The goal was to draft and develop players who would form the team’s core. And since the Red Wings were good enough never to have a high pick in the NHL entry draft (their last top 10 pick was Martin Lapointe, taken 10th overall in 1991), their prospects would undergo a careful grooming process in which almost all of them spent years with the Wings’ farm team.
“You need a core,” said Holland, who was promoted to GM in 1997. “In order to be a good team year-in and year-out you need a core group of four to six players who really drive your team.”
No 18-year-old first-round draft picks step right on to the Red Wings roster. And Holland, with few exceptions, leaves the chasing of each year’s hot free agent to others, pulling out the Ilitch chequebook only when a player suits the team’s needs.
“We’ve chosen at times to pursue the high-priced free agents if we think he fits into what we’re doing,” he said, citing last summer’s failed pursuit of defenceman Ryan Suter as a replacement for the retired Lidstrom. “We just don’t chase every one.”
The farm team gets the best coaches and mentoring is a key part of the process, beginning with the NHL veterans and extending to the front office, which is stocked with former players such as Chris Chelios, Jiri Fischer and Kris Draper who pass on their experience to the kids in Grand Rapids.
“Regardless of who’s coming in or going out, we always have really good people coming in,” said defenceman Niklas Kronwall, 32, who was tutored by Lidstrom, Chelios and Brian Rafalski. “It’s not just a player or a coach, it’s good people in the right positions. I think it’s only good for the young players.
“You get to play in Grand Rapids, which is a great city, and you get put into a system where you learn how we play the game. You are put in all kinds of situations there, whether it’s the power play, penalty killing, five-on-five, late in games, whether you’re up a goal or down a goal, you play in key situations. That really prepares you for when you get here.”
Draper, whose playing career ended in 2011 and is now a special assistant to Holland, said mentoring is a leadership thread that weaves 30 years back through the franchise to when Devellano drafted a teenager out of Ottawa named Steve Yzerman.
“When Stevie Y was coming to the end of his playing career, we had Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Stevie really took those guys under his wing,” Draper said. “They were able to learn from one of the greatest of all time. And Igor Larionov had a big impact on Pavel Datsyuk’s career early on.
“I was a younger guy watching those guys interact and make sure the organization was going to be in good hands.”
“For me, it was when Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm came in,” Draper said. “I knew one day that those guys were going to take my job. But the fact is, when I saw a great player like Stevie Y take on the role of mentoring those guys, I knew it was the right thing to do.
“For me to be able to help those guys and see what they do now puts a smile on your face. Abdelkader has turned onto a force, playing on our top line, and it’s great to see.”
At the same time, the system requires great patience from the prospects. It is made clear to players such as defenceman Jakub Kindl, who was a first-round pick in 2005, that it will be years before they can expect a full-time job in Detroit. He had to spend four years in Grand Rapids, waiting for a vacancy, before landing a job this season at the age of 26.
“It was tough but at the same time I tried to stay patient,” Kindl said. “Basically, it was what I knew was going to happen and then it was the best thing that could happen for me.”