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Red Wings’ coach, GM and develompental system stave off aging/rebuilding on an ‘old team’

As we await the puck drop between the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks tonight at 10, a pair of stories which I don’t want to get lost in the game-day update thread or the Howe follow-up popped up, and while some of us (me, anyway) don’t like having stories fall into our lap right before game time as we’re usually already into our routines and/or eating dinner before a late night game like this one, the Vancouver Province’s Ed Willes and the Vancouver Sun’s Cam Cole posted a pair of columns which cannot be ignored or postponed to the “overnight report.”

Willes addresses the 37th anniversary of Todd Bertuzzi’s birth as a segue into an article discussing the Red Wings as a team that has, and I quote, “Been old for almost as long as they’ve been great.” The Red Wings have little worries about this year’s team being past its expiration date, as Ken Holland told Wiles:

“We like an old team,” shrugged GM Ken Holland.

Apparently so. This season, in the minds of more than a few observers, was supposed to be the year when the Wings succumbed to the ravages of time and started looking and playing like their age. Let’s just say that presumption has proven erroneous. Playing with virtually the same core group that has averaged 111 points a season since the lockout, the Methuselas of Motown are as good as they’ve ever been and remain one of the model NHL franchises. Nick Lidstrom turns 43 in a couple of months. Tomas Holmstrom just turned 39. The exquisite centre duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are 33 and 32 respectively. And the Wings just keep rolling.

“Winning is fun,” said Babcock. “When you lose every night, the season is 164 games long and when you win, it’s 41 games long. That’s a big part of it. But we’re no different than anybody else. You’re scared every day. How long can you keep it going?”

But yes, the Wings are indeed worried about the future…

And while we all know that the Wings will make some big free agent moves if Nicklas Lidstrom does not choose to return, Holland told Willes the same thing he told Sportsnet’s Mark Spector during an interview on The Team 1260 earlier today: the Wings mostly believe that consistently folding “overripe” prospects who’ve prospered in the team’s developmental arms (Grand Rapids and Toledo) as opposed to simply filling in holes via free agency.

Holland, assistant GM Jim Nill, capologist Ryan Martin and the team’s pro and amateur scouts did more than just talk about trade deadline targets when they met in Las Vegas prior to the All-Star break—they also discussed their strategy heading toward the NHL Entry Draft this June, and Holland, Nill and special assistant to KH Kris Draper took in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top Prospects Game in Kamloops last night.

If all goes according to plan, the Wings will probably always be “old” because they’ll acquire veterans who will surround their core players in their early 30’s and their younger talent playing supporting roles via filling in secondary scoring and middle-of-the-pack defensemen’s roles, which is the whole idea.

That means that the Wings won’t stray from choosing to shoot for the fences with smaller, less physically-developed players during the draft, either, thanks to their perpetual low-round draft pick status:

“We try to find players who really fit our system,” said Holland. “We like skill and hockey sense. Sometimes we’re not big enough. Sometimes our skill is enough. I don’t know if you can address every need in the cap world.”

Still, they come close. The Wings’ ability to find impact players where most teams are lucky to draft AHLers is, of course, at the root of their success. They didn’t have a pick in the first three rounds in 2004 but took Johan Franzen with their first pick, 97th overall. Franchise goalie Jimmy Howard was taken 64th the year before. Zetterberg was the 210th selection in ‘99. Datsyuk went 171st the year before. And lest you think they’ve lost their touch, the Wings have more in the pipeline including Finnish forward Teemu Pulkkinen, Swedish centre Calle Jarnkrok and Czech goalie Petr Mrazek.

The Wings have also been adept at plucking players off the NHL compost pile and turning them into solid contributors. Bertuzzi looked done a couple of years ago but, if he hasn’t turned back the clock in Detroit, at least he’s slowed it down.

“I think it’s maturity,” said Holland. “When you’re younger it’s about personal stats. Here it’s about winning. Steve Yzerman and Igor Larionov passed that on to Zetterberg and Datsyuk. It’s strong now.”

That team-first philosophy should keep on keepin’ on for a good while yet, and the Wings believe that, as the Vancouver Canucks’ Cam Cole suggests, it’s likely that Mike Babcock will be pushing his players’ buttons for years to come:

“Obviously, we’ve done a lot of winning under him,” Wings GM Ken Holland said Thursday. “First off, you judge a coach on wins and losses. And then I think you judge him on expectations. Not every team is in the cycle to win the Stanley Cup. Some are building….”

