Krupa: Wings ignore lure of tanking
Detroit — When one sees Jim Devellano, the senior vice president of the Red Wings these days, he looks like some benevolent, bespectacled wizard, walking almost undetected along the first-floor concourse near the dressing rooms, papers in hand, attending to some business.
If you did not know who he is, the assumption might be he works in the accounting office.
If you know who he is, you look for the magic wand.
When owners Mike and Marian Ilitch hired Devellano, now 71, away from the Islanders, 32 summers ago, everything began to change for the Wings and their fans.
A sleeping giant of a moribund franchise began to recover, and win, including eventually — and it did take him 15 years — its first Stanley Cup in 42 years. Then there was another one immediately and two more in the next decade, as his personally trained successor, Ken Holland, grasped the reins in the general manager's office.
Beyond that success, Devellano helped beat back the fondest desire of not just a few folks around the NHL that the Red Wings would fail, disastrously.
While those folks still wait for the Armageddon in Hockeytown, the fact of the matter is the Wings are beginning the third season of a rebuilding process that is a bit like renovating a