TRAVERSE CITY — The Detroit Red Wings selected forwards with their first five picks in the recent National Hockey League draft.
It wasn’t planned, general manager Ken Holland said. It just happened.
“You take the best player available,” he said.
Then again, there wasn’t a pressing need for a defenseman. The Wings put an emphasis on defense in previous drafts.
Several of those promising defenders are taking part in this week’s Development Camp at Centre ICE.
The group includes four of the top five defenders in the latest prospect rankings by the website Red Wings Central. The four, who could open the season with Detroit’s minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids, include Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet, Nick Jensen and Alexei Marchenko.
Sproul was the Ontario Hockey League’s Defenseman of the Year last season. Ouellet, who played in the world junior championships this year, was a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League first-team All-Star. Jensen, who played at St. Cloud State, was named the WCHA Defenseman of the Year. Marchenko played in the Russian elite KHL. One of his teammates during last year’s NHL lockout? Pavel Datsyuk.
“It’s certainly exciting that guys have been able to accumulate awards,” said Jiri Fischer, Detroit’s director of player development. “That’s a good sign. It means they’ve done a lot of things right. That they found ways to dominate at the levels they were at.”
Now comes the next challenge — professional hockey.
All four of the touted prospects got a sneak peak at what’s in store when they reported to the Grand Rapids Griffins late in the season. The Griffins went on to win the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup.
“Each guy was there for different periods, but they all were there for parts of our playoff run,” Griffins coach Jeff Blashill said. “To see the level of commitment, the sacrifices you have to make to be successful at a high level of pro hockey, was great for them to learn. Hopefully, it will jump start their pro careers.”
Will all four be playing for Blashill in the fall?
“All to be determined at camp in September,” he said. “All have great ability, great potential. But it’s a process. We’ll see how September unfolds.”
Fans might not hear too much about these four prospects for awhile. The Wings top prospects typically spend two to three seasons in Grand Rapids developing their games before they are deemed NHL ready. The players, no matter how eager to reach the NHL, accept that.
“Obviously, it takes time in this organization,” Sproul said. “But you see the guys that have made it through the draft (to Detroit) and you know they’re great hockey players. So you go with the system, and believe in it, because you know it clearly pays off.”
It’s a system that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said is preached to the players at this camp. The Development Camp is where they can begin to establish the work ethic needed to become an NHL player with the Wings providing some of the essential tools.
“This is a good opportunity for them to learn about nutrition, strength training, and take a step toward becoming a pro,” Babcock said. “We have a world-class nutritionist, a world-class strength coach. To me, those two things are the key to this whole thing, much more so than the on-ice stuff.
“Draft day is one thing, but the growth and development that needs to take place over the next five years for these guys is critical. It’s about taking a step. (It’s like) the organization has made a commitment to you, now it’s about you making a commitment to yourself. There are so many good players, and the separation between you and the next guy is going to be in the details, and that’s the opportunities we’re providing.”
Although Babcock is not a coach on the ice for this camp, he is an interested onlooker.
“I want to see them, know who they are and tell them about the development plan with the Red Wings,” he said. “I want to explain to them how much work it’s going to be, how long the process is, and how much fun it’s going to be one day to actually put our uniform on. Understand, totally, that you’re a work in progress. As excited as you should be about being a draft pick, you’ve got to get better every day or you’re not going to play.”
Ouellet and Marchenko are among those who accept that challenge, especially knowing the competition in camp.
“There’s always some pressure, but it’s good competition,” Ouellet said. “There’s a lot of good, young defensemen here. We all know it. But I think it pushes us to be our best.”
“If you’re good, the coach will decide to give you time,” Marchenko added. “It’s up to you, though, how much, how hard you work.”