Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock instructs his team during a practice session at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Friday, May 23, 2008. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Carlos Osorio
DETROIT - The two teams that hit the ice for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday night were built largely through excellent draft picks.
But that's where the similarity ends in the construction of the rosters.
The Pittsburgh Penguins used a dark period of bad teams to select at the top of the draft. The Red Wings never bottomed out, making the playoffs 17 consecutive years, all the while continuing to draft gold.
"They're the model franchise," said Penguins GM Ray Shero.
Consider the contrast. The Penguins drafted Ryan Whitney fifth overall in 2002, Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003, Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004, Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005 and Jordan Staal second overall in 2006.
The Wings? The highest they've drafted in the last 15 years was 19th overall in 2005 (Jakub Kindl). No problem. Tomas Holmstrom was taken 257th overall in 1994, Pavel Datsyuk, 171st overall in '98, Henrik Zetterberg, 210th overall in 1999, Tomas Kopecky, 38th overall in 2000, Jiri Hudler, 58th overall in '02, Valtteri Filppula, 95th overall in '02, and this year's playoff goal machine, Johan Franzen, 97th overall in '04.
Wings GM Ken Holland always credits assistant GM Jim Nill, director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell and director of European scouting Hakan Anderson.
"Our scouting staff, our amateur scouts and Jim is in charge of that, to me have done a phenomenal job for years," agreed Wings head coach Mike Babcock.
"I joked with Jim because I worked in the minors with him. We'd be at the draft, I'd be talking to him deep in the fourth round, he had never had anything to do, they never had any picks but he still found a way to get players. As you watch us in the future you'll see those players. We have good ones coming and I think that's the key here."
Holland likes to say the Wings get lucky. But he's just being humble. There's a philosophy in how they approach the draft and the identification of talent.
"I guess I would say we give ourselves a chance to be lucky because we draft skill," said Holland. "If you just draft someone that's 6-4 and has a chance to be a fourth-liner - for us, we like skill. We drafted Jiri Hudler. We drafted Nicky Kronwall, who was 5-10 and 165 pounds at the time. Now he's six feet and 185.
"We give ourselves a chance to be lucky because we draft skill."
Their prowess at the draft has allowed the Wings to remain a powerhouse despite the implementation of a salary cap in 2005. It was assumed by many that the cap would severely hamper the Wings, perennially one of the league's top-spending clubs before the lockout.
Shero admits he was in that camp, too, while still in the Nashville Predators front office.
"They'd be at $70 million, we'd be at 20 million in payroll, and we'd always say: 'Wait until they straighten this labour thing out, we're going to get these guys,"' Shero said with a laugh. "Well, great job. They've come back and new labour agreement or not, Kenny shows what a great job he does and they're a top team again, and I think that's a testament to the job he does and the staff he has and certainly the coaching of Mike Babcock.
"All around it's a great organization. Which most teams are trying to model themselves after."
All of which shows the Wings deserved more credit for their three NHL championships before the lockout in 1997, '98 and '02. It wasn't just throwing money at players.
"People talk about the money that we spent in the old CBA, we still had to put a team together," said Holland. "It wasn't like we were spending $200 million and everybody else was at $60 million. We were at $70 and there were teams at $65 million and $60 million. The Rangers and Flyers were right with us."
So were the Maple Leafs. Except the Leafs, Flyers and Rangers weren't winning championships.
And it's not just drafting with the Wings.
"It's also some of those unheralded free-agent signings," said Shero.
The Wings picked up a few guys off the scrap heap, players any other team could have had, players like Mikael Samuelsson, Dan Cleary and Andreas Lilja. That underlines the importance of good pro scouting.
They also brought back goalie Chris Osgood, who this year earned $800,000.
"I don't believe in putting money in goal," said Holland, revealing a philosophy that clearly goes against the norm. "Now, if you told me I could have the best guy, there's three or four guys that I would invest money with in goal. Then I'm going to do it and work around it.
"But for me, the difference between an $800,000 goalie and a $3-million to $4-million goalie, I don't know how much of a difference there is there. I'm going to put that extra $3 million into a skater."
More specifically, Holland has spent a bulk of his payroll on his back end.
"We jammed all our money on our defence," he said. "We have a $7.5-million Nicklas Lidstrom, a $6-million Brian Rafalski, we'd love to keep Brad Stuart ($3.5 million this season), we have a $3-million Niklas Kronwall.
"I love defence. I was a goalie and I love those guys right in front of me who control the game."
Having a superstar like Lidstrom for the past 16 NHL seasons, Holland is quick to point out, makes all of the above philosophies on drafting and building possible.
"Nick Lidstrom is a guy that should have won the Most Valuable Player award at some point in time," said Holland. "He's been the greatest defenceman in the game for a decade. So by the mid-90s, you've got one of the most important players in the game on your team.
"And that's where it starts."