PITTSBURGH -- The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Detroit Red Wings.
So whether they used to push $80 million in payroll or spend some 35 percent less these days under the salary cap limits, the 2008 Stanley Cup champions still manage to find a way to win and to have realistic shots at the title in every season.
|Adding an experienced defenseman like Brian Rafalski to a talented nucleus helped bring the Stanley Cup back to Detroit. (AP)|
"You have to put a team together," said Holland, who heads up a brain trust that includes assistant GM Jim Nill, senior VP Jim Devallano, former coach Scotty Bowman and former captain Steve Yzerman.
"We've always built things around six, seven or eight players who took up the majority of payroll and filled the roster out with younger kids or role players, so the philosophy is really the same now even if the numbers are different. We like to play a puck possession type of game and we try to find players that fit our philosophy."
And Detroit has done a remarkable job of it considering that the Red Wings have had a top 20 draft choice only once since 1993. That was in 2005 when Detroit took Jakub Kindl at No. 19, but the Red Wings have managed to come up with gems like Henrik Zetterberg, who was drafted 210th in 1999, Pavel Datsyuk, taken 171st the year before and Johan Franzen, the 97th pick in 2004.
"Our amateur scouts -- Jim (Nill) -- is in charge of that, they've done a phenomenal job for years," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "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 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."
So is filling in the gaps with the right veterans. The Red Wings have been equally successful in that regard thanks to their pro scouting, adding the likes of reasonably priced free agents Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson, Andreas Lilja and Dallas Drake, who all made valuable contributions during the regular season and playoffs.
Actually, Detroit's emphasis on scouting was part of the organizational DNA long before the lockout, and Holland insists it has been critical for the Red Wings to maintain continuity in their approach from one year to the next. Detroit may make an early exit from the playoffs in any given year, he said, but even if that happens, the fundamental method of team building won't change.
"I think that's an advantage," Holland said.
So is the emphasis the Red Wings have on defense, which is the personal stamp Holland puts on things. You can talk about puck possession and skill all you want, but the Red Wings skated around their rink with the Stanley Cup because of their ability to prevent goals, a category in which they were ranked first during the regular and again in the playoffs.
The irony is that Holland, a former goaltender, doesn't believe the netminders are worth all that much in the scheme of things. That's why he spent millions on Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall this season, but only $800,000 on Chris Osgood, the goalie who carried Detroit through the playoffs.
"The way I look at it is you spend the big money if you get one of the top five goalies in the league, but if you can't, there's no real point," Holland said. "There's not much of a difference between say the seventh or eighth best goalie in the league and the 15th in terms of performance, but there is a big difference in terms of money, so we invest in defensemen.
"We draft them, put money in them and try to build our team around them."
Holland said he started thinking that way a decade ago when the Red Wings traded several draft picks for deadline acquisitions that didn't really pay dividends, because he came to realize that the premier forwards like Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan wouldn't be around forever.
"In this league, if you're among the top five in goals against, you're going to be competitive even if you don't score a lot," Holland said. "So if you look at our last few drafts, what we did at the deadline and last year in free agency, we've targeted defensemen and I think that's a big reason for our success."
At least philosophically.