Red Wings development camp standouts and observations: Nate Danielson shines

DETROIT — From very early in this week’s Red Wings development camp, there was little doubt who led this annual thoughts and standouts column.

Nate Danielson, Detroit’s 2023 first-round pick, grabbed attention from the very beginning and held it all the way through Friday’s three-on-three tournament.

Coming off a big second half in the WHL with Portland, Danielson set an early tone at the camp. He “tested probably No. 1,” Red Wings assistant director of player development Dan Cleary said earlier in the week, and added on Friday that Danielson, “showed the way” to newer prospects with his professionalism and maturity. It also didn’t hurt that he scored a pair of goals — plus a shootout game-winner — in the scrimmage tournament.

While the Red Wings view the camp more for teaching than evaluation, Danielson looked like the team’s best prospect at the event, showing off his high-end skating, comfort with the puck, and displaying his finishing touch as well. His first goal in the tournament came just 11 seconds into his first game, wasting no time.

“I thought Nate Danielson was great every day,” Cleary said.

It’s exactly what the Red Wings would have wanted to see from Danielson as he gets set to turn pro this season. While a preseason push for the Detroit roster can’t be ruled out, he’s most likely ticketed for a big role with AHL Grand Rapids first. No matter where he starts the season, though, Danielson’s showing at camp was just the latest in an encouraging trajectory from Danielson.

Here’s what else stood out over the course of the week:

Highlights from the 2024 draft class

Detroit’s newest first-round pick, Michael Brandsegg-Nygård showed off his many strong attributes in the three-on-three tournament, scoring a quick goal with his heavy shot, adding an assist, and displaying a pesky competitiveness. He’s a big body out there, and he had a late power move to the net that very nearly resulted in the tournament-winning goal if not for a stretching save by the goaltender. His team still won the tournament.

His week got off to a strange start, as he went through the first two days of camp without an edge on one of his skates, but that seemed to get resolved as camp played on. Skating was the area Cleary pointed to as something he needed to work on, but he added that Brandsegg-Nygård “is driven to work on it, and those are the ones that will get better.”

It was very easy to see what the Red Wings like about their second-round pick in this class, winger Max Plante — he’s a smart playmaker on the wing who also showed good competitiveness. He doesn’t skate as well as Jonatan Berggren, but I can see a world where Plante’s vision and puck skills on the wing could make him a similar kind of playmaker, with some more jam to him. Cleary said he could tell Plante grew up around hockey — “Little sponge,” he said — and also commented on how young-looking Plante is. That speaks to how much more room for growth and maturation he has, and there’s already a nice offensive foundation there for Plante.

He had an especially great play in the three-on-three tournament, when he forced a turnover with a nice stick play, then showed the patience to delay for a perfect passing lane and sprung a breakaway. His teammate Gabriel Seger didn’t score, but he did draw a penalty shot off the look.

Recent signings impress

Two players Detroit recently signed to contracts were among the top players at the three-on-three tournament.

Emmitt Finnie, a 2023 seventh-round pick, scored three goals, all of them off the rush. That’s no coincidence, as Finnie is a strong skater with a good shot, which at 6-foot-1 is a pretty good starter kit for a pro projection. He had 59 points in 62 games this season in the WHL, so you’d like to see a little more offense (after seeing him this week, I certainly think he can improve on his 19 goals last season) but it’s easy to see why the Red Wings were willing to sign him in March, less than a year after picking him in the seventh round.

Cleary said it felt like Finnie grew every time he saw him this season, filling out into his body, and praised his smarts as a player in addition to how well he moves. Finnie just turned 19 last week, so he has another year in the WHL on tap, but his arrow is trending up.

“When I talk to him, I try to say to him — he’s really quiet — he’s a really strong player, but I think I’d like for him to have a little bit more swagger to himself,” Cleary said. “Keep trying to instill that confidence in him. So I think that’s really starting to come out. I (saw) it this week, and you saw it today I think, where he believes he’s a good player. He’s a strong skater, and eventually once they start to believe it, they’ll start to show it more on the ice, and I think he’s going to have a really strong season.”

The other recent signing who impressed was not a draft pick, but rather European free agent Jakub Rychlovský. He had a great assist on one of Finnie’s goals, plus a couple of takeaways on the same shift in the semifinal round.

Rychlovský is 22 (soon to be 23) and has been playing professionally in Czechia for years, so it should be no surprise he stood out at this event. Still, he did what you would have wanted to see him do, playing hard, skating well and showing nice hands and an impressive shot — surely part of the reason he scored 26 goals in 51 games last season.

It’ll be interesting to see him in full action this season, likely in Grand Rapids.

The defensemen

Some of the big names of the Red Wings’ defense pipeline have graduated from development camp in recent years, with Simon Edvinsson, Albert Johansson, William Wallinder and Antti Tuomisto all absent this time around. But Detroit has used so many early picks on defensemen that there are still plenty to write about.

From early in camp I felt like Shai Buium‘s skating had taken a step forward, which was important to see as it has been a question at various points. I thought it looked the best I’ve seen it this week.

Buium is turning pro now, after playing three years (and winning two National Championships) at Denver, where he said his biggest improvement has been his defensive game.

“I think good defense just generates more offense for me,” he said. “Obviously I like to be on the offensive side of things, and playing good defense helps with that.”

Certainly, that mindset will serve him well as he gets into pro hockey with Grand Rapids.

The big headliner of the defense pipeline of course is 2023 first-round pick Axel Sandin-Pellikka, although this camp didn’t necessarily give him as much of a chance to show his best strengths. Sandin-Pellikka projects as a highly intelligent power-play quarterback, and in a three-on-three tournament with no power plays, I felt he was more solid than spectacular. He’s a very smooth skater, though not necessarily a burner, and while he’s certainly confident and comfortable with the puck, I would have liked to see it lead to a little more actual offense for him and his team. Still, he’s coming off a huge year in the SHL, where he was on a championship-winning team, and projects to be an important player for Detroit in the future.

Fellow Swedish defenseman Anton Johansson had one particularly notable sequence where he made a hit for a stop in the defensive end, then had a great give-and-go sequence in the offensive zone on the same shift leading to a good scoring chance from the slot. He’s a sleeper prospect from the fourth round in 2022.

Also of note

  • It’s a big year for 2022 second-round pick Dylan James. He’s heading into his junior season at North Dakota, which can often be the telling year for whether a player will sign with the team that drafted him. James’ profile has a lot to like as a strong skater with very noticeable pace and competitiveness, but it hasn’t yet translated to much offense in college, with 19 points in 40 games last season as a sophomore. He had a great assist on Danielson’s first goal Friday, and added a goal of his own later on. There’s definitely a likeable profile here, and points aren’t everything, but for a player who’s 6-foot flat, ideally you’d like some offense. We’ll see if he has a breakout year in store.
  • There are always plenty of free-agent invitees at these events, but one who caught my eye a few times this week was WHL forward Brayden Edwards, who at 19 (as a December 2004 birthdate) would have been a first-time overager for last week’s draft. He stood out to me a few times this week as a good-skating forward with some size (6-foot-1) who just had a breakout in the WHL this season with 70 points in 66 games. He was also a plus-27 for the season, the best mark on a Lethbridge team that was just plus-4 overall. It’s never best to get overly attached to invitee types, but he’s a name worth remembering.

(Top photo of Nate Danielson: Courtesy of Allison Farrand / Detroit Red Wings)

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