If the Detroit Red Wings make the playoffs next week – and that’s looking increasingly likely – they’ll extend their streak of post-season appearances to a whopping 23 straight.
And yet, this year’s team is being carried into the playoffs not on the (wonky) backs of stars Pavel ‘day-to-day’ Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but thanks to the sudden emergence of Swede Gustav Nyquist, the latest gem to come out of the Red Wings’ seemingly endless pipeline of European talent.
Nyquist has been arguably the most important player for the Red Wings this year, and even though he hasn’t played a full season, you could argue he deserves some Hart Trophy consideration. He scores at better than a goal every two games and, at 24, shows all the poise of a seasoned vet. He’s already appeared in parts of two seasons with the Wings, but this season he’s proved himself ready to graduate from the American League’s Grand Rapids Griffins.
If this sounds familiar – an early twenty-something coming out of nowhere to light the lamp for the Red Wings – it’s because that’s how their system works. Nyquist is just the latest product of the most patient development system in the league. Where many teams bottom out and draft a highly-touted teenager to save the franchise every decade or so (or for a decade straight, in the New York Islanders’ case), the Red Wings haven’t drafted higher than 19th (Jakub Kindl in 2005) since the start of their playoff streak.
But they’ve found a way to make it work.
Twenty-three straight playoff appearances certainly puts butts in seats and dollars in ownership’s pockets, but that also makes it hard to stock the cupboard with top-level talent at the draft.
And sure, the Wings have found plenty of late-round gems at the draft table – 6th-rounder Datsyuk and 7th-rounder Zetterberg among them – but the work doesn’t stop once those players are in the organization. Where many top 10 selections get thrown into the NHL on not-so-good teams while they’re still teenagers, the Red Wings keep their picks in the minors and let them come along slow.
That lets the organization hammer home the Red Wings Way: you earn your place, work for the crest on the front of the shirt, and are eventually rewarded with a full-time gig on the big team.
It also lets Detroit GM Ken Holland keep his salary cap structure under control. Imagine if 24-year-old P.K. Subban came up in the Red Wings organization? Sure, he probably would have cracked the lineup at 21 or 22 – you can only keep talent like that up your sleeve for so long – but would he be pressing the team for $8 million per year as an RFA this summer, as he will almost certainly do with the Montreal Canadiens?
Probably not, because in Detroit, the proven vets get the most money.
Where teams like the Edmonton Oilers are paying young talent based on potential (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will soon join Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle at $6 million a year), the Wings keep their guys in the minors for much of their entry-level deals, then get them on affordable second contracts that don’t throw the cap structure out of whack. That lets Detroit sign its veteran leaders like Datsyuk and Zetterberg to long-term deals, while encouraging the younger guys to put in the work to someday reach that point themselves.
Is the Red Wings model perfect? Certainly not. The Stephen Weiss UFA contract has been an unmitigated disaster (four points in an injury-plagued 26 games), but with the rest of the team’s contracts relatively low, Holland has more latitude for such mistakes.
And as long as the Red Wings keep drafting well and bringing their talent along slowly, they can get away with gambling on an expensive free agent here or there.