What we can learn from the Detroit Wheels (Vol 1)

When it comes to putting together a competitive NHL team year after year, the Detroit Red Wings are the league’s gold standard. How DO they do it? Minor league system? Free agents? Luck? Mike Ilitch knows Sam Pollock’s ghost? ALL of the above? Let’s have a look.


As a kid, I felt sorry for the Detroit Red Wings. All of their players were old and grey, and the few young ones weren’t very good. The Red Wings went years and years as also-rans, and their franchise players were men like Nick Libett (#14 in photo) and Jim Rutherford, an average goaltender. Slowly but surely they dug themselves out of the wreckage, and when John Ogrodnick began popping 40 goal seasons it looked like things were looking up.

The 1983 draft gave Detroit Yzerman and they drafted some good players in the 1980s, but the real turning point for the organization was the historic 1989 draft. Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and others helped form the heart of the Red Wings team that would romp from the late 1990’s through this day. Perhaps Oiler fans will one day look back on the 2010 entry draft in the same way.


In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to look at the Detroit and Edmonton drafts and minor league teams in 5-year increments. I’m looking for clues about what Detroit has done right all along, what Edmonton has done wrong and perhaps create a template for us to follow as the team rebuilds.

Detroit’s Farm 1997 to 2002

  1. Did they have hugely successful farm teams? Not really, they weren’t powerhouse teams. The Wings during the five year period did not enjoy a deep playoff run.
  2. Who were their best AHL players? Young prospects they’d acquired through various means along with AHL veterans of quality. Red Wings didn’t ignore the their minor league system but it wasn’t filled with first rounders either.
  3. How did you establish the criteria for prospects who became NHL players? I used 200 NHL games as an entry to "actual NHL player" so some of the first round picks fell well below that (which is typical of any organization).
  4. During these 5 years, which players (and player type) reached that level? AHL role players, mostly signed as free agents. Jiri Fischer stands alone in this group as a first round selection who spent some time in the AHL after turning pro before becoming an NHL player.
  5. Aside from Fischer, which drafted players also played in the AHL and then had 200+ NHL games? None. ALL of the other kids who managed both AHL careers and then 200+ NHL games were free agents. They are Shane Hnidy, Stacy Roest, Jason Williams and Sean Avery. All were signed either as free agents after playing out their junior careers or signed as free agents after their original NHL club gave up on them.
  6. Is that a large number of players with no pedigree to have NHL careers? I don’t know. Seems high, but there’s never been any articles (that I’ve seen) about the subject. I think we can probably assume the Red Wings were really good at identifying undrafted talent. They didn’t have a lot of high picks so would need to draft in later rounds. Signing these kids would have been insurance.
  7. Did they have a lot of turnover at the coaching position? Yes, I was a little surprised but the Wings had a lot of turnover during this five year period. At Adirondack Glenn Merkosky coached for two losing seasons and then Moe Mantha coached another losing season when they moved to Cincinatti. For part of their time there it was a shared team (with Anaheim) and there was a huge spike in wins when Mike Babcock arrived as coach. He coached the final two seasons in the group we’re looking at today.
  8. What happened to all those draft picks once they arrived in the AHL? Well, in the years 1995-1999 (I used those seasons because someone drafted in 1995 would turn pro in 1997, thus giving us a 5-year window for their minor league career) Detroit selected 44 players. Of the 44 drafted. 13 made the NHL.If we go back two years earlier, we can add Mathieu Dandenault, Tomas Holmstrom and Anders Eriksson. Detroit’s kids play a lot of hockey before NHL arrival, and that appears to be a long standing tradition.
  9. How many first round failures did they have? Failure is a strong word, but Maxim Kuznetsov and Jesse Wallin were first round picks who fell short of the 200 game mark in the NHL. Both played in the NHL, though.
  10. Who were the best draft picks from the years 1995 to 1999? Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
  11. And they went straight to the NHL without going to the minors? Well, not really. Detroit kept them home, making sure they played in Russia (Datsyuk) and Sweden (Zetterberg).
  12. Did they come right to the NHL at 20? No. Zetterberg was 21 and Datsyuk was 23.
  13. So they waited until the two players were NHL ready? Yes, it would appear so.
  14. Anything else? Yes. I think it’s important to make two points. During these seasons, Detroit didn’t have many NHL jobs available, so bringing these kids over made little sense if they were productive and developing in their home country. Edmonton didn’t have (and doesn’t have) that kind of luxury, so that’s one area we can look at for the future.
  15. And? Detroit used other NHL teams as their development team. The Red Wings have been an attractive destination for decades now, and that means lots of competition for NHL jobs. So, when a prospect like Mike Knuble arrives, not only does he have to beat out emerging Wings players like Tomas Holmstrom and Stacy Roest, he also must survive the annual addition of several free agents. Not all of them are July 1st UFAs—Detroit has gotten tremendous mileage out of men like Daniel Cleary–and that speaks to a tremendous pro scouting department.
  16. So Detroit’s AHL team has competition from other areas for NHL jobs? Right. It might not explain Jesse Wallin not having an NHL career, but certainly explains the delay in Mike Knuble arriving as an NHL player. And I think we have to really focus on their pro scouting department; we could call it the "Kris Draper procurement department." Lots of talent coming in each season for little return.
  17. How many veteran free agents did Detroit’s kids have to endure? Let’s take summer 1998 as an example: Slava Fetisov reires, Bob Rouse moves on to San Jose. Young Jesse Wallin arrives at camp with Lidstrom, Larry Murphy, Anders Eriksson and Jamie Macoun (acquired at the 97-98 deadline) assured of jobs, plus Detroit signed Uwe Krupp as a free agent that summer. Injuries impact the team, but Dandenault can play defense and Aaron Ward is ahead of Wallin. So Jesse Wallin is down in the minors all year and oh by the way they claim Todd Gill on waivers at Christmas and at the deadline Detroit acquires Chris Chelios and Ulf Samuelsson. Lordy.
  18. So the AHL team is just one source of callups? Detroit’s minor league team–in  a real way–was the rest of the NHL at this point. They weren’t about developing Jesse Wallin, they were about adding veteran NHLers and winning another Stanley. If Wallin had developed ahead of Ward, then Detroit might have lost Ward to expansion but all of their eggs were not in one basket. Detroit shops the world. 


