Red Wings embrace skill in shaping winners, says GM Ken Holland
Patience and stability have helped keep Motown’s marvellous machine competitive and admired in hockey circles
DETROIT — There is something vaguely unfair about the Detroit Red Wings.
The lineup they iced for Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series against Chicago on Monday had 15 players who were either their own draft picks or who were Red Wings property before anyone else got them.
That’s 15 out of 20, and if forward Darren Helm and defenceman Danny DeKeyser were healthy, the number would be higher.
This, despite having not had a top-10 pick in the draft since 1991 (Marty Lapointe), and only two inside the top 20 in the 22 seasons since then — in each of which, by the way, the Red Wings have made the playoffs.
Oh, and just to rub it in a little, the Wings’ system includes the NCAA college defencemen of the year in the CCHA (DeKeyser) and WCHA (Nick Jensen), the top defenceman in the Canadian Hockey League (Ryan Sproule) and one of the QMJHL’s two or three best rearguards, Xavier Ouellet.
And a kid in Sweden, Mattias Backman, who was Minnesota Wild rookie sensation Jonas Brodin’s defence partner in the 2011-12 world junior and looks to the Wings’ chief European scout, Hakan Andersson, like the real deal.
“We’re trying to rebuild on the fly,” is how head coach Mike Babcock put it Wednesday, another off-day for the two teams before Game 4 Thursday at Joe Louis Arena (5 p.m. Pacific time, CBC).
Other teams try. The Red Wings just do it.
They do it with a scouting system that has left most other NHL clubs shaking their heads in wonder, a draft-and-develop philosophy that hasn’t changed in 20 years and a general manager, Vernon’s Ken Holland, who is pretty widely conceded to be about the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Having worked in Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver over the past three decades, during which the locals’ draft picks have generally ranged from not quite mediocre to abysmal, it is frankly an eye-opening experience for a writer to sit down with Holland for a half-hour and listen to how the grown-ups do it.
“I’m not judging anyone else. Because in the ’80s, we were trying to race guys in, too,” Holland says. “But all the good teams draft and develop. Our philosophy is: you’re going to the American Hockey League and you’re going to learn how to play.
“I’m lucky. We’re lucky. Most people when they become a manager, they take over bad teams. I got to take over the Stanley Cup champs. I took over the team of Steve Yzerman, of Sergei Fedorov, of Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan ...”
He’s been lucky, too, with draft picks, he says. If the Red Wings had known, for instance, that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg would turn out to be superstars, they wouldn’t have waited until the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively, to take them.
But they knew something. And methinks Holland doth protest too much. The Wings are a lot more than lucky. They’ve had much the same scouting staff together since the early 1990s — Joe McDonnell, Andersson, Bruce Haralson, Mark Leach — and those scouts have consistently produced gems from humble draft positions.
Losing Jim Nill, Holland’s former assistant GM who just became the Dallas Stars’ new manager, will leave a hole in the operation, but somehow, the Wings will fix it. They always do.
“How have we found these (players)? We’ve stuck to a philosophy,” said Holland.
“In ’05, coming out of the work stoppage, going into a (salary) cap world, Jim Nill and I sat in the office going over the CBA, like everybody else did, and we made a decision that we had to be way more conservative on trade deadline day than we had been.
“We had traded eight first-round draft picks from ’95 to ’05 — Keith Primeau, who was a first, plus a first, for Paul Coffey. Anders Eriksson, who was a first and two more firsts for Chris Chelios. A first-round pick, Kozlov, for Dominik Hasek. We traded a first and (Tomas) Fleischman for Robert Lang. And we traded a first and somebody else for Mathieu Schneider.”
Since then, he said, “we’ve hung on to more picks, to get more spins at the wheel.”
The pillar of the Detroit system is patience. Holland admits it’s a luxury not every team can afford.
“We’ve had the good fortune to have good teams, so we’ve been able to have patience. We haven’t had to rush anybody into this team, until we thought they were actually ready to compete for a spot,” he said.
“I lived (the other side) it from ’85 to ’89 when our team wasn’t very good. We had the first pick in the draft my first year scouting. We picked Joe Murphy. We were under pressure at that time, we were racing kids in and they can’t make a difference. The odd one might, but most don’t. So once we got the program going, probably in the early to mid-’90s, we’ve never been under pressure to rush anybody.
“So having success has allowed us to have stability, which has allowed us to have one philosophy, which has allowed us to have a lot of people who have stayed here a long time. So when Jim Nill picked up the phone to talk to Hakan Andersson, they were speaking the same language.”
Holland, who was then the director of scouting, says he spent a lot of time with Andersson in the beginning, working through what the Red Wings were looking for.
“When we started to play puck possession in the mid-’90s (under Scotty Bowman) and we won with it, there was this perception probably in ’94-’95-’96: can you win with all those Europeans, can you win playing a European brand of hockey, which was puck possession instead of North American chip-it-in, chase, bang, crash, fight? But when we got over the hump, we’ve stuck with that philosophy.
“And we’ve only had three coaches in that time. Scotty Bowman, Dave Lewis and Mike Babcock.
The springboard to the Red Wing teams of the 1990s was the 1989 draft “when we drafted Mike Sillinger first, Bob Boughner second, Nick Lidstrom third, Sergei Fedorov fourth, Dallas Drake sixth and Vladimir Konstantinov 11th — so by 1992-93, out of that draft, added to Yzerman and the Bruise Brothers (Bob Probert and Joey Kocur), we had the core and were off and running.”
The post-Yzerman, post-Lidstrom era will present tougher challenges, Holland knows.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to draft lots of good pros, and they’ve gotta be guys we can develop into above-average NHL players and then hope one or two become better than we had hoped. I don’t believe we’re going to find another Zetterberg and Datsyuk. I hope we do,” he said, crossing his fingers, “but I think planning on it would be a bad plan.
“Would we like to be bigger, would we like to be harder? Yeah. But it’s hard to address every need. We’re trying to steer a little bit to get a little bit bigger, but the decisions you make at the draft come to fruition six or seven years later.
“If you look back over the last 10 years, those seasons when we lost in the first round, the critics would say, ‘They’re not big enough, they’re not hard enough.’ And those years when we won the Stanley Cup like we did in ’08, those same people would say, ‘Boy, they got a lot of talent.’
“At the end of the day, we’ve stuck to one philosophy. We like skill.”
And one or two other philosophies: like patience and stability. And, of course, winning. That’s the philosophy that makes the world go ’round.
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