Did Detroit Find Their Latest Steal in Asia?

It’s a well known fact that the Detroit Red Wings have a knack for uncovering quality prospects that went overlooked by the rest of the league. It’s also a known fact that Asia is not known as a hotbed for producing NHL players. However, if this summer’s Red Wings development camp is an indication, that second fact could change.

This summer marks just the second time in history that South Korean players have been invited to NHL prospect camps, the first being in 2003 with the New York Islanders. And it’s not just the Red Wings either. Three other teams (Columbus, Dallas, and the New York Islanders) have invited Asian born and trained players to their camps this summer.

The Asian population represents a massive, untapped territory for potential hockey expansion. Outside of Russia and the former Soviet states (which many consider a part of Europe), there is no significant hockey presence in Asia. There is a huge population, but the rinks, infrastructure, and governance aren’t there to breed NHL players. However, as economies modernize, there is a good chance that these territories could churn out NHL players if hockey takes hold in the country.

With the 2018 Winter Olympics coming to Pyeongchang (and South Korea qualifying for the first time as hosts), this will likely be the most attention hockey ever received in Asia.

Are They Legit?

Below is a list of players attending each respective team’s camp this summer (player bios are linked to their names):

Columbus: Ryo Hashimoto

Dallas: Jin Hui Ahn, Won-Jun Kim, Kye Hoon Park

Detroit: Jin Hui Ahn, Won-Jun Kim

New York Islanders: Yuri Terao

Ahn and Kim have played the highest level of hockey among all invitees, and unsurprisingly as a result, have been invited to two different camps. In 2013-14, both played for Kiekko-Vantaa of the Mestis, the second best league in Finland. That season, Ahn (a right wing) had eight points in 46 games, and Kim (a defenseman) had six points in 30 games.

For comparison’s sake, Saku Maenalanen (a 2013 5th round pick) had 15 points in 15 games in the Mestis in 2013-14, and Julius Nattinen (a 2015 2nd round pick) had 29 points in 39 games in the Mestis in 2014-15.

Both Ahn and Kim were born in 1991, making them much older than almost all of the prospects in development camp. Considering their age, it appears that if Kim or Ahn were legitimate NHL prospects, they would have put up more points that season in 2013-14.

However, in their time in camp so far, they have not looked out of place. Kim has looked better than Ahn, as Winging It in Motown and Kukla’s Corner have noted. On Kim:

“I noticed Won-Jun Kim a lot, both for how well he handled, and handed out, physical play despite only being 5’11” 179#, and for his play making abilities. I was impressed.”

Smart, steady, good pace, looks like a 5’11,” 179-pound defenseman who can get knocked off the puck, but he keeps up, he works hard, and he is *almost* good enough that I would be saying, “If they didn’t have Joe Hicketts, and if he could come back and dominate at the fall prospect tournament, maybe he’s someone to watch.” There’s just a step too slow and half a second too slow that separate him from, “It’s good to have you here” and, “It would be good to have you here.”

On Ahn:

Jin Hui Ahn 84*: Ahn plays “bigger” than Kim though he’s the same size, he’s smart, he’s speedy, he’s holding his own in the physical battles but he’s less impressive overall. He’s bobbing along with the rest of the tryouts, and that’s OK.

It’s possible the Red Wings could mold one into a future NHLer, but there is a more likely explanation for their invitation.

The Overseas Connection

Jim Paek (griffinshockey.com)
Jim Paek (griffinshockey.com)

Ahn and Kim both play nationally for South Korea. Jim Paek is the coach of the South Korean national hockey team. He was also the first Korean born player to win a Stanley Cup. He was also an assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins for nine seasons from 2005-2013.

Therein lies the connection. The Red Wings are likely doing a favor for their former employee by giving a few of his players a taste of hockey in North America, and what it’s like to play against the best. Jim Nill is the general manager of the Dallas Stars, who also spent an extensive amount of time in the Red Wings’ front office, and remains in contact with Paek.

As for the Blue Jackets and Islanders, it’s possible that they really do see something in the prospects that they invited over.

With time, South Korea and Japan will likely start to regularly produce NHL quality players. That day, however, is still a decent bit away.