The new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to slow down the NHL’s big-spending teams but someone forgot to tell the Detroit Red Wings.
Salary cap or no salary cap, the Wings have continued to be the powerhouse team they’ve been for close to two decades, racking up a 118-37-22 post-lockout, regular-season record – which includes their 10-2-1 start this season.
“For me, I’m scared coming to the rink every day,” said Wings general manager Ken Holland. “I’m already worried about Thursday night in Calgary. I’ve been living like that for three years.”
Scared? Worried? But Ken, the Wings are leading the Western Conference and riding a six-game win streak.
“We’ve found a lot of ways to win by a goal,” he told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
Holland may not want the attention, but the way in which the Red Wings continue to win merits a closer look.
To understand how the Red Wings have been able to continue their winning ways for so long, there’s no better example than the man who leads the NHL in scoring. Henrik Zetterberg was selected 210th overall in the 1999 NHL entry draft.
The Wings have been a playoff team for 16 straight seasons while winning the Stanley Cup three times in that span and capturing 11 division titles. In other words, they don’t get a sniff when it comes to drafting the sure-bet studs like Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley or Sidney Crosby. The highest they’ve drafted in the last 15 years was 19th overall in 2005 (Jakub Kindl).
They’ve had to find gems in later rounds, as was the case with Zetterberg. Others include Tomas Holmstrom, 257th overall in 1994, Pavel Datsyuk, 171st overall in ’98, Tomas Kopecky, 38th overall in 2000, Jiri Hudler, 58th overall in ’02, Valtteri Filppula, 95th overall in ’02, and Johan Franzen, 97th overall in ’04.
“Because of where we’ve picked, we haven’t had first picks, we’re not an overly big team,” said Holland. “We haven’t had the luxury to draft high enough to take guys that are big with skill. Those guys are picked over and gone. So then you can go two ways, either draft small with skill or draft big that’s not quite as skilled.”
Zetterberg and Datsyuk, in particular, are star players who fell through the cracks at the draft table. Holland credits assistant GM Jim Nill, director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell and director of European scouting Hakan Anderson.
“A lot of our drafting success has been in the later rounds and I think those three guys along with the rest of our staff have done a great job,” said Holland. “The strength of our scouting staff is that they’ve been together for a long time. We’ve got great chemistry.”
But pro scouting is just as important these days as the amateur side. Knowing which players are worth signing as free agents or trading for is critical when mistakes aren’t easily reversed under a salary cap.
“Huge,” Holland said when asked about pro scouting. “We look for a certain type of player. … Our pro scouts have identified players that fit in and complement the players that we have here.”
Among the Wings’ key signings in recent years have been forwards Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Cleary and defenceman Brett Lebda, players any other team in the league could have had at a cheap price.
Holland also credits former head coach Scotty Bowman for helping to create a culture that exists today.
“Really you go back to 1995 with Scotty Bowman and Steve Yzerman,” said Holland. “Scotty demanded Steve Yzerman overhaul his game from being a great offensive player to a two-way player and Steve Yzerman bought into it. That really set the stage 10 years later for whatever success we’ve had.
“I mean, Zetterberg I think is the best two-way player in the game today. Chris Chelios is 45 and is in the gym every day and working. Same with (captain Nicklas) Lidstrom. Our young kids come into an environment where … it’s about the team. That started with Scotty and Stevie.”
Holland, meanwhile, isn’t done adding to this year’s roster. He’s got around $4 million to play with under the $50.3-million salary cap and hopes to add some offence before the Feb. 26 trade deadline. He’ll also try to get in the mix for unrestricted free agent Peter Forsberg, who could return to the NHL in December. Philadelphia, Ottawa, Colorado and Dallas are among the other teams expected to make a pitch for the Swedish centre.
“Am I interested in Peter Forsberg? I mean, absolutely I’m going to see if there’s a fit,” said Holland. “I think it’s my responsibility to see with all good players whether there’s a fit.”