Photo: Kalle Reimann/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
“Now that (fill in the blank) has retired, we’ll likely see the Red Wings return to the pack”.
I think I first heard that after the Russian Five gradually left the Red Wings. Then again when Scotty Bowman retired and they lost players like Dominic Hasek, Brendan Shanahan and so on. Yet again when Yzerman retired. And the same things were being said this past summer when Lidstrom retired and they weren’t able to sign Ryan Suter.
To my mind, Niklas Lidstrom is probably one of the top five defensemen to ever play the game. That the Red Wings will have some challenges ahead of them in replacing his skill set and time on ice is an understatement. However, they have survived and evolved to meet every obstacle they have faced over the last two decades.
So then, it appears that the Red Wings are invincible and will remain a cup challenger until the End of Days (or Dec 21st 2012). Agreed?
Perhaps we should take a look at the Red Wings and see what sort of position the team is really in.
Upper (Stuffed) Crust
Photo: Mrmiscellaneous/Wikimedia/CC BY 2.5
Pizza magnate Mike Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982 for $8 million. Prior to that they had made the playoffs only twice in 17 seasons. Until 1990 it would be an understatement to call the Red Wings a disappointing team although they did show a general trend of improvement (the 1985-86 40-point season aside) once Ilitch became involved. Since 1990 the team has generally maintained a high level of performance. Much of this was due to Ilitch’s brand of management and the enormous financial resources he could bring to the organization. Detroit was consistently able to outspend most other organizations on free agency and in retaining their top-end talent. This, in addition to their strong drafting and developing record (more on that later), meant that prior to the lockout the Red Wings were usually in possession of a significant portion of the most skilled players in the NHL.
On the eve of the 2004-2005 lockout the Red Wings payroll was sitting at around $77.8 million with Niklas Lidstrom making approximately $10 million a season. By contrast the Flames payroll for the same year was $36.4 million with Jarome Iginla collecting $7.5 million of that money, while the Oilers’ payroll was $33.3 million and Tommy Salo was taking home the largest share at $3.9 million. Ilitch’s ownership should not be overlooked when evaluating the hegemony the Red Wings enjoyed in the NHL prior to the salary-cap era.
The Detroit Mystique
The Red Wings have been a dominant team, a respected team, for a long time now. Since the 1991-1992 season the Red Wings have been considered a strong challenger, if not a favourite, to win the Stanley Cup nearly every single season. They have made the post-season for 21 straight years, won their division 14 times since 1990-1991 and have won the President’s Trophy six times since its inception in the 1985-1986 season. They have won four Stanley Cups since 1996-1997 and were the last team to win back-to-back championships (at least until the Oilers win four in a row from 2016-2020 *crosses fingers and knocks on wood*).
They are often held up as the model of a successful NHL franchise that all other organizations attempt to mimic, much like the NFL’s New England Patriots or the NBA’s Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers. Management members have an almost magical quality in the minds of the fans and media in other cities: “He must be a smart hockey guy. He spent years working with Holland and Nill in Detroit”.
The drafting and development system that the Red Wings have put into place, as well as their ability to land free agents (until recently) has been the envy of many GMs, especially those in smaller markets.
Maybe it’s just my contrarian nature, but when I hear about Detroit’s drafting prowess, I’m inclined to dig a little deeper to see if it really is true.
The Big Red Drafting Machine
The Red Wings have developed a reputation of finding NHL stars late into the draft rounds. Pavel Datsyuk (171st), Tomas Holmstrom (257th), Henrik Zetterberg (210th), Nicklas Lidstrom (53rd), Johan Franzen (97th), Jiri Hudler (58th) and Valtteri Filppula (95th) were all drafted outside of the 1st round.
There is, of course, a flip side to their draft history.
In 1996 they drafted nine players. Jesse Wallin, taken 26th overall was the only one selected to ever play in the NHL – 49 games, 2 assists, and 34 penalty minutes. The following year they drafted eight players and not one of them played 100 NHL games. Yuri Butsayev had the best career with 14 points over 99 games. In 1998 they drafted ten players, two of whom would become NHL players, Jiri Fischer and Datsyuk. Not bad work there, but of the other eight only one managed to play even 2 NHL games. Zetterberg keeps the 1999 draft from being a complete bust for the team. 2001 was a waste of time for Detroit at the draft table with seven picks and only two players even making the NHL, neither one managing more than 71 games.
More recent drafts cannot be determined yet as the Red Wings are notorious for letting their prospects ripen on the vine, so to speak. They are only now beginning to rotate in players that were drafted sometimes as many as six or seven years ago. Brendan Smith, their blue-chip defensive prospect who is likely to become an NHL regular this season was drafted in 2007 and has played some of the fewest games in the NHL in his first-round draft class (outside of draft busts like Angelo Esposito and Thomas Hickey, of course).
