As the 2013 NHL season wound down, it looked as though the Detroit Red Wings would finish out of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years.
Around the league there was acknowledgment that not even the Big Red Machine, long regarded as the model for success, could avoid the inevitable decline brought on by aging athletes, a salary cap and the league’s relentless quest for parity among its teams. Other champions such as the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche had suffered similar fates. So should the Red Wings, particularly as superstar defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom followed former teammates Tomas Holmstrom, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart into retirement or free agency.
But six weeks later, after winning their final four games to grab the seventh Western Conference playoff seed on their last night of the regular season, the Red Wings are pushing through the second round of the NHL playoffs and driving the Chicago Blackhawks, winner of the Presidents’ Trophy, to distraction. The Wings lead the Blackhawks 3-1 in their best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final with Game 5 on Saturday in Chicago. As an added bonus, the Red Wings’ top development team, the Grand Rapids Griffins, are in the final four in the AHL playoffs.
The Red Wings prove that smart management can still trump the obstacles in today’s NHL, from ice level to the boardroom. These are not your father’s Red Wings, although familiar names such as Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall and Cleary linger in important roles. This is largely the next generation, carefully groomed to replace the teams that last won a Stanley Cup in 2008 but produced four Cup winners since 1997.
Now names such as Abdelkader, Kindl, Andersson, Brunner and Nyquist are in the mix.
The Wings are alive and well in May, those involved say, because no matter who comes and goes, everyone sticks to a plan focused on developing players. Everyone, from Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch to general manager Ken Holland, to his fellow executives to the scouts, the coaches and the players, can share in the spoils of winning.
“When you look at the whole thing it’s leadership at the top,” said Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, whose hard-driving style is in the mould of Scotty Bowman, who was behind the bench for three of those recent NHL champions, with Babcock winning in 2008.
“It starts with our owner, and it’s not like I see him every day,” Babcock said. “Our owner treats your family great and is very demanding. He expects you to have success, period.
“He wants you to be in every day and he wants you to work. That goes from the GM to the coach to the players, from the minor-league team, to the rink to the scouting staff. He sets the tone that way, the expectations are high and we’re proud of that.”
The plan, which has produced a run of sustained excellence since 1990, their last season out of the playoffs, did not take shape overnight. It was implemented in 1982 when Mike Ilitch and his wife Marian bought the franchise, which had been run into the ground by the Norris family, and hired Jimmy Devellano as their first general manager. He got the job because he came from the New York Islanders dynasty, which was built through the draft. He set about doing the same thing in Detroit.
Holland says the plan went through many phases and revisions over the years, some because of learning pains and others because of the changing economics of the NHL, which work against old-style dynasties. The Red Wings, for example, were always among the NHL’s biggest spenders before the salary cap was implemented after the 2004-05 lockout. While some of that money was spent on a few pricey free agents, most went to keeping Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom, stars the Red Wings drafted.