There are many ways to build a successful NHL franchise. In order to build long-standing success, a team needs to be able to develop their own talent. While adding free agents is needed, a team can not fill every need with large free agent contracts.
Finding, developing and integrating young talent is an integral part of a team’s success. Over the past twenty seasons, the Detroit Red Wings have shown to be the best team in the league at this. Their record of 20 straight playoff appearances, six Stanley Cup finals and four championships shows just how well they excel in this area.
What is impressive about Detroit’s talent development is that due to their success, they are not drafting near the top. The easy-to-spot players like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos are long gone before Detroit gets a chance to make their pick.
So how does Detroit do it? What makes them so successful?
The team is not in a hurry to move young players to the NHL roster. While this can be frustrating to fans and players as they see gems playing in the minors, in the long run the Wings have been proven right time after time.
Having the ability to allow players to further develop their game in the minors is key. Some will point out that with the team’s stacked roster they have not needed to rush players along. While there is some truth to that, part of the reason that they have had that success and those stacked rosters are due to being able to have patience over the long haul.
Players are more ready to jump in and contribute after learning and fine tuning their game more in minors.
Jimmy Howard is one of the more recent success stories to come from this mentality. While many kept wondering if he would ever arrive to the NHL, the team maintained their patience and allowed him to refine his game. He has one of the best two-year goalie starts in team history, and is off to an amazing start this year.
Brendan Smith is a player that most teams would have rushed straight to the big leagues, but Detroit is allowing his game to mature in the minors. Once he makes the team, he will make rookie mistakes like all young players do, but they are likely to happen much less.
This patience allows the team to reload rather than rebuild like other teams.
Detroit is not looking for a finished product in their talent search.
Their scouts look at skating ability, and of course skill, but they really focus on work ethic. As Detroit scout Bruce Haralson explains, a player’s work ethic is very important. Haralson says that a young player's “grit and determination plays a big part in how good he becomes at a later age.”
They have a system, and the scouts are all looking for players to fit within that Red Wing system. The amazing cohesiveness and buy in to one style is amazing. It also is a very big reason as to why they have had so much success.
The team puts a lot of faith in their scouts and allows them to have a voice. The team has been able to select several star players very late in drafts. Pavel Datsyuk (171), Henrik Zetterberg (210), Johan Franzen (97) and Tomas Holmstrom (257) were all taken late in the draft—in part because the team trusted various scouts that covered the globe searching for talent.
This is the Wings secret weapon.
While they have many good scouts and front office people, Andersson is the man responsible for going to the far reaches of the planet to find young players. There are several players that have made a Detroit roster where he was the only scout to have seen them play.
His dedication, tenacity and eye for discovering talent is immeasurable. While there are many talented scouts within the Red Wings organization, Andersson has been the master. Since he joined the team in 1990, the team has won four Stanley Cups.
In 1994, the team allowed him to make his own pick, their tenth. He wisely chose Tomas Holmstrom and while he was not rated very high on other teams draft board, he has proven to be a huge part of the team’s four recent championships.
Beyond Holmstrom, the list of players that Andersson has drafted is impressive: Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Filppula and Kronwall are just a few. Several of them were not his main target. He has shown up to games to scout one player, only to find another.
While some would claim that is luck, it does take an open mind to not be blinded by one's original target.
It all starts at the top. Holland is an excellent scout himself and has an amazing eye for talent. He has a hockey IQ that would stun most people. What may be more impressive is the lack of ego.
He hires people to do their job, which is no surprise, but he trusts them too. He listens to all levels of staff and gathers as much information as possible. The team is also willing to go deep into Europe to find players.
There was a time when many NHL teams shied away from European players because they thought was they were too soft. The Wings were one of the first teams to fully immerse themselves in the European hockey leagues, and they have benefited greatly.
Players, regardless of how well they are drafted, are not just given a spot on the Wings roster: They must earn their place on the team.
Not only does this make for fierce competition, but it also means that there is a battle within the minor league system. A glimpse into the team’s minor league team will find several players that would make many rosters throughout the NHL.
This means that every day in practice, these players are practicing with and against NHL-level talent.
And it only helps their game. It also helps to fight off the urge to get lazy. Players know that in order to make the Wing’s roster they will have to out play and out-hustle several other players.