I first heard the name Jimmy Devellano in the fall of 1982. Mike Ilitch purchased the Detroit Red Wings earlier that year, and that summer, he hired Jimmy D, as he came to be known, as his general manager, stealing him from the New York Islanders, the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
As a scout and then assistant GM, Devellano was a key part of the New York Islander brain trust that drafted Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, John Tonelli, Ken Morrow, and Brent Sutter. The Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983.
I had the radio on, and a now forgotten ‘sportscaster’ interviewed Jimmy D. At this time, sportscasters, like Al Ackerman on Detroit’s ABC affiliate, were adversarial to sports management types, especially if the team was unsuccessful. So the interviewer gave Devellano, who had no previous relationship with Detroit, the Red Wings, or the fans, the business. How will you build a championship team in Detroit?
Through the draft, of course, Devellano answered. But you’re signing all of these old veterans and discards from other teams, the sportscaster insisted. Well, we’ve got to put a team on the ice in the interim, Devellano explained.
They went back and forth, the sportscaster trying to get Devellano to admit he had no idea how to build a championship team. It took 13 years before the Red Wings made it back to the Stanley Cup finals, only to lose in four games to the New Jersey Devils. That Red Wings team had 12 Wing draft picks. When they won the Cup two years later, they had 15 Wing draft picks.
Detroit Red Wings rebuild needs to be looked at with a wider lens.
I think of this episode when I look at Detroit Red Wings’ current roster. They have ten players who were not with the Red Wings last year, and only five players on the roster are Red Wings draft picks. Meanwhile, at their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, the Red Wings have 13 draft choices working their apprenticeships.
Like many fans, I look at wins and losses, but the 10,000-foot view of the rebuild is also fascinating in its own way, especially in the salary cap era, something with which Jimmy D never had to contend. None of us are on the inside, but putting the wins, losses, and playoffs aside, the long view provides an interesting perspective. Why is Simon Edvinsson still in Grand Rapids when we all know the current Red Wings’ blue line could use some help? Does Yzerman have his future blue line, Edvinsson, Johansson, Viro, Tuomisto, and Wallinder all playing together in Grand Rapids? Why?
Will Carter Mazur join the Red Wings roster this year? Or will Yzerman have him play a year with Hanas, Lombardi, Berggren, Kasper, and Soderblom in Grand Rapids? There’s a litany of prospects in waiting after Yzerman has replenished the stockade.
I can’t imagine that Yzerman’s goal is an AHL championship. On the other hand, inviting these young men to leave their home countries, college, or the junior ranks and start their pro careers is not something anyone with character does lightly. Is it possible that Yzerman’s plan is to draft smartly and build a culture smartly? To create a team of men who have bonded together at the AHL level, outside of the glaring lights of the NHL? Hmmm. That’s interesting, and as far as I know, a little novel. Most GMs don’t have the rope to commit to a long-term process like this. Did Chris Ilitch and Yzerman have this plan all along? Did they recognize the challenge of building long-term success in the modern NHL?
Yzerman guards his draft picks and the owner’s cash, his cap spend, like a Roman centurion. None of us will be surprised when the Red Wings have a shot at the Stanley Cup, and Yzerman uses the bank to add another sniper or a blue-line stalwart to the roster. But until that day comes, which is in all likelihood three to five years away, we know he’ll be building a team and a culture of Red Wings hockey.
Rosters are just collections of players. Teams are built. Look around the league today. There are rosters you would think are perennial Stanley Cup finalists, but they’re not. And a few teams have been built slowly, patiently, and skillfully. Colorado comes to mind, led by Joe Sakic. And Tampa Bay. They don’t win every night or every year, but they play every game like they care about their performance for the other men on the team. They don’t let each other down.
If that’s the future of Detroit Red Wings hockey, we’re blessed to see it unfold and become a reality. Leave behind the wins and losses every once in a while and take the 10,000-foot view. The process of building something new and great is fascinating in its own right. When we all move in together at some point in the future, it will be all the more fun and exciting.
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