By Nick Barnowski –
TRAVERSE CITY – Aside from the news about forward Darren Helm’s recovery, the defensemen within the Detroit Red Wings’ system shared some of the spotlight on the first day of the organization’s annual summer development camp.
Ryan Sproul, Xavier Ouellet, Nick Jensen, and Alexei Marchenko, among others, impressed after taking to the ice for the first time at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City. The young defense group has Jiri Fischer, the team’s director of player development, encouraged for the future.
“Time will tell, but it’s pretty exciting,” Fischer said. “I’m really excited that they all want to learn.”
Leading the way is Sproul, who was named the top defenseman in the CHL this past season. The 6-4, 200 pound blueliner is expected to make the jump to the pros by joining the Grand Rapids Griffins this upcoming year.
“I have no big expectations,” Sproul, who played two games with the Griffins after his OHL season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds ended, said. “I just want to come in and do my thing and help out as much as I can. Being a pro I know is not going to be easy but I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
Sproul had 66 points in 50 games with the Greyhounds, and while the junior accolades have started to pile up, he realizes that it won’t be as easy as walking onto the team.
“You’re still fighting for a spot,” he said. “Coming in with 10 guys all battling for a couple spots, it’s my goal over the summer to keep those guys out.”
Joining him in that battle will be Ouellet, who will also be turning pro after three seasons in the QMJHL.
“I know there’s going to be a big step for sure, and I”ll do my best to get ready for that step,” Ouellet said.
The 6-foot, 187 pound defenseman noted that he will draw upon his two-week experience as a Griffin last season when making the transition to the pros. While he did not see action in a game, he was able to practice with the team, which was helpful.
“I practiced with the team for a couple weeks and it was a really good learning process for me,” Ouellet, who played in six games for Team Canada at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship, said.
Ouellet praised the staff the Red Wings have brought in for the six-day camp, which includes Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios and Fischer, who was a former Detroit defenseman.
“The staff is really good,” he said. “You have good coaches and really good strength coaches. It’s just a learning experience and it’s nice every year.”
Jensen, who fought with this year’s second-round draft pick Tyler Bertuzzi at practice today, drew praise from Chelios.
“Jensen’s a really good skater, a skilled player,” said Chelios, who works actively with both the Red Wings and Griffins during the season.
Like with Sproul and Ouellet, Jensen will also be turning pro, and at the age of 22, will carry three years of NCAA hockey experience with St. Cloud State with him to the pros. He was named WCHA defenseman of the year and a first-team All American while putting up 31 points en route to St. Cloud State’s first ever Frozen Four appearance. His style of play fits the way the Red Wings like to play the game.
When discussing Marchenko, Fischer commented on the differences the CSKA Moscow (KHL) defenseman will have to adjust to when making the jump to North America.
“Playing on big ice will be different from playing on small ice,” Fischer said. “For defensemen, coming to small ice and all of the sudden being forechecked a lot harder, having a lot less time on the breakouts because there is always somebody coming, it’s a little more hectic under pressure than it is in Europe.”
Chelios spoke highly of Marchenko.
“Just watching him last year, he plays like a man,” he said. “He really engages and asks a lot of questions which is a good thing.”
The club also has blueliners James de Haas, Richard Nedmolel, Marc McNulty, and Mitchell Wheaton in the system.
Despite the number of talented defensemen, Fischer said that each player will get their shot to make an impression.
“Time will tell, everybody’s got their fair shot at making the team in training camp, so let the best guy win,” he said.
Ouellet knows that it won’t be easy but in the end, the chase for roster spots will end up making everyone better.
“It’s a big challenge for me, like everyone, and we’re all fighting for a spot,” Ouellet said. “There’s a lot of competition and this is a good thing for all of us. It pushes us to the limit, everyone of us, and it’s going to get the best of all of us.”