By Darren Eliot -
After a strong finish to the regular season and a fine showing in the playoffs, the Red Wings know more about many of their young players than they otherwise might have. In that regard, the lockout-shortened season may have hastened the organization’s reload process. The vets who didn’t play during the lockout suffered injuries and the kids from Grand Rapids stepped in – mid-season for them – and never looked back. More importantly, they showed they could not just play at the NHL level, but they could help the big club win.
That is a vital distinction when assessing young players and often times is the defining difference between perennially contending clubs and teams that never seem to be in the playoff mix consistently. Contrast the Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets with the Wings over the last decade or so. Look at the number of top picks those organizations put right into their line-up and to what end? Not much. And it wasn’t as if Jay Bouwmeester, Evander Kane and Rick Nash couldn’t play at the NHL level. They could and did – commendably for teenagers. But, winning and bearing the weight of a franchise was too much to expect.
Interestingly, in those examples above, both Bouwmeester and Nash are no longer with the franchises that drafted them and made them the “face of the future” in their respective markets. The same goes for the Edmonton Oilers, who have been in full rebuild mode seemingly forever. With the hiring of Craig MacTavish as the new GM, they are embarking on their third successive incarnation whereby they performed so poorly that the Oilers had three straight first overall picks. The Taylor Hall-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Nail Yakupov trifecta represented rebuild number two. Players like Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagne, Ladislav Smid and Andrew Cogliano formed phase one. Hemsky in now 29 years old and primed to move on in the prime of his career. Cogliano moved two seasons ago and now has a defined role on the Anaheim Ducks.
The point is that playing in the NHL is a player’s dream. Winning in the NHL is the job. Facilitating the dream is what so many poorly-run franchises perpetuate. Seldom does it equate to winning. For every turnaround tale (see Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins – teams that cashed in top picks then built strong organizational philosophies) there is a John Tavares growing up in public while his team continues to muddle along, struggle and lose. Even when the player, as is the case with Tavares, finds a way to continue to develop and the team has a moment of “success” – like the N.Y. Islanders making the playoffs this year – expecting a young player to lead the charge at the NHL level is folly.
Granted, the cap era has the NHL trending younger, where drafting and development are paramount. Which brings our analysis into focus: good organizations draft AND develop, while many simply draft and deploy. The Red Wings have seen this trend coming for some time and since they haven’t had the luxury of drafting the highest-end teenagers available due to their consistent success, development has long been central to the overall plan. This season alone we witnessed five players solidify roster spots for next season – three on defense in Jakub Kindl, Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser. That is quite a makeover on the blue line. Up front, Gustav Nyquist showed that he has a better chance of becoming what everyone hoped Valtteri Filppula could be than Filppula himself. Joakim Andersson proved to be a smart, effective and useful player – the type of glue guy coaches love and teams need.
All of which is good for the team – something the organization can be proud of and fans can take stock in. However, the cautionary part in all this is twofold. First, a short run of success in intensity-fueled games by young players doesn’t always translate into the same effort and results in the subsequent regular-season grind. And second, the Wings still lack a bona fide 20-something scorer on its top two lines. Meaning, don’t expect the young players’ progress to be all upward and linear from where this season ended. Temper your enthusiasm with a dose of regular season “rigoritis”. Additionally, the team needs to add a big scoring winger from outside the organization.
You can draft and develop all you want, but if you don’t have anyone that fits that one glaring need an organization has to address it via trade or free agency. The Wings have a hole to fill, so names will start circulating shortly. I’ll leave the speculation to others. All I know is that during this Stanley Cup Final I’ll be watching Nathan Horton very, very closely (if he can return to the line-up).
I hope Wings’ GM Ken Holland is as well.