TRAVERSE CITY -- The auditioning process begins today for the 120 or so players competing in the eight-team NHL Prospects Tournament at Centre ICE.
Four opening-round games are on tap, including the Detroit Red Wings-Atlanta Thrashers contest at 7:30 p.m.
A number of players have used the tournament as a launching pad to their professional careers.
"(Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg played in this tournament," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Thursday as he watched his team's prospects practice. "There have been great players every year at this tournament and it will continue to be that way."
Tournament rosters include a number of high draft picks -- 17 were selected in the first round.
Because of trades, the Wings have had only four No. 1 picks in the last 11 drafts, but they have made the most of their selections in the later rounds. Datsyuk was an eighth-round pick, Zetterberg a seventh.
"The big thing for us is drafting and developing," Babcock said. "That's so important. Jimmy Nill (assistant general manager) and his staff do a phenomenal job and that's what has to happen in a salary-cap world. You have to have good young players coming in and pushing all the time."
Five young prospects contributed in last season's march to the Western Conference finals.
"(Tomas) Kopecky, (Jiri) Hudler and (Valtteri) Filppula all played on our team last year for the first time and were important players," Babcock said. "Then (Kyle) Quincey came in and added, (Derek) Meech came in and added.
"Now we think we have some other guys knocking on the door. (Matt) Ellis is coming off a good year. (Jonathan) Ericsson is going to have an opportunity. (Darren) Helms, (Evan) McGrath, (Jan) Mursak ... we've got lots of good young players -- and we have to have good young players in order to be successful."
Filppula and Hudler -- 23-year-old forwards -- provided a spark offensively, combining for 25 goals during the regular season, and will likely see increased roles with the departures of Robert Lang, Todd Bertuzzi and Kyla Calder.
"We think (Filppula) is a heck of a player," Babcock said. "And I thought Hudler had a great year. He's a young skilled guy who's just going to get better and better."
With Danny Markov still testing the free agent market, the Wings have an opening on defense. Quincey, Meech and Ericsson will be among those vying for that spot.
"We have a number of guys coming to camp," Babcock said. "Normally, you carry seven (defensemen). We have six with NHL contracts at this point. Plus, we have other kids on two-way deals. We'll see what happens."
The prospects tournament will last five days, concluding next Tuesday. The Wings report two days later and open camp on Friday. Babcock is excited about his team's chances.
"I like our team a lot," he said. "We're going to have some transition, yet we think we've done a real good job. We think our kids are coming of age and we've got some really good veterans."
Babcock, starting his third year at the helm, knows expectations are high -- again.
"I thought we had a great year (in 2006-07)," he said. "We got to the Final Four and were in a real good series with (Stanley Cup champion) Anaheim. The bottom line is we have to keep knocking on the door. The last two years we've had great years, winning the President's Trophy and then tying for it. We've been competing hard and we have to continue to do that.
"The reality is in the new cap world it's very tight and you just have to find a way to be successful. This organization in the last 10 years has had 100 points every single year with the exception of one -- and the Wings won the Cup that year. This organization has been the model of consistency. We expect that to continue."