IN THE D: Europe Proved the Great Equalizer for Wings in NHL Draft

By: Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers | June 19, 2015
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The decision wasn’t unanimous. It rarely is when NHL scouts and team executives sit around the table and try to determine which among hundreds of teenaged boys might find success in a man’s league – typically three or four years into the future.

So it was at the Detroit Red Wings’ table in 1987, when after a long and anguished discussion, then General Manager Jim Devellano made the call to select Yves Racine, a defenseman out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. It was widely perceived at the time as a nod to the club’s affable French-Canadian coach, Jacques Demers, who in his first year with the club took it from last among the 21 teams in the NHL to the Western Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup tournament.

Four picks later, the Quebec Nordiques nabbed the guy Detroit’s chief scout Neil Smith wanted desperately: Joe Sakic, the center who would captain the arch-nemesis Colorado Avalanche to a couple of Stanley Cup titles in his Hall of Fame career.

And Wings fans are only left to wonder what a team Steve Yzerman, Sakic and Sergei Fedorov down the middle might have accomplished. Not that Racine was a bad pick. He played 231 of his 506 NHL games with Detroit before the Wings traded him to Philadelphia for Terry Carkner, a tough defenseman who didn’t mind dropping the gloves.

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Therein lies beauty of an annual event that, for scouts and draft nerds alike, combines Christmas and Halloween rolled into one giant holiday shopping spree when each pick is filled with hope and fraught with peril.

No team in modern history has used the NHL Entry Draft more effectively to build a winning franchise than the Detroit Red Wings, who in the process have established themselves as the model of consistency and success. They and the 29 other teams will convene in Sunrise, Florida on June 26-27 to replenish their franchises with prospects in the seven-round draft.

Part art, part science and involving as much (or more) luck as hard work – with most amateur scouts working 200 games or more each year – every pick can be analyzed ad nauseam. But it’s typically premature to pronounce a certain draft a success or a failure before at least five years have passed.

Like every other team, the Wings have had their share of both. Twice since Devellano brought his “build-through-the-draft” philosophy to the Wings in 1983, the team has swung and missed badly on its first-round picks.

In 1988, a year after the Racine draft, the Wings took Kory Kocur, Joe’s cousin, with the 17th overall pick in the first round. He didn’t play a game in the NHL. Nor did their next three picks. In fact, only Sheldon Kennedy, the speedy-but-troubled right wing selected in the fourth-round (80th overall), made it to the NHL among Detroit’s 11 picks that year.

In 1992, the first under then-General Manager Bryan Murray, the Wings took left wing Curtis Bowen with the 22nd overall pick. He never saw NHL action, either.

But the Wings in Ilitch-Devellano era are far better-known for their draft successes. Devellano’s first in Detroit in 1983 produced six NHL regulars, including Steve Yzerman (fourth overall), Bob Probert (3rd round, 46th overall), Joe Kocur (5th round, 88th overall), Petr Klima (fifth round, 86th overall) and Stu Grimson (10th round, 186th overall). The first four in that group were part of the foundation that helped raise the franchise and its fans from the depths of despair over the previous two decades.

That draft produced a group that played in a combined total of 5,069 games and contributed 1,323 goals among 3,036 points and a whopping 10,048 penalty minutes – clearly the toughest class of all time.

However, that group almost pales in comparison to the 1989 draft, viewed as a kind of paradigm shift with the team venturing across the Atlantic for three selections that produced stunning results: Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom with the third pick (53rd overall), Fedorov with the fourth pick (74th overall), and defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round (221st overall).

That class also included right wing Dallas Drake, center Mike Sillinger and defensemen Bob Boughner, all of whom enjoyed long and productive NHL careers. In all, that class played a combined 5,955 games with 1,227 goals among 3,594 points with 5,108 penalty minutes.

Prior to that, the Wings were reluctant to draft European players. Since then, they have been a leader in finding and developing players from outside North America, with some spectacular finds in the middle-to-late rounds like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom.

“Nobody believed you could win in this league with the European, puck-possession style,” Ken Holland has said frequently. “And nobody believed you could win with Russians. We killed both myths.”

Top 10 Red Wings draft picks in recent history

10.  G Petr Mrazek, 5th round, 141st overall in 2010: It’s early, but based on results so far he looks like a steal.

9. RW Randy McKay, 6th round, 113th overall in 1985. Sadly, his best years came in Stanley Cup seasons with New Jersey after ill-fated trade with the Devils.

8. LW Peter Klima, 5th round, 86th overall, in 1983. The Wings first foray behind the Iron Curtain turned out to be a good one.

7. D Jonathan Ericsson, 9th round, 291st overall in 2002. A favorite target of critics, he remains a fixture on the club’s top defense pairing next to Niklas Kronwall.

6. LW Tomas Holmstrom, 10th round, 257th overall in 1994. No one got more results from lesser skills than he did – and he has four Stanley Cup rings to prove it.

5. Vladimir Konstantinov, 11th round, 221st overall in 1989. A Norris Trophy candidate when his career was cut short by the limo accident, he might have had a Hall of Fame career, too.

4. C Henrik Zetterberg, 7th round, 210th overall in 1999. They said he was too small, but the Wings’ captain is enjoying a career that will eventually result in his No. 43 hanging from the rafters, too.

3. C Pavel Datsyuk, 6th round, 171st overall in 1998. One of the most skilled 200-foot players in league history, it’s hard to believe that the other 29 teams passed on this guy – for more than five rounds.

2. C Sergei Fedorov, 4th round, 74th overall in 1989. Doesn’t matter that there was no guarantee the Wings could even get him out of the former Soviet Union. They did, and he was as dominant a player as the Wings have had since Gordie Howe.

1. D Nick Lidstrom, 3rd round (53rd overall) in 1989. Besides the seven Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cup rings, he’s in the discussion with Bobby Orr as game’s best-ever defenseman. And 29 teams passed on him for two rounds, too.