Larkin put up big numbers, with 15 goals and 47 points in 35 games. He added five goals and seven points in five games at the world junior championships, five points in six AHL playoff games, and an assist in ten games on route to a bronze medal at the Senior Men’s World Championships. All in all it was a tremendous year for the Wings 2014 first round pick.
Dylan Larkin is a very strong skater, with strong top end speed, very good acceleration, and a great first step. This enables him to be very effective on the forecheck, as well as to gather loose pucks in all three zones of the ice. Larkin also has outstanding edgework and agility and can be extremely elusive. He has good balance and is very difficult to knock off the puck making him very effective in the cycle game and in battles for pucks along the boards. Larkin should only get better as he adds more muscle to his frame and fleshes out his game in the pros.
Larkin showed this year can be dangerous as both a shooter than a passer, as he has a good wrist shot and strong release. He is also effective at finding open areas for one-timers. Larkin creates offense through straight ahead simple plays, more than from being overly fancy and creative. He makes the smart play though and is willing to go to the net hard. He can be effective with soft hands in tight to bury rebounds and create tip ins. He improved his playmaking this year, no longer getting the tunnel vision where he almost always shot the puck, but adding some playmaking aspects and unpredictability that make him even more dangerous. Larkin does have good hockey sense and plays a pro-style game now. He doesn’t make a lot of those little plays that work in junior hockey, but won’t work going forward that are seen from many prospects at his age.
Larkin is extremely advanced defensively for a young player. He knows how to keep his man to the outside and cut down passing and shooting lanes. He backchecks hard, and supports his defence down low against the cycle game. Larkin is more than willing to put his body on the line and block shots. While we don’t have face-off stats, observation shows that he has been good in the circle and wins a lot of draws. Larkin has shown a high compete level in all three zones, but he can be more effective physically as he adds more muscle on his frame.
After Larkin signed his pro contract last spring, expect to see him spend a year in the AHL, as the Red Wings continue to follow the philosophy of bringing prospects along slowly.
#2 Prospect: Anthony Mantha, Left Wing
Born Sep 16 1994 — Longueuil, PQ
Height 6.05 — Weight 205 — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1st round, 20th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft
At this time last year, Anthony Mantha was one of the most talked about prospects in the hockey world. However injuries, followed by a mediocre first pro season, with just 15 goals and 33 points in 62 games should be seen as a bit of a disappointment. These aren’t terrible stats, they are actually decent for a first year pro in the AHL, but so much more was expected from Mantha. Things got worse though in a poor playoff showing, just two goals and four points in 16 games amd he was publically called out along the way in a subtle way by Wings management.
At 6’5″ Mantha has really impressive size. What is really intriguing though is that Mantha couples that impressive size, with great offensive skills. He’s not just a player who scored in junior hockey because he was physically bigger and stronger than his fellow teenagers, but instead has skill to pair with that impressive physique. Mantha has a great wrist shot. It is heavy and accurate, and is paired with a tremendously quick release which fools goalies and helps him to put the puck in the back of the net. He also has a great one timer. Many have criticized Mantha for being too much of a perimeter player, but I don’t make that criticism. The thing is you see his size and want a power forward, but thats not his game. He’s tremendously skilled and can score by getting open and using that great shot. When it becomes necessary Mantha can get involved physically and dig hard along the boards and he always fights for his space in front of the net, where he causes havoc for goalies. Mantha is a goal scorer and he does get to those dirty areas to score those goals. Of course, we’d like to see more big hits and a bit of a mean streak out of him going forward, as well as a bit more bulk on his frame. While Mantha is more a goal scorer than a playmaker, his vision and passing skills are good as well and he can make plays with the puck on his stick. He had real issues with consistency though in Grand Rapids, and will need to develop that consistency game in and game out this year.
Mantha is an outstanding skater for his size. He has very good top-end speed, and great acceleration, which allows him to drive wide on defenders and take the puck to the net. As defenders need to back off and defend his speed game, he also has the ability to pull up and let go that tremendous wrister off the rush. He couples his size with good balance which makes him a force on the boards, and helps him to fight through checks and create offense.
