Our “Prospect Preview”

Part two of three breaking down NHL.com’s “30 Teams in 30 Days” focusing on some top prospects in the Red Wings organ-i-zation

Jonathan Ericsson and Darren Helm don’t have Calder Trophy eligibility, so you can’t exactly call them prospects anymore. Heck, they each have Stanley Cup rings and Helm has played in more playoff games (41) than regular-season games (23).

That means two of the Wings’ prized prospects have graduated to the big time, opening the door for two more big-time prospects to jump into the top five.

Here is a look at the Red Wings’ five best prospects entering the 2009-10 season:

Or you could call it, 5 more reasons to be excited about the Red Wings’ future. NOTE: None of these players are high first rounders because unlike the “model franchise” in Pittsburgh or our little red-headed step-brothers in Chicago, we don’t tank and draft high, we draft smart:

Justin Abdelkader — Like Helm, Abdelkader has played in more Stanley Cup Playoff games (10) than regular-season games (four). He appeared in two games last season and two games in 2007-08. A solid two-way forward, Abdelkader will be given every chance to make the Wings’ roster out of training camp. They think he can be a future leader.

It really just occurred to me how much this kid reminds me of a young Dallas Drake. I really think that Drake was the kick in the pants that kept the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings in line. Sure, there was the whole “let’s win this for Drake” theory, but I’ll speculate that he picked up the slack in the badass department, where our captainship may have fallen short. But this isn’t about Drake, it’s about Abadabbadoo, who like Drake, is big, strong (and getting stronger) North American-style grinder who has decent hands a good shot. Not too familiar with his leadership capabilities, but I’ll bet he’ll play more of that role with his time spent in G.R. this year. I’ll get out there to see him play as much as the woman will allow.

Jimmy Howard — Is this finally the season the American-born goalie, now 25, becomes an NHL regular? It would appear so, as Howard has been anointed Chris Osgood’s backup. He has been biding his time in Grand Rapids since 2005 and has appeared in only nine NHL games spread across three seasons. Howard will have to impress early for the Wings not to look outside the organization for a backup as the stretch run nears.

I disagree with the last part of this. We have Larsson and McCollum waiting in the Wings, along with Jordan Pearce to step in if Howard falters. Larsson was an AHL All-Star last year and McCollum has played well in the OHL (despite a questionable performance at the World Junior Championships for USA Hockey). I doubt the Wings will look elsewhere for a backup goalie with such a logjam of talent in the farm systems. Jimmy is in a contract year and has the perfect opportunity to prove that he belongs here. Inconsistent play in the AHL and limited time in the NHL has many Wings fans nervous. Whether you think he’s the guy or not, he deserves his chance to stay with the club all year.

Brendan Smith — The Wings’ first-round pick in 2007 is entering his third and most important season at the University of Wisconsin. He has been plagued by injuries in his collegiate career, so the key is for him to stay healthy and play a full season. If he’s able to do that, the smooth-skating, puck-moving defender likely will get a pro contract next summer.

Pro contract to play in the AHL. This guy is a ways away from ever sniffing regular time in a Winged Wheel jersey. There’s too much depth at defense right now to think that a college kid has a shot at cracking the lineup after his junior year at school. Haven’t heard much about him in the college ranks, so stay tuned.

Jakub Kindl — The Czech-born defenseman was an all-star in the American Hockey League last season with Grand Rapids and could be used by the Wings on a call-up basis this season. After struggling in 2007-08, Kindl was much better last season and Nill said he’s right on pace with his development. He recently signed a three-year extension.

That three-year extension is a one way ticket, by the way. Meaning when he gets called up after this year, he’s staying. The limited exposure I’ve had watching Kindl in Grand Rapids has been impressive. He’s an extremely smooth operator and seems to be wonderfully smart with the puck in his own end. Let’s see if he can duplicate his All-Star results from last season. Consistency is something that needs to be developed with the Griffs before Kenny boy will even consider bringing you up (unless you’re Jimmy Howard and your contract is forcing a “put up or shut-up” situation).

Thomas McCollum — The Wings’ 2008 first-round pick (No. 30) fought adversity to have a fine season. McCollum struggled, as did most of the American team, at the 2009 World Junior Championship. However, he was able to bounce back and lead the Brampton Battalion deep in the OHL playoffs. He’s turning pro and will be given a chance to be the No. 1 goalie in Grand Rapids.

I think this guy forgot all about Daniel Larsson. McCollum will have chance to fight for the number one spot in Grand Rapids, but Larsson is a 2008-2009 AHL All-Star despite splitting time with Jimmy Howard. McCollum, much as Larsson did as the “new kid in town” will be given a fair opportunity to compete in G.R. Depending on how Jimmy does as Ozzie’s safety net, we could have a three-way battle for the back-up in Detroit. I say give it to whoever plays consistently. If Ozzie’s regular season is anything like last year **shudders at the thought**, we’re going to need someone to be the calming force that Conklin was (at times).

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Not mentioned by NHL.com…Daniel Larsson, Ville Leino, Patrick Eaves. Leino and Eaves are both over 24 years old, but they’re new to the system and will both play significant roles on the big club this season. With the youth and talent ripening in Grand Rapids, the Joe will see its fair share of quality players for years to come.
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