Whereas the usual sentiment is that a draft cannot be declared in terms of winners and losers until at least five years out, for the Red Wings one usually has to wait anywhere between five and ten years before knowing if their scouts saw something special or missed completely. This is because the organization likes to give prospects extended periods of apprenticeship and maturation. Their strong core roster allows them this luxury, but it is also an example of an organization that values patience and a long-term view to developing players.
That being said, when the Red Wings get it right, they knock the cover off the ball. Without a doubt, the Red Wings’ drafting has been the envy of the league, but there appears to be a fair degree of luck in their history as well. I remember Ken Holland saying something to the effect that if he and his management group were so smart, why did they wait until the 6th round to take Datsyuk? The Red Wings know that they have a good scouting group in Hakan Andersson, Mark Howe and Joe McDonnell and their other birddogs. But they also seem to realize that sometimes you have to be lucky to be good.
Andersson has become something of a mythical figure in draft junkie circles. He was hired as a professional European scout in 1990 from his previous career as a fishing guide. Maybe there’s some skill carry-over there. The analogy certainly translates well to the hockey world.
Looking over the draft record of the Red Wings since Andersson came on board (see what I did there? Fishing guide? On boar-oh never mind) there are some interesting things that I think tend to get overlooked in the Red Wings’ history.
Based on what I could find, Andersson’s first draft pick was a 10th round, 257th overall player named Tomas Holmstrom. Over the course of the following years Andersson was given more and more autonomy in making decisions and recommendations on overseas prospects. Today, as mentioned above, he is the head of their European scouting department.
To get a better handle on the Red Wings’ overall overseas drafting record I decided to take a closer look at their selections.
The following names are players drafted by the Red Wings out of European leagues between 1990 and 2004 who have never played a single NHL game: Dmitri Motkov (5th round, 98th overall), Igor Malykhon (7th, 142nd), Pavel Agarkov (6th, 153rd), Toivo Suursoo (11th, 283rd), Anatoly Ustyugov (4th, 104th), Per Eklund (7th, 182nd), Andrei Samokhvalov (8th, 208th), David Engblom (9th, 234th), Johan Forsander (4th, 108th), Magnus Nilsson (6th, 144th), John Wikstrom (5th, 129th), Tomek Valtonen (2nd, 56th), Carl Steen (5th, 142nd), David Petrasek 8th, 226th), Jari Tolsa (4th, 120th), Andrei Maximenko (5th, 149th), Stefan Liv (4th, 102nd), Dmitri Semenov (4th, 127th), Alexander Seluyanov (4th, 128th), Par Backer (6th, 187th), Jimmie Svensson (7th, 228th), Evgeni Bumagin (8th, 260th), Igor Grigorenko (2nd, 62nd), Miroslav Blatak (4th, 129th), Andreas Jamtin (5th 157th), Johan Berggren (4th, 131st), Christian Soderstrom 9th, 262nd), Stefan Blom (6th, 194th), Tomas Kollar (7th, 226th), Mikael Johansson (9th, 289th), Sergei Kolosov (5th, 151st), Anton Axelsson (6th, 192nd), Gennady Stolyarov (8th, 257th), Nils Backstrom (9th, 290th).
Thirty-four players, compared to seventeen who were drafted from the same leagues over the same time and who played at least one NHL game. That gives the Red Wings scouting department a success percentage of 33.3%. That drops to thirteen players if we limit it to those who managed more than 100 NHL games, a percentage of 25.4%, still far and away more successful over such a long time than many full NHL scouting teams. When one considers that many of those failed picks were prior to Andersson’s having taken over the team’s overseas scouting it only serves to enhance his reputation.
Andersson’s full story with respect to scouting is here; suffice to say that luck, an open mind, and awareness of the game have all impacted his recommendations and suggestions. The percentages, and history, would suggest that he is perhaps the most coveted asset in NHL talent identification and acquisition.
In short, the Red Wings deserve to a certain degree their vaunted status as excellent identifiers of NHL talent, but also should be recognized for being patient developers of that talent.
Jarkrok, Jurco and Pulkkinen
Given that this article is about the potential future of the Red Wings, I decided to take a closer look at a handful of their highly-rated prospects that are likely to impact the future of the team.
