Grand Rapids – Three Red Wings prospects are stepping from one rung on the ladder to the next this month, from junior hockey to the AHL.
The Wings elevated three young players, Evgeny Svechnikov, 19, Joe Hicketts, 19, and Vili Saarijarvi, 18, to the Griffins, when their junior seasons ended.
Practicing and traveling in the AHL playoffs, they are unlikely to play, especially with a possible Calder Cup on the line, unless misfortune strikes the Griffins.
“I think from our standpoint, it gives us depth,” Grand Rapids coach Todd Nelson said. “If there’s injuries, we can insert some of these guys, if we feel they’ll fit.
“It’s also a good chance for us to get to know the player, get to work with them.
“For them, it’s a good experience to come and be part of a playoff run,” Nelson said.
“It’s for them to sort of educate themselves moving forward and to get acclimated to the professional life, seeing how the guys conduct themselves, seeing what the routines are, getting more familiar with our organization.”
Svechnikov, the Wings first-round pick last year, 19th overall, could eventually provide an ingredient in short supply since Brendan Shanahan left for the Rangers a decade ago —a sniper.
Scouting reports sometimes describe a one-dimensional player, a goal scorer. But listed attributes include “powerful and skilled” and “great strength and balance on his skates.”
Svechnikov is 6-foot-3, 205 pounds of shot, hands and vision. He must gain defensive skills and awareness and occasionally floats above the fray.
In 105 games over the past two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), he scored 64 goals and assisted on 93 for 157 points.
“I think everything went well this year, except we lost in the second round of the playoffs, seventh game,” he said, of his second season with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“I just try to play my game, but I am working on my skating.”
Svechnikov said Jiri Fischer, the Wings’ frequently-traveling director of player development, visited in Nova Scotia with some drills designed to increase his speed, another development priority.
“I do it every day,” said Svechnikov, who is from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in far eastern Russia.
Observing the size, speed and strength of the AHL players, many of whom are in their mid and late 20s, he said, “It’s just interesting how it goes. It’s a little different. It’s professional hockey.
“I can’t wait to play. But for now, I just work.”
Hicketts’ offensive skills made him a dynamic contributor from the point in juniors, where his poise and puck control impressed scouts. His 5-8, 177-pound frame caused some concern.
When he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury two seasons ago, he slipped on the draft radar. But the Red Wings signed him to a three-year entry level contract after an outstanding performance at a prospect camp.
Born in Kamloops, British Columbia, he played for the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League and, in the last two seasons, Hicketts scored 20 goals with 105 assists for 125 points in 125 games.
Hicketts was happy with his season, except that the Royals managed to be the best team in the WHL during the regular season before running into a hot Kelowna Rockets squad in the playoffs.
“I was able to generate a lot,” he said, of his offensive performance. “Obviously, a lot of assists so a teammate’s got to score. They helped me there.
“I had a lot of good looks. I had eight goals, I probably could have had 15.”
After a practice in Grand Rapids, Hicketts talked about the first several days of his professional career.
“You try to get accustomed to the pro level, the speed and the strength these guys play with,” he said.
“Coming during the playoffs, you’re thrown a little into the fire. The older guys are anxious to go and you know, it’s going to be a fun couple of weeks here.”
A similarly-sized and talented defenseman, Saarijarvi spent the season with the Flint Firebirds in their stormy first season in the Ontario Hockey League. He said it was mostly a positive experience despite the controversy that swirled around the team and owner Rolf Nilsen that resulted in the OHL seizing control of the team.
“The big thing for me was talking to coaches and my agent and my family members, and I tried just to put everything to the other side of my head and not think about it and just worry about what I can do,” Saarijarvi said.
He said that twice-fired assistant coach David Karpa told him, “Now is the time when you have to show that when it’s the hard time, you can push through it. So, I had good support there.”
At 5-9, 165 pounds, he is an inch taller and 12 pounds smaller than Hicketts.
By comparison, Rafalski was 5-10 and, by the end of his career, 194 pounds. Torey Krug, of Royal Oak and the Bruins, another under-sized, offensive defenseman, is 5-9, 186 pounds.
Before he got to Grand Rapids, Saarijarvi played with the Wings lower farm team, the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL.
“I saw that it’s different hockey,” he said. “Every guy is older and stronger. And it’s the same thing here.
“We’re working pretty hard every day, and just be ready to go if anything happens.”
He will spend some time back home in Rovaniemi, Finland, six miles south of the Arctic Circle, right after the season, before returning to Michigan to train.
“Get stronger,” he said. “Put some muscle on me. That’s the plan.”