NHL Preview: Detroit rock solid

One day the Wings will miss the playoffs, right? It has to happen . . . sometime? Soon maybe? No.

Not that the world revolves around the Toronto Maple Leafs or anything, but sometimes you’ve gotta feel for them. After seven seasons on the outside looking in, they finally made the playoffs, then had a summer of acquisitions that, by all accounts, made them better. But the Leafs will once again be life and death to play into the spring—and it’s all because of the Detroit Red Wings. As if it wasn’t bad enough for the Buds—and everyone else in the East—having realignment drop their mathematical chances at the post-season, now they’re essentially battling for just two of three guaranteed spots in the Atlantic Division.

The Wings haven’t missed the playoffs since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was filling theatres, Midnight Oil was topping the MuchMusic Countdown, the NHL had 21 teams and Teemu Selanne was 19. That was 1990, a long time ago; three NHL eras ago. Detroit won Cups in the ’90s with aging Russians making forays outside the motherland; another in the early aughts when money was no object and the roster was stacked with Hall of Famers to-be; and a fourth in ’08, with holdovers from the days when a snowstorm meant a future superstar like Pavel Datsyuk could go unseen by everyone but a lone Red Wings scout. Did they get lucky? Yes. Were they an attractive destination? Yes. But lots of teams get good for a few years and win Cups. The Wings have contended for decades, adapting to new realities in the NHL, but employing many of the same tenets that made them contenders during the days of the Russian Five. To borrow a phrase from NCAA powerhouses, they don’t rebuild, they reload.

Detroit didn’t skip a beat without the second-best defenceman of all time last season—making the playoffs, knocking off the No. 2 seed and taking the would-be Stanley Cup champs to overtime in game seven. A few weeks later, they nabbed the top unrestricted free agent available in Stephen Weiss and orchestrated the coup of the off-season by signing Daniel Alfredsson.

But the reason Eastern teams are readying for a nightmare is not just because of the names you know—it’s because of the names you don’t know yet. Simply put, the Wings have the best drafting and development
people in hockey. Naysayers might call it a myth based on flukes like finding Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg late in drafts, and Jonathan Ericsson going from the last player picked in the 2002 draft to a better-than-average NHLer. But experts across hockey speak of Detroit’s player development in almost passing terms—like it’s a given that their top prospects will be productive pros. And if it takes a young man a little longer to develop, that doesn’t mean he won’t be productive. He’s just not on your timeline, he’s on Detroit’s. As president-GM Ken Holland has explained: “People move at different speeds, but ultimately because we pick late, because our teams have been competitive, and we’ve got veteran players, it’s a hard team to make. [Our players] need to get stronger. They need to get better. They need to develop as people and as players, so we’re about that process.”

Consider this season. The Wings will open it versus the Sabres icing five players aged 24 or younger who have a combined 135 NHL games under their belt. And they’ll be counted on to make major differences. The blueliners—Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser—are the best-known. Smith, the smooth-skating three-year collegian and Hobey Baker finalist, made the jump to the Wings for good last season. DeKeyser was 2013’s stud college free agent; he chose his home-state Wings over 29 other suitors and jumped from the NCAA right into the NHL, playing 18 minutes a game for the Wings to end the regular season.

Up front, the names don’t slide off the tongue as easily but are just as impressive. Joakim Andersson, a 2007 third-rounder, has shown shutdown-centre potential. And Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar should start filling score sheets. Undersized but skilled, Nyquist was the NCAA’s leading scorer as a sophomore and led the AHL in scoring when he was called up last season. Tatar was drafted out of Slovakia in 2009. He’s got four pro campaigns under his belt, including three 20-goal seasons and 16 goals in 24 playoff games last spring while leading Grand Rapids to the Calder Cup. Those two will replace—and be upgrades on—Valtteri Filppula and Damien Brunner.

The fact that these five, plus homegrown regulars Jimmy Howard, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff, will all make contributions to the big club this season is astounding. This is a team that hasn’t drafted higher than 19th in 22 years; no Wings pick made after 2006 has yet to play 50 NHL games; and you have to go back to 2004 and Johan Franzen to find one who’s even had a sniff of anyone’s fantasy team.

And yet, Detroit has averaged 106 points per full season since it last missed the playoffs. Holland has said repeatedly that the Red Wings are all about winning. On that they won’t compromise, and they’re as patient as any team has ever been to ensure winning is a continued reality. It’s an organizational philosophy that flows from Holland all the way down to Hampus Melen, the last player they drafted this June. As a result, when young players arrive, they’re physically mature, skilled, tenacious and steeped in Detroit’s systems.

It’s possible, of course, that these heady times won’t last. Datsyuk and Zetterberg will retire. Same goes for Niklas Kronwall and Howard. But when they do, Nyquist, Tatar, Smith and DeKeyser will be there to take up the mantle. And the next wave of unheralded Wings will arrive—names like Calle Jarnkrok, Martin Frk, Tomas Jurco, Petr Mrazek, Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul, maybe even Melen. And be sure of one thing: When they do, Detroit again won’t skip a beat. They might not even miss the playoffs.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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