Some are building sand castles. Some are on the slide. The Red Wings never seem to be anything but top-four contenders, which is one argument presented by those who question how much of the Detroit success is great players, and how much coaching really has to be done.  In other words, how good would Babcock be if he had to coach the Columbus Blue Jackets? Well, he sort of did. He got his first head coaching job in Anaheim, with a Ducks team that had been 29-42-8, last in the Pacific Division. His first year there, they went 40-27-9 and all the way to the Stanley Cup final. The Red Wings won 48 games the season before the lockout. Babcock took over—“And we were going from a $75 million payroll to a $39 million payroll,” Holland pointed out—and they won 58 in 2005-06.

“He came in 2005, and Dan Cleary was looking for a tryout,” Holland said. “He was 25 and there was some rehabilitation that had to happen. And we found a Mikael Samuelsson and Andreas Lilja, brought back Chris Osgood, veteran guys, but he was able to help revive their careers. Gave them some responsibility, some trust, and they took it from there. So not only have we done a pretty fair amount of winning, he’s done a real good job of helping develop the organization. The trust he showed in [goalie] Jimmy Howard, the way Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader have improved ... they’re good picks by our scouts, but at the NHL level, he’s gotten the most out of them, individually and collectively.”

That’s because, according to one Ken Hitchcock (who was an assistant with Babcock’s 2010 Olympic team), Babcock’s worries less about the long-term future than he does the present…

“Pat is a big-picture guy,” said Hitchcock. “Mike is one stroke at a time. Mike’s feeling is the big picture will take care of itself if all the little strokes are done right. A lot of coaches are good at the how. He’s good at the why.”
“He’s a very focused, intense individual, and he doesn’t move on anywhere until it’s done,” said Hitchcock. “If it’s not done right, he doesn’t care what the name is on the back, what your number is ... you gotta do the job.”

Which is just fine with Ken Holland:

“He knows what he wants, he’s structured and he’s demanding, but I think since he’s been here in 2005 he’s found that line where he’s the boss and yet he knows when to back off,” Holland said. “I’m sure at times he squeezes a bit too hard, but I’d rather have someone who’s a little bit too demanding than not demanding enough. We’ve got a good group of guys that have responded to him. I don’t know that they’d want to go party with him or anything, but they respect the message, and I think they play hard and play the system he wants them to play.”

And regarding the other “lifetime” man in the organization? Ken Holland says that for him, it’s all about the people he surrounds himself with, and the fact that Nill, Martin, Hakan Andersson, Joe McDonnell, Chris Chelios, Kirk Maltby, Mark Howe, Kris Draper, Chris Osgood, Jiri Fischer and all the scouts and members of the organization who aren’t household names work like a team despite the fact that the vast majority of them could be very successful leading someone else’s program instead of playing their part on Holland’s roster:

“I think in order to be successful you need to have a team. Not just a team of players, but a team of scouts—a lot of people. It’s not the 100-yard dash where it’s all you,” he said. “Mike’s had some real good assistant coaches. I know his first couple of years that he was here, I told Mike I thought it was important to build a relationship with Scotty Bowman, he talked to Scotty a lot, and behind the scenes I know Scotty gave him some real good advice when he asked for it, or needed it. Obviously Jim Nill and our scouts have delivered some good players. But at the end of the day, you need that guy who’s going to make sure they’re playing as a unit, and who’s challenging them to be the best they can be, night after night.”

For now, and for a while yet, that’ll be Mike Babcock.

Filed in: | The Malik Report | Permalink



Great post, George. You a tireless worker and an amazing blogger. Thanks, man.

Posted by Seaner from San Jose on 02/03/12 at 12:43 AM ET

George Malik's avatar

I’m a tired worker! I took a two-hour nap prior to getting up and working for another hour to do pre-game stuff, and after the game, I’ll write a quick take, try to sleep for an hour or two and then I’ll be up till seven AM because the Nucks press is just insanely thorough. I’m already looking forward to sleeping in on Friday and I’m crossing my fingers that the Wings don’t practice in Edmonton, because I’m exhausted!

Vancouver = Toronto West. Just nuts.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 02/03/12 at 12:55 AM ET

SYF's avatar

The Wings have a great element to their scouting and development staff:  continuity.  These are guys who’ve been on the ice and played against/with some crazy good talent.  Whatever Howe, Nill, and McDonnell are passing down to Draper, Maltby, Osgood, and Chelios is continuity.  It may look somewhat crowded on the scouting staff, pro and amateur, but I think Kenny and Nill are managing it real well.

Posted by SYF from A tall cool pint of Guinness on 02/03/12 at 05:02 AM ET


Re: the Willes article…isn’t Lids only going to be 42 this year?!

George, thanks for all the work you put into these posts.  I love reading all this stuff!

Posted by Jaimie from Eastpointe, MI on 02/03/12 at 02:56 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.