Red Wings’ European prospects anxious to reach U.S. ice again, but know wait is worth it

Detroit News

Plymouth — While getting a taste of North American hockey this week, Red Wings prospect Eemil Viro is already excited to get back.

The 19-year-old Finnish defenseman scored with a slap shot from the point in Tuesday’s World Junior Summer Showcase at USA Hockey Arena, showing off a growing offensive skill set that’s still very much a work in progress.

Unlocking that element to Viro’s game could be a game-changer. It’s also the reason he — and a majority of the club’s Swedish prospects — will not only be headed back to Europe, but are all likely better off for it.

“When I was in junior, I had a horrible shot,” Viro said Tuesday. “I’ve been working on that a lot, so you can see that on the ice.”

Depending on what a prospect’s primary development task is, there’s a style benefit to keeping some of them in their respective leagues. Plus, the AHL is a goal for prospects to reach; their arrival is not a given, which is why it’s reasonable that players and fans alike show some anxiousness if the move doesn’t happen quickly, or curiosity if a prospect appears to be developing nicely but still doesn’t make the move.

After a solid draft-plus-one year, Viro is expected to return to his Finnish Liiga club, TPS, for 2021.

“It doesn’t matter to me (where I play),” Viro said. “But of course, it would be nice to show that I can play here, maybe try to push it through and break (through) here, so we’ll see.”

Viro, taken 70th overall in 2020, has proven his worth already as a projectable NHL defender. He’s strong on his stick, has good mobility, and makes good decisions in his own end. Those defenseman aren’t all that hard to find, though.

The Red Wings, like any half-decent organization, are looking to turn their prospects into the most complete NHL players possible. That means considering the person, the player, the environment, the obstacles. One could reasonably argue the AHL is the highest level of pro hockey outside of the NHL, but that doesn’t mean the AHL is better for any particular prospects’ development than, say, the SHL, or Finnish Liiga.

There are pros and cons to each league that require a weighing of the factors above.

The Wings, both historically and recently, love drafting from Europe. Director of European scouting Håkan Andersson has been with Detroit since 1990 and has a bevy of late-round gems to his name, such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

That’s given them a strong foothold in Europe’s pro leagues — namely the SHL — from a club-to-club relationship standpoint, and the growing base of alumni that continue to return only strengthen the environment from a development point of view.

“I talk to (former Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall) on the phone almost every week,” said Swedish defender William Wallinder, who turned 19 on Wednesday.

“He’s helping me to be a better player, better person outside the ice, and he gives me feedback and helps me with almost everything.”

The first taste of North American hockey has given the three European Wings’ prospects at this week’s junior showcase — Wallinder, Viro and Theodor Niederbach — a dose of much-needed perspective. North American rinks are 15 feet shorter than the ones used in Europe, and all three took notice of how different the game felt, even if they couldn’t put their finger on why.

“I don’t know if it’s really faster, because you’re always close to another player. I think the rink makes it feel faster, but I don’t know if it is faster or not,” Niederbach said. “You have to think even faster, but it means I learn a lot from playing a lot of prospects here.”

In the case of Viro, his defense-first mentality actually bodes well for succeeding on a North American rink and his mobility should help that along — but again, this is not about getting a third-rounder to the NHL; it’s about getting him to the All-Star Game and beyond.

Consider the supposed lack of offensive upside that kept Moritz Seider low on prospects rankings heading into the 2020-21 season. He then put up 28 points in 41 SHL games, getting power-play time alongside partner Eric Gelinas. His D-man of the Year honors likely wouldn’t have been possible without that level of production, nor would his steep upward trajectory on said rankings.

“It’s just nice setting up plays for your teammates, kind of being the quarterback there, just finding the open guy,” Seider said. “Passing over to the one-timer side, it’s always nice. Getting time on the PP (power play), I think that’s what every hockey player’s looking for in their game, and I’m really happy having that chance.”

Because players are typically drafted for a range of different upsides, the pre-NHL goal for prospects is threefold: You want them to maximize their strengths, shore up their weaknesses, and help them reach a level of play that allows for creative luxury to work in tandem with necessary, less attractive plays.

Whereas an NHL player might retrieve the puck near the half-wall and try to chip it off glass to get it out of the zone, a European player is probably more likely to look for the open pass and try to hit a streaking winger.

An ideal NHL player will be able to read the situation and perform whichever option is best, which is why it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to pull Wallinder out of the Sweden, for example, and stick him in the more physical AHL while he’s still learning to make read breakouts from his own zone.

“It’s hard to play on a small rink,” Wallinder said. “Back home, we’ve got so much more time. It’s way easier.”

And lastly, a player’s comfort level is important, too. Most of the Wings’ top prospects in Europe aren’t even old enough to drink stateside, which is an important thing to remember when talking about career and personal development. Despite technically being adults, it’s common for prospects to offhandedly be referred to as “kids.”

Add in a global pandemic, and conditions are ripe for a teenager, with public pressure on an international stage, to struggle mentally. Even if everything else were equal across all leagues, there’s a benefit to maintaining a certain environment while everything else around them is demanding change or improvement.

“Of course, the offensive game, playing a lot, long minutes,” Viro said Tuesday, relaying the benefits of returning to Liiga. “And of course, staying at home and seeing friends.

“No need to hurry.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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