To begin, Calle Jarnkrok – playing for Brynas in the Elitserien, he averaged .58 ppg over 139 games and four seasons. Prior to that, in SuperElit, he averaged .92 ppg in 62 games over three seasons. His awards include the Elitserien title for most goals and most points by a junior in 2010-2011 (11 goals, 27 points). He managed a 1.5 ppg pace in the World Juniors of that same year. Jarnkrok is, by all accounts, a very good center prospect and a balanced, puck possession player in the Detroit mould. His projection is as a first-line center.
Tomas Jurco – Jurco is best-known for his time in the QMJHL playing for the St. John’s Sea Dogs. However, he has been successful in nearly every league he has ever played in. Throughout his career he has averaged at or above a ppg pace through his time in the QMJHL (172 gp, 1.02ppg, 87 goals, 88 assists), the Memorial Cup run from last year (8 gp, 6 goals, 2 assists, 1.0 ppg), as well as his games played for HC Kosice in Slovakia with both their U18 (62 gp, 1.05 ppg) and U20 (48 gp, 1.02 ppg) teams. He is productive at virtually every level. His game is also built around puck possession and a phenomenally high skill-level, again in the Detroit fashion. His projection is as a high-end second-line winger or potentially a solid first-line winger.
Finally, Teemu Pulkinnen – playing in the Jokerit system in Finland from the U16 team all the way to the men’s team this season, Pulkkinen has dominated at the lower levels and gradually outgrown every level that he has played at. His early totals are gaudy, posting at around 4.0 ppg with the U16 team, and then moving on the U17 team and scoring at a 3.0 ppg pace and a 1.89 ppg pace, on different squads. At the international junior level Pulkkinen has dominated as well, walking away from 72 games with a 1.6 ppg average. Through 13 games with the U20 team at the World Junior Championships Pulkkinen has a 1.46 ppg pace with 9 goals and 10 assists. He is a sturdily-built, shorter winger with noted finishing skills, but who has displayed a healthy balance between goals and assists, demonstrating good playmaking and awareness. His projection is as an accurate, scoring second-line winger.
I could go on, but after a point the prospect pages begin to look the same. In hindsight it is easy to see why a team would draft any of these players, just as it seems obvious to ask how any of them were still available as late as the 4th round of the draft. Whatever Detroit has done right at the draft, it would appear they are continuing to do so today.
The Red Wings have lost a wealth of talent from their NHL roster since their 2008 championship. The list includes Nick Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky, Chris Osgood, Bryan Rafalski, Brad Stuart, and Mikael Samuelsson (who has recently rejoined the team) amongst others.
Looking at their roster today the Red Wings would appear to lack some of the firepower they once boasted. To the casual observer it would appear as though the proverbial treads are beginning to wear a little thin, thus the many voices declaring that the Red Wings may finally be descending from their dominating perch overtop the rest of the NHL.
A look at their organizational depth chart, however, still gives the impression of a strong team with a wide array of talents to deploy.
Detroit currently has Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterbeg, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader at center, perhaps the weakest is has been in a decade. Valterri Filppula, Daniel Cleary, Gustav Nyqvist, Drew Miller and Jan Mursak are on the left wing, followed by Johan Franzen, Mikael Samuelsson, Todd Bertuzzi, Jordan Tootoo, Patrick Eaves and Damian Brunner on the right wing. Their top-six players are strong enough to break even or beat the opposition’s best players in a head-to-head matchup and can often dictate the pace of the game against all but the most effective shutdown players.
One of the strengths of the Red Wings over the years has been their ability to recover from the loss of effective support players. Holland and his staff, including Jim Nill, were also fortunate to work within an organization with strong financial backing prior to the salary-cap, when money could remedy a great host of mistakes and shortcomings. This allowed the Red Wings to construct a strong core through free agency, drafting, and deft trades. That core has evolved over the years from the Russian Five that helped win the cup in 1996 and 1997, to the leadership group that won under Yzerman, and then on to Lidstrom and the 2008 cup-winning team. It now falls on the shoulders of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. The advantage for them is that neither is new to the role of leadership or being an integral part of the team. Both are seasoned veterans at the peak of their careers and who can shelter the next generation of Red Wings’ prospects, likely without sacrificing a great deal of their offense, as we have seen with the Ducks’ top line.
Perhaps the key element to the Red Wings’ development success is time. The Red Wings are patient almost to a fault. Consider that Jakub Kindl played his first full season just this past year and yet he was drafted in the first round (19th overall) back in 2005. How many organizations have that kind of patience with their prospects? Indeed, how many prospects have that kind of patience with their organizations?
Twice before the Red Wings’ critics have tried to write them off as being over the hill. And twice now they have succeeded in recovering from significant roster attrition through free agency and by drafting and developing replacement players; players whose skills are exemplary, and who were given adequate time to mature before being put into a system and environment where success is the norm, rather than an abstract goal. Is the third time the charm?