Edmonton’s Farm 1997 to 2002

  1. Did they have hugely successful farm teams? Yes. During the five year period we’re looking at, the Hamilton Bulldogs got to the third round once and the second round three times. They missed the playoffs only once. .
  2. Who were their best AHL players? Bulldogs had a solid mix of established AHL veterans who could play and some fine young prospects. Daniel Cleary came over from Chicago and spent a year with the Bulldogs–seemed to turn his career around (at that time). I think anyone comparing Detroit and Edmonton’s AHL teams during this era would conclude Edmonton had the stronger group in the AHL.
  3. How did you establish the criteria for prospects who became NHL players? I used 200 NHL games as an entry to "actual NHL player" so some of the first round picks fell well below that (which is typical of any organization).
  4. During these 5 years, which players (and player type) reached that level? A long list, much longer than Detroit’s. From 1997 through 2002, Georges Laraque, Dan Lacouture, Scott Ferguson, Bryan Muir, Boyd Devereaux, Sean Brown, Dan Cleary, Tim Thomas (yes, that Tim Thomas), Jason Chimera, Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, Alexei Semenov, MA Bergeron, Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen all played in the minors and then hung around to play awhile in the NHL. I have adjusted for goalies a little. That’s a variety of useful talent coming through the system.
  5. Which Oiler drafted players played in the AHL and then had 200+ NHL games? Laraque, Devereaux, Chimera, Horcoff, Pisani, Semenov. Markkanen was also drafted but not in the 95-99 time period.
  6. Is that a large number of players from the AHL to have NHL careers? Yes, I’d say that’s a lot over a 5 year period. Some of these fellows turned into solid NHLers–I’d count Horcoff, Pisani and Chimera as being solid NHL players over a long period, and Laraque was very effective in his role for a lot of years. 
  7. Did they have a lot of turnover at the coaching position? About the same as Detroit/Anaheim. Lorne Molleken was coach in 97-98, followed by two seasons each for Walt Kyle and then Claude Jullien. They all kept on coaching so must have been doing something right. 
  8. What happened to all those draft picks once they arrived in the AHL? 1995-1999 (I used those seasons because someone drafted in 1995 would turn pro in 1997, thus giving us a 5-year window for their minor league career) Edmonton selected 47 players and 19 played in the NHL. Both numbers are greater than Detroit’s (44 and 13) although Edmonton didn’t select a Zetterberg or a Datsyuk.
  9. How many first round failures did they have? Six first round picks 95-99, all fail. They were Steve Kelly, Boyd Devereaux, Mathieu Descoteaux, Michel Riesen, Michael Henrich and Jani Rita. Those names certainly contributed to Barry Fraser being replaced. I do believe Jani Rita’s development (he sat a long time) had an impact on his career. 
  10. Who were the best draft picks from the years 1995 to 1999? Horcoff, although Tom Poti, Fernando Pisani, Mike Comrie, Jason Chimera and Georges Laraque were also talented. There’s some pretty good talent there, doesn’t quite make up for the first round errors but certainly we need to give credit where due.
  11. How many draft picks went straight to the NHL without going to the minors? Poti and Comrie went straight from college/junior to the NHL, Horcoff spent very little time in the minors. The rest had minor league auditions.
  12. How many came right to the NHL at 20? Mike Comrie, but he kind of forced it. There were forces aside from NHL readiness at play (Comrie jumped college and spent time in junior, forcing EDM to sign him or lose Comrie to free agency).
  13. Anything else? A few things. First, the Oilers minor league teams delivered far more actual NHL players than Detroit (15 to 5) but I think a lot of that had to do with the Red Wings drawing from a deeper pool. Leaving their kids in Europe meant they didn’t clog up the AHL team with their development (Tomas Holmstrom stayed in the SEL, played 6 AHL games). Also–and this will become an issue in future segments of this look at the two teams–the was no sense of rushing any of these kids. I’m trying very hard to remember the last Red Wing teenager who struggled over 82 games at the NHL level.
  14. And? The Oilers couldn’t just bring in a plethora of free agents or pay dearly for Chris Chelios secure in the knowledge that signing him long term wouldn’t be a problem. They were refining their team, whereas Edmonton was overhauling by the minute. Massive trades marked this era, a time when Edmonton was dealing Jason Arnott and Bo Mironov and Dean McAmmond and losing Curtis Joseph and others to free agency. They brought in some fine talent (Jason Smith, Bill Guerin, Ethan Moreau, Tommy Salo) but were losing ground a little each time. The AHL kids (like Laraque and Cleary, who was acquired from Chicago with Moreau) must have felt the Oilers were a great team to be dealt to at that time. Jobs, jobs and more jobs. And the Oilers did try, dealing for a Beranek here or a Falloon there, but honestly the pro scouts in Detroit had a simpler job: finish the masterpiece with subtle shades, as opposed to the broad brush strokes required in Edmonton.


