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Joining Red Wings 'a dream come true' for free agent Ryan Kuffner

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

As forward Ryan Kuffner was making his choice where to sign an NHL contract, the undrafted college free agent had his sights on the Red Wings.

“It’s just an incredible organization,” Kuffner said after participating in Thursday’s morning skate. “Definitely at the very top, and I’m just so happy to be here. It’s a dream come true.

“Such a great team and coaching staff, and once I got to know them, it was an easy decision to make.”

Kuffner, 22, signed a two-year entry-level contract Tuesday, along with Michigan State’s Taro Hirose, who was expected to arrive later Thursday.

Former Princeton forward Ryan Kuffner, 22, signed a two-year entry-level contract Tuesday with the Red Wings.

The two will get game action and a chance to show they can compete for jobs next year.

“If they come in and play well, that’s great for everybody,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “It just shows there are more people pushing to take people’s jobs. Ultimately, we have to be a better hockey team than we’ve been.

“If these guys can help us be better, and are better than guys who are getting the current ice time, they’ll take ice time. That’s just the reality of the NHL.”

Kuffner had 22 goals and 22 assists (44 points) in 31 games at Princeton (he majored in economics and finance) this season and had 75 career goals in 132 games.

Blashill said Kuffner likely would get into the lineup next week after several practices.

“I try to be the most competitive guy out there," Kuffner said, "that’s the biggest thing, working as hard as I can. Get to spots, and after that, execute. I want to use my shot as much as possible and know where the guys are with me.”

From what Blashill has seen, if Kuffner is to make it in the NHL, it’s going to be as an offensive winger.

“If he’s going to make us better, he’ll be a scoring winger,” Blashill said. “He’s a guy who can score goals. He scored a lot of goals in college.”

Blashill had a conversation with Kuffner before the player signed with the Wings, and came away impressed with Kuffner’s instincts.

Blashill asked Kuffner what was important to him on the ice.

“He said it was timing,” Blashill said. “When you get an answer like that, you understand what you have to do, and that means you’re a smart hockey player and you understand time and space and find ways to get open.”

Along with never being drafted by the NHL, Kuffner never was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), which stung the Ottawa native.

“Kind of wake-up call, being (age) 15 and not get drafted,” Kuffner said of the experience. “Back home in Ottawa, you kind of dream to play for the Ottawa 67s (the OHL team). But after I didn’t get drafted, I just tried to use that as time to set my goals and what I had to work on and what my strengths were and talk to as many people, guys I knew played at higher levels, and where I could fit.”

Not being drafted in either the OHL or NHL has kept Kuffner hungry and focused on his goals.

“Taking whatever opportunity I can get, that’s the biggest thing,” Kuffner said. “I’m going to try to keep with that no matter where I am. I just want to work as hard as I can and give everything I have.

“This is what I want to do and this opportunity is awesome. I just want settle in and work as hard as I can.”

Back to Grand Rapids

Thursday’s game will be the ninth and final for forward Filip Zadina before heading back to Grand Rapids.

Playing more than nine games would kick in the first year of Zadina’s contract, which the Wings didn’t want to do.

So Zadina was set to return to the Griffins on Friday morning.

“These (nine) games really helped me a lot,” Zadina said after the morning skate. “The experience to play and playing against those teams like Tampa and Florida, those teams have some of the best players in the league. It was a huge experience for me and I’m glad for the chance.”

Zadina knows where he’d like to improve this summer, after getting a taste of the NHL.

“Just be stronger,” Zadina said. “I’m still 19 years old, but just want to be stronger and it’ll be way easier.”

As much as Zadina would love to remain in the NHL, he was anxious to return to Grand Rapids and be involved in a playoff run.

“I’m so excited because we’re going to the playoffs, my first playoff as a pro,” Zadina said. “It’s going to be fun and hopefully we’ll make some good results in Grand Rapids.”

Larkin update

Forward Dylan Larkin (neck strain) took part in the morning skate and is aiming for a return Saturday against the New York Islanders.

Larkin missed his fifth consecutive game Thursday, but there was progress in his condition.

“It was just a matter of getting to where he’s pain free and had full range of motion and he got there,” Blashill said. “Now we want to make sure we don’t rush him into it and set him back.”

Ice chips

Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (lower body), who was injured Tuesday in Montreal, isn’t expected to return until after the weekend.

… Blashill said Hirose, who could be at Friday’s practice, is a crafty offensive player.

“From everyone I talked to, he’s a smart hockey player who has great poise with the puck, and had the puck on his stick a lot in college,” Blashill said. “Will his game translate to this level? You just never know.”

Twitter: @tkulfan