The Red Wings’ roster is currently positioned such that, of their many highly-ranked prospects, they need promote only one or two per season to make up for retirements and contract expirations. Allowing for this gradual replacement at various positions has leant them tremendous sustainability and continuity.
To give you an idea of the depth of some of Detroit’s talent, their fourth-ranked right-wing prospect, depending on the ranking scale, is considered to have an equal or higher ceiling than any prospect in the Philadelphia Flyers entire farm system. To be fair, the right wing is Detroit’s deepest area in prospect depth, however, they have promising prospects at center (Riley Sheahan, Calle Jarnkrok), left wing (Tomas Tatar), defense (Brendan Smith and Ryan Sproul) and goal (Petr Mrazek) as well.
As frustrating as this can be for fans of other teams, it would appear that Detroit is likely to continue its trend of seemingly “lucky” draft picks, and when coupled with patience towards development, the future would appear to be promising for this organization.
How do things look in Detroit now that Lidstrom is gone, with Holmstrom likely to follow, and Datsyuk and Zetterberg both in the prime of their careers? Pretty darn good, from the sounds of it. In fact, reading through their prospect list it is possible to imagine Detroit being better from 2015 to 2020 than they have been and are likely to be from 2009 to 2014.
Reading through their prospects’ talent analyses there is a recurring message in many of the briefs: "finds a way to hold on to the puck". In other words, these players are skilled, perhaps a little raw, and many of them bear the hallmark of what has become "Red Wing Hockey" since the days of the famous Russian Five: puck possession.
Corey Pronman at Hockey Prosepectus has them ranked 3rd overall for prospect depth. Of the top ten teams (Florida, NYI, Detroit, Minnesota, Ottawa, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Edmonton and Montreal) they are the only team of that group that has neither engaged in a rebuilding effort nor suffered a collapse in the standings in any recent season. Yet, they have managed to add or complement their core with talented players, even acquiring young defenders such as Kyle Quincey, all while drafting and developing what would appear to be a solid portion of the future of the organization.
Might the Red Wings suffer a setback and come crashing back to earth in the standings? To some extent they have already. Going from 115 points in 2008 when they won the Stanley Cup, to 112, the following season, then 102, 104 and 102 these past three seasons. Depending on what happens in the 2012-2013 season, they may yet have a season similar to their past three. However, based on their current talent and the prospects available for promotion, they are unlikely to remain there. The Red Wings have also been vulnerable in the post season, losing out to teams such as San Jose and Nashville and ultimately it is success in the playoffs that determines the legacy of a team.
The crucial factor for the Red Wings might not be the replacement of Niklas Lidstrom, but rather the reinforcement of Pavel Datsyuk. The Red Wings are going to need another playmaking center as Datsyuk enters the latter half of his career, and he and Zetterberg are the principal offensive players for the team. The defense may operate by committee, but history has shown that the same approach for offense is rarely successful.
What is intriguing is that there is every chance that this is as bad as it will get for this team.
Again, Why Should I Care?
It doesn’t matter if you are a Flames or an Oilers fan. Or a Canucks fan for that matter. The fact is that if your team plays in the West, then it would seem that the Red Wings will continue to dominate the conference for the foreseeable future and that any chance that any of those teams has in getting to the Stanley Cup final may well go through the Joe Louis Arena.
For Oilers fans there may be particular areas of interest, specifically in the nature of the management paradigm and the role of advisors and scouts in the organization. The Oilers have openly declared that they wish to emulate a great deal of the Red Wings’ style of franchise operation. Understanding what that is may help in evaluating the moves of the Oilers organization and determining if they are moving closer to this goal. Certainly the gradual accumulation of members to the management collective, most recently Craig MacTavish, and the rumoured increased role of Stu MacGregor in hockey operations would seem to suggest those steps are being taken.
For Flames fans the Red Wings offer the tantalizing alternative of a successful team built not through disastrous seasons and lottery selections, but through shrewd drafting and observant scouting. Replicating that success is another matter, though, as there are 29 other teams that would dearly love to be the Detroit Red Wings.
As fans we usually see the Red Wings as a sort of unchanging entity. They are one of the best in the league and often we judge the progress of our team by how they fare against them. The lockout gives us an opportunity to step back and assess the strengths and weaknesses of several teams outside of the hyperbole and expectations that we generate from our own misconceptions. The Red Wings have been and are continuing to change as a team since the early 90s. While they play a similar puck-possession style now as they did then, they have evolved and would appear to be on the cusp of doing so again.