I think we can suggest a few things and see if they make sense moving forward:

  1. The Oilers rely more heavily on their AHL team because (at least during the pre-cap era) free agency wasn’t available to them in the same way it appealed to a team like Detroit.
  2. Detroit found a way to use minor free agency (the Draper group) in a way Edmonton and other bottom feeders were pehaps less able to do in this period. Although Edmonton did sign Rem Murray and MA Bergeron and Ty Conklin along the way, Detroit seemed better able to procure "plug and play" types like Draper (and in later years Daniel Cleary). How much that has to do with winning consistently is something we’ll need to table until the Oilers are consistent winners, but I can say the 80s team used to acquire players more easily than lesser teams.
  3. Because of the availability of free agents (to Detroit), their draft picks and minor leaguers became less important to them. So, when we say Jesse Wallin was a draft fail and that Alexei Semenov is a draft success, we also need to acknowledge that Wallin may have been a better player than Semenov. The hill Wallin had to climb each fall was more difficult throughout his pro career, and that is reflected in our means of measurement (NHL career GP).
  4. Almost all of the really good players skip the AHL, That’s a league for developing vital role players, former scorers who need to learn the finer points and embrace a new role on their team, or late developing goalies in need of more sorties before maturing.
  5. Developing kids in Europe is possible for Detroit, but they do things in a unique way. Both Zetterberg and Datsyuk, the stars of this study, did not come to North America on the first available airplane. Detroit appears to (I have no evidence) have found a home for each player to develop on a specific time line. That’s a huge item, Oilers lost Jani Rita and one of the reasons might have been riding pine in the SM-Liiga. Oscar Klefbom is doing the same thing as we speak.
  6. Detroit traded an enormous number of 2nd through 4th rd picks during this era but didn’t miss a beat. Why? The club did two things: drafted well in later rounds and signed both minor league free agents and graduating junior and college players. A lot of them.
  7. The Oilers had two #6 overall picks in the 5-year period we discussed, and missed on both of them. More than anything else, that kind of epic failure had an impact on the next decade. Barry Fraser was retired for good reason, and the Oilers should have done it in the early 1990s. The 2000s were payment for those horrible 90s draft failures in the first round (and huge errors at the top, including Kelly and Devereaux but also including Bonsignoreore a couple of years earlier). Edmonton should have had an enormous edge in finding gems because of draft position, but twice in the 5 seasons 95-99 Detroit walked off with the prize. Major impact on the franchise. Major.


I’d also like to leave you with a quote found during the background work for this article. Contained in this Hockey’s Future article from an unnamed author in 1999 summer comes the following quote:

  • Jim Nill, Detroit’s head scout said: "We went for the home run…. we were looking for the next Pavol Demitra."

 Detroit would draft Henrik Zetterberg 210th overall that season, and the article describes why Detroit selected Z:

  • Henrik is a solid skater and puck handler but needs to get stronger ( no, this is not a broken record ). Detroit feels that while Zetterberg is not quite as talented as their other 1999 European selections, the organization has a wealth of muckers and grinders in the system and need an influx of talent even if it is in the form of a long shot.

Red Wings have been lucky at the draft table, no doubt. But luck, as they say, is the residue of hard work and that too appears to be a calling card for those Red Wings scouts. Amateur and pro.

Up next: The 2003-07 farm teams.