Detroit Wheels

This is Norm Ullman, late 60s. I believe this was early in the season he was traded to Toronto but can’t confirm. The Red Wings are the one American-based NHL team to have multiple periods of dominance: they made the SCF’s 6 times in the 1940s, 5 times in the 1950s and 4 times in the 1960s. They’ve also won the Stanley 4 times since 1997 and that’s about as dominant as it gets in the modern era.

Detroit gets the on-ice calls these days like the old-timey Habs did when I was a kid. If a Red Wing falls in the forest, does the other guy get 2 or 5 minutes?

Detroit management also get heaps of applause, although one doubts it’ll ever approach the level Sam Pollock reached during his heyday. A recent article suggests the Red Wing template is state of the art and will reward the organization and its fans for the forseeable future.

As a fan it has been my experience that articles like this appear at the exact moment the team in question steps into the elevator shaft, but let’s look at the specific requirements of a modern dynasty as described in the Detroit News piece.

  • Maintain a specific coaching philosophy: I believe the Oilers have done this for much of this decade. The exceptions would be the periods of time when MacT didn’t have the horses (like when Lowe traded two defensemen at the deadline without getting an NHL veteran for the blue in return) and this past season when the incredible pressure appears to have taken logic and reason out behind the barn and shot them.
  • Keep a core group of veteran players who understand and execute that philosophy: An epic fail here, especially since the deadline. The Oilers players themselves had to buy programs each fall in order to know all the new faces. The Oiler roster has been a production line since summer 2005.
  • Find talented younger players and sharpen their skills in the minors: Well, no. The Oilers best young players do not pass go and do not collect $200, they sign bonus-laden contracts and are inserted into the NHL lineup. Theo Peckham stands almost alone among the 2005-2007 draft group in terms of honing skills in the high minors.
  • Gradually bring in the younger players to be mentored and taught by the veterans: No time for that kind of thing in Edmonton. The veterans are shuttled off in favor of rich new free agents (Roloson, Souray among the new hires, and expensive contracts handed out to Horcoff and Hemsky, plus the Penner offer sheet and the Visnovsky trade).
  • Always have players who adhere to the puck-possession style that requires discipline and patience and has defined the Red Wings since the early 1990s. The Oilers lose possession after most faceoffs because management didn’t deliver a veteran FO man to help out Horcoff. Vic has done some exceptional work on his site in regard to possession and one prays Tambellini either reads IOF or is familiar with the possession game.
  • Players Buy In: I think this is an important item in all of this. Whereas the Wings have the swagger and reputation that allows them to convince someone like Jiri Hudler to stay down on the farm, the Oilers can’t get some little piss-ant like Linus Omark to take his chances and let the chips fall at TC ’09.

Perhaps the wisest line from the entire article is this one from Ken Holland (when talking about calling up and sending down players from the AHL during his playing days in the minors): “I saw players coming and going,” Holland said of his time in the minors. “They’d play good for six weeks and the team would call them up and after a month they sent them down, and the kid was mush. He wasn’t ready to go up. I got certain strong beliefs on how to develop a player then, which is patience.” Holland wants his players “overripe” when they arrive.

The Oilers have not been patient with a bunch of players on the current big league roster. Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Ales Hemsky and Ladislav Smid were all either rushed to the majors or elevated without seasoning in the AHL might have been beneficial (certainly for Smid, possibly for Cogliano). Marc Pouliot and JF Jacques have been up and down like a yo-yo, and that (along with injuries) may have impacted their development. There were players who turned pro and spent time in the minors before earning their roster spot. These would include Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, Tom Gilbert and Kyle Brodziak.

I’d also add that the Oilers high picks who died on the vine in the minors (Mikhnov, Rita, Schremp) did so because the team never really focused on having those players push their way up the depth chart in the minors. When Rob Schremp arrived in pro hockey, who was there to push him for powerplay time? Those veteran AHLers are excellent roadblocks for kids, forcing them to learn the finer points of the game and on-ice responsibility.

Quick question: Will Justin Abdelkader have a better career than Taylor Chorney? How much of that will be based on development after turning pro? Skill is more effective when knowledge is added, and some men get three years experience in the minors during their first pro contract and others get one year’s experience three times. Oilers prospects should ask for a refund. One suspects that may be one reason Chris Vande Velde is spending another season in the NCAA.

The Oilers could learn a lot from the Detroit Red Wings, but it also seems to me they could do themselves a huge favor by giving their collective heads a shake and begin using the AHL as a place to hone skills for the close-to-ready pro’s as opposed to using it as a parking lot for the members of the vaunted “50 contracts” that don’t make the show.

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