Defensively, Mantha’s game is extremely inconsistent. I have seen him be an effective backchecker in his own end of the ice, but I’ve also seen games where he doesn’t get involved enough defensively. He will need to be more consistent in that area of his game and get rid of his bad habit to puck-watch at times. When he does put in the intensity, he’s an effective backchecker, who plays his man and keeps him to the outside of the rink. He takes the body and wins his battles on the boards, and helps out with back pressure. He’s even been known to drop the gloves on occassion, but should not be thought of as a fighter.
Mantha likely will be back in the AHL this season, where he will work on showing a more consistent effort level defensively, and on developing his offensive game at the next level.
#3 Prospect: Xavier Ouellet, Defence
Born Jul 29 1993 — Terrebonne, PQ
Height 6.00 — Weight 187
Drafted by Detroit Red Wings in the 2nd round, 48th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Xavier Ouellet improved his output in his second pro season, putting up 16 points in 52 games with Grand Rapids. This may be one less point than he put up as a rookie, but was also 18 less games played, so his points per game was improved. He also got in 21 NHL regular season games, and scored his first two NHL goals. While he didn’t put up huge points, he also wasn’t a liability and showed that he’s not far off from regular duty.
Ouellet proved in junior that he was a strong offensive defenceman and as he gains experience we should expect his point totals to increase. Effective in joining the rush or from the point, he has a very good wrist shot with a quick release. His slapshot is powerful and he has a dangerous one timer. Ouellet is very poised on the powerplay and has excellent vision and creativity to create plays. He is agile and can walk the line to open up passing and shooting lanes.
He is a great skater and it is this mobility that helps his game at both ends. He has a strong stride and good acceleration in both directions. He also pivots well, and has great edgework and agility, giving him the ability to quickly transition all 360 degrees and cover the ice extremely effectively. He is strong on his skates and has decent balance for board battles and in front of the net, but bulking up his core strength would help his game take the next step.
Don’t be fooled though, Ouellet is no one trick pony, as he also is a good defensive defenceman using his solid positioning and good hockey sense to keep opponents at bay as well. He anticipates extremely well and cuts down passing and shooting lanes. Ouellet is not afraid to block shots and to take a hit to move the puck out of the defensive zone.
Ouellet will fight for a regular spot on the Red Wings in training camp, but with the Wings patient approach could spend another year in the AHL. He is more than ready for fill in duty if injuries arise. There are a number of good defencemen in the Wings system though, and Ouellet is certainly being pushed for his current spot as the top Wings defensive prospect by players like Ryan Sproul and Alexey Marchenko.
Super Sleeper: Andreas Athanasiou, Centre/Left Wing
Born Aug 6 1994 — Woodbridge, ONT
Height 6.02 — Weight 200 [188 cm/91 kg]
Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in Round 4, 110th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Andreas Athanasiou came out of junior and had a good first pro season, with 16 goals and 32 points in 55 games. I know what you are thinking, those are similar stats to Mantha, but the difference here is Athanasiou didn’t have the same level of expectations put on him. He also had five goals and 9 points in 16 playoff games.
Athanasiou has tremendous skill. He is one of the fastest and best skaters in the AHL. His top end speed is off the charts. He has great acceleration and agility, and can make pivots and change directions with ease. His edgework and balance are also exceptional. All of this makes him a very difficult player for defenders to handle off the rush.
Athanasiou also has incredible stickhandling ability. He has soft, quick hands and can make extremely creative dangles with ease. He has the ability to stick handle in a phone booth, and is a menace to goaltenders in the shootout. Athanasiou combines this with a hard, accurate shot, and quick release, which makes many believe he can be a goal scorer in the NHL. He also has decent vision and good passing skills. The big knock when he was drafted was based on attitude (he clashed with London’s coaches) and consistency. The summer after he was drafted, Athanasiou left London, and almost overnight, both of those concerns seemed to disappear. The consistency is there, and the clashes with coaches aren’t.
Defensive play is still a work in progress, and so expect to see Athanasiou back in the AHL next season. However he has really improved his stock since being a fourth round pick in 2012.
The Wings continue to show excellent prospect depth. There defence is impressive with Ouellet, Sproul, and Marchenko at the pro level; Joe Hicketts in junior, and the newly signed Robbie Russo coming to the team out of college. While Mrazek graduated there is still some potential in goal with Jake Patterson. The forwards also have depth with Evgeny Svechnikov added to a group that also includes Teemu Pulkkinen, Tyler Bertuzzi, Axel Holmstrom, Zach Nastasiuk, and Dominic Turgeon.