New Griffins coach Ben Simon talks about Wings development camp, and running the affiliate in Grand Rapids. David Guralnick, The Detroit News
Detroit — After losing a trio of defensemen who helped win Stanley Cups, the Red Wings have had a wealth of prospects in the organization.
Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith, Nick Jensen, Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul, Alexey Marchenko and Robbie Russo provided a septet of possible replacements who might help the Wings recover quickly from the significant departures.
One plays regularly. Another was just bought out.
Three played mostly in the AHL, last season.
One played in the KHL.
Another played in the Extraliga, the top professional circuit in the Czech Republic.
None are stars.
A half-dozen seasons after the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and the departure of Brad Stuart, and seven seasons after the retirement of Brian Rafalski, the Wings still hunt for replacements.
While Jensen is likely to play regularly this seaaon, the Red Wings bought out Ouellet after a disappointing season.
None of the seven will become defensemen on the top pairing for the Red Wings.
Meanwhile, the top priority of the club is drafting and developing defensemen.
Something must change.
“Obviously, we’ve got to do a better job,” said GM Ken Holland, as he looked on Thursday at development camp in the Red Wings’ training center.
“We haven’t done a good enough job drafting and developing defensemen. To get better, we’re going to have to have lots of picks, and have them turn into players.”
It is not as if the Wings selected chumps in the draft.
Sproul had been the best defenseman in the Canadian Hockey League. Ouellet played on Canada’s Junior National Team and was considered among the best defensemen in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Free agent Danny DeKeyser was the Central Collegiate Hockey Association player of the year, and Jensen the Western Collegiate Hockey Association defensemen of the year.
Smith was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college player of the year.
To the Red Wings’ management and staff, it speaks to how difficult it is to play regularly as an NHL defensemen.
But it is also a failure on the part of the organization.
By ridding themselves of Sproul last season and Russo this week, they are plainly in search of a new start.
“We’re going to have Brian Lashoff as a captain and (Dylan) Mclrath as a veteran,” Holland said.
“And then we are looking between (Libor) Sulak, (Joe) Hicketts, (Vili) Saarijarvi, (Filip) Hronek and (Dennis) Cholowski.
“I’m planning on one of those guys is going to be in Detroit, and the rest of those guys will be playing regularly in Grand Rapids.
“We are creating opportunity.”
As for the development, Jiri Fischer, the director of player evaluation, the Red Wings’ approach is evaluated continuously.
“I think things are analyzed daily, and we’re aware of what we are trying to do,” said Fischer, who directed player development until Shawn Horcoff succeeded him before last season.
“It’s hard to find elite defensemen. So, hopefully, in this development camp, here, we’ve got a few guys coming.
“We’re hoping our guys will develop quickly and have a great internal competition in camp, as soon as fall comes.”
In Grand Rapids, the development of the group of seven went through a succession of coaches, Curt Fraser, Jeff Blashill and Todd Nelson.
Ben Simon, one of Nelson’s assistants, is the new head coach of the Griffins.
And, they had three general managers: Bob McNamara, Jim Nill and Ryan Martin.
“There’s constant adjustment based on what every head coach believes, and every general manager has their way of doing things,” Fischer said.
“The one thing I know that will never change for great players is will and determination,” he said. “As an organization, creating a competitive environment is the most important thing.
“Players are learning from each other, and players are being pushed by each other’s performance.”
Simon, who is conducting the development camp, will have much to say about whether the new batch of defense prospects will establish effective careers in the NHL.
“When they are with us in Grand Rapids, it’s develop, it’s teach, and it’s through video and on-ice,” said Simon, who played 81 games for the Thrashers and Blue Jackets, and 491 in the AHL, including 21 with the Griffins in 2005-06.
“There’s no better development tool to teach than playing. So, these kids are going to be forced to play a lot of minutes, and give them a lot of responsibility and see who can accept that the most.”
Simon said there is no discounting the importance of the task of developing defensemen for the organization.
“The next three or four years, something that Grand Rapids is going to be judged heavily on is how these young defensemen are developing.”
On the second day of development camp, Horcoff evaluated one of the prime prospects, Dennis Cholowski, 20, drafted in the first round of 2016, 20th overall.
“His strengths are his skating and his puck-moving ability,” Horcoff said.
“I think, like any other young D he’s going to have to defend well enough for the coach to have the confidence to put him out there. that’s the hardest part on the NHL level.”
Cholowski said he wants to make the Wings’ roster in October. But, given Holland’s plan, he faces tough competition from Hronek and Hicketts.
Among the defensemen in camp, Cholowski, Jared McIsaac (2018 second round, 36th overall) and Kasper Kotkansalo (2017 third round, 17th overall) said they realize the Red Wings’ need for blue-liners.
“I’m definitely hoping to be that guy someday,” said Kotkansalo, 19, who played as a freshman for Boston University last season, and said it is a good basis for launching his sophomore season in Hockey East.
“I don’t know how long it takes for me, right now. But I’m trying to develop in college and then, hopefully, I’ll take a step at some point.
“There’s really no time line,” he said. “But I think — I know, I’ll be the guy someday.”
Red Wings managers, scouts and fans hope so.
So does the rest of the lineup.
“We are trying to juggle and find the right level in creating opportunity,” Holland said.
“But, at the same time, we are challenging our young athletes that they’ve go to put in extra time at the gym, they have to have big off-seasons.
“They’ve got to work hard. They’ve got to learn, and they’ve got to find ways to improve themselves.”
Here are some of the Red Wings’ most promising defensive prospects over the last several seasons. Only one remains with the organization. All were drafted by the Wings except for Robbie Russo, who was signed as a free agent. Included are the players’ 2017-18 teams.
Jakub Kindl, 31: First round 2005 (19th), 331 GP, 8 seasons – HC Plzen, Czech Extraliga
Brendan Smith, 29: First round 2007 (27th), 353 GP, 7 seasons – Hartford, AHL/Rangers, NHL
Nick Jensen, 27: Fifth round 2009 (150th), 130 GP, 2 seasons – Red Wings
Xavier Ouellet, 24: Second round 2011 (48th), 141 GP, 4 seasons – Red Wings
Ryan Sproul, 25: Second round 2011 (55th), 44 GP, 3 seasons – Hartford, AHL/Rangers, NHL
Alexey Marchenko, 26: Sixth round 2011 (205th), 121 GP, 4 seasons – CSKA Moscow
Robbie Russo, 25: Free agent 2015, 19 GP, 1 season – Grand Rapids, AHL/traded June 24