Crucial summer for Red Wings prospects

The upcoming season will be an important one for defenseman Brendan Smith. Jason O. Watson/US Presswire

They missed out on Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, and they're on Rick Nash's list of potential destinations, according to the Columbus Dispatch. But the Detroit Red Wings aren't overly eager to pay Scott Howson's asking price. It's a price that's probably higher for a division rival since the last thing the Columbus Blue Jackets want is to have their former captain terrorizing them for the next decade within the division.

When Red Wings GM Ken Holland met with local media last week, it came with warnings that the big addition fans hoped for this summer might not materialize immediately. In today's NHL, where teams are more likely to extend the contracts of their star players rather than trade them, it makes attracting elite talent in free agency all the more challenging.

It also makes talent development absolutely crucial.

"You have no choice in the new era of the NHL," said Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill when we chatted Monday morning. "We saw it this summer. We're all locking our guys up from four- to 10-year contracts. [There aren't] a lot of free agents on the market."

That combination makes this summer and the coming season the most important in recent memory for Red Wings prospects. The last time the organization lost key players to retirement, they replaced them with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Chances are, that's not happening in the wake of Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement.

"It's more quantity," Nill said of Detroit's pool of prospects. "You have to have a wave of players coming in."

The Red Wings keep a book on every player drafted, tracking their growth in various measurables. They added to that book during last week's development camp in Traverse City, a group Nill agreed was one of Detroit's deepest.

"Lots of kids have been there three or four years," he said. "It's encouraging to see how they have improved."

For the Red Wings to contend for a Stanley Cup this season, the contributions must come now -- either as a piece in a trade for an elite talent like Nash or Keith Yandle, or in the NHL as key contributors for Mike Babcock's Red Wings.

The one thing that was glaringly evident during Detroit's first-round exit at the hands of the Nashville Predators was that the Red Wings no longer enjoy their usual edge in depth against rivals. Darren Helm's injury was more than they could overcome, which is an injury that wouldn't have sunk their playoff hopes five years ago.

The coming prospects have a chance to remedy those depth concerns which means the team may be hesitant to gut the system in order to acquire an NHL player via trade, especially one who can't play defense.

"You might get a call and say you can get a certain player but it might not be a fit," Nill said. "You might have a chance to add a great forward but it doesn't make sense if you need to add a defenseman."

So whether it's because they'll be used as pieces in a trade or contributing in the NHL next season, here are five Detroit prospects hockey fans should know:

Brendan Smith, defenseman -- He'll play in Detroit next season and the loss of both Brad Stuart and Lidstrom means he'll get the opportunity to play in the top four if he continues to progress. "I really like Brendan," said an Eastern Conference amateur scout. "I'd be shocked if he doesn't turn into an NHL All-Star someday. He's an awfully talented kid. If you saw him in any other organization this mature, he would have been in the league two years ago."

Gustav Nyquist, forward -- The Swedish forward was very productive during his first full season as a pro, posting 58 points in 56 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins. In 18 games with Detroit, he had one goal and six assists and should get an opportunity to earn a roster spot with the expected retirement of Tomas Holmstrom. Helm's injury gave Nyquist an opportunity to play in the postseason, where he didn't look out of place despite being held off the score sheet.

Teemu Pulkkinen, forward -- Has played with Wild uber-prospect Mikael Granlund for most of his life and it's possible both make their NHL debuts next season. Typically, European players are known for their passing, but Pulkkinen loves to shoot. "He's either going to be on the NHL team this year or going back to Finland," Nill said. "Let's see where he's at." The only way he makes the Red Wings this season is if the organization is convinced he can consistently play in the top six.

Calle Jarnkrok, forward -- He's another player who will either be with the Red Wings next season or back in Europe (in his case, Sweden). He played for Sweden in the World Championships and outside of guys like Smith and Nyquist, he is the closest to being NHL-ready among the Detroit prospects. Especially if he bulks up. "He's a little bit of a Henrik Zetterberg-style player," Nill said. "He's not real big but he's strong on the puck, very tenacious with good offensive skills. He's good defensively also."

Tomas Jurco, forward -- Detroit's second-round pick in the 2011 draft put up big numbers in the QMJHL, posting 68 points in 48 games for the Saint John Sea Dogs this season. "He has high-end skills. He's one of those players we're looking for down the road," Nill said. He'll turn pro this year, when he's expected to spend the season with Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.