AHL experience does wonders for younger Wings

by Eric Stephens || NHL.com

Darren Helm scored a big goal for Detroit in Sunday’s Game 5 win over Anaheim.

Just how do the Detroit Red Wings do it?

That question alone could produce a number of different answers, but in this case it relates to their ability to tap into the American Hockey League and bring in young players who are not only comfortable in the tense environment that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but also provide a key contribution to the Red Wings’ success.

More examples are being played out in this postseason as the defending champions try to eliminate the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night when they play Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal at the Honda Center.

Darren Helm, 22, scored the big insurance goal in Sunday’s 4-1 Game 5 win, giving the Red Wings a 3-2 series lead. Helm, who had two goals in last season’s playoffs, has more experience in the playoffs (27 games) than the regular season (23).

Jonathan Ericsson got a game-winning goal in his first NHL playoff game against Columbus and has assists in each of the last two games against the Ducks. Ericsson, 25, has played in just 27 regular-season games.

Justin Abdelkader has five games of NHL experience. One of them was Game 5 when he was tabbed to replace Tomas Kopecky, who was injured in a Game 4 fight with Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin. Abdelkader, 22, earned the primary assist on Johan Franzen’s goal that opened the scoring.

All of them spent the majority of the regular season at the Red Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich. It just might be why the three have fit right in with the established regulars within the Red Wings’ dressing room.

"Right off the bat, there’s not many guys you can draft and go right away and play for Detroit," Red Wings forward Dan Cleary said. "They’re not rushing players. Sometimes you rush a young kid to the NHL because he’s a first-round pick. He doesn’t score a lot and his confidence falls.

"Then the next year, his game is totally different. You’re down in the minors, your game is totally seasoned. You get to learn what it takes to win and be a pro. All those things develop. And then when it’s time they come up, they fit right in."

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said the three-year entry level contracts they sign their young players to allows them to leave them in the minors, where there’s less pressure. Looking at Anaheim, he cited how the Ducks were able to allow current stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and former players Dustin Penner and Chris Kunitz to develop at their own pace.

"They were very fortunate that there was a NHL lockout," Babcock said. "They became better players in the American League."

Helm has played the last two years in Grand Rapids and had 13 goals and 24 assists in 55 games. Abdelkader, who was first called up in January for a brief two-game stint, had 24 goals and 28 assists in his first season with the Griffins.

In Heim, the Red Wings have an energetic player that can be physical but also play with a lot of speed. But to make an impact with the loaded parent club, it required the St. Andrews, Manitoba native to be patient, continue working and be ready when needed.

"You’ve just got to deal with it," Helm said. "It’s not something that I was really too worried about. Obviously I wanted to play for the Wings and I was part of the team last year. I just tried to play as well as I could in Grand Rapids and show my game.

"When I had the opportunity to come back, I wanted to be as ready as I could be."

Jonathan Ericsson has become a valuable member of the Red Wings’ defense corps.

In his second AHL season, Ericsson had a big year at Grand Rapids as he put himself on the radar with 10 goals and 24 assists in 69 games. The rangy defender, once a total afterthought as the 291st and final pick of the 2002 Entry Draft, had also began to fill out his present-day 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame.

When it came to training camp in September, Ericsson was essentially in a battle with Derek Meech and Kyle Quincey for a roster spot on defense. Quincey was later put on waivers and claimed by the Los Angeles Kings.

But after a meeting with Babcock, General Manager Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill, it was agreed that Ericsson still needed more seasoning at Grand Rapids.

"I played good last year," Ericsson said. "But then at the beginning of this season, I didn’t think I played as well as I should. We had a good discussion. We all thought it was best for me to go down and get a lot of minutes and find my game again and be prepared when I got up here again."

Ericsson wound up appearing in 40 games with the Griffins, scoring two goals and assisting on 13 others while compiling 48 penalty minutes. Still, the Red Wings were in no mood to rush him to the big leagues even though it was clear that he was ready.

In hindsight, the native of Karlskrona, Sweden said he had no problem gaining more experience in the AHL and thought was the right course of action.

"I think this was the absolute best way for me for developing and becoming a better player," Ericsson said. "I wouldn’t want to change anything."

Their success only reinforces the Red Wings’ policy of easing their youngsters into the nucleus until they eventually become the part of it.

Johan Franzen played on the third and fourth lines as a rookie in 2005-06 and is now an offensive focal point. Hard-hitting defenseman Niklas Kronwall used 2004-05 to round out his game at Grand Rapids. Jiri Hudler, who scored in Game 5, starred with the Griffins and has now matured into a skilled third-line scorer, displaying the Wings’ vast depth.

"The other thing is when they do come up, they’re not put in pressure situations," Cleary said. "They’re more to support. Don’t worry about scoring. Play your game. Each year they get better and better and then they just evolve.

"Helmer comes in here and it’s just, ‘Go out, be fast, be physical and play your game.’ Now he’s playing on the third line and getting more ice time. Hang on to the puck and create a little offense. You see that with Ericsson. He’s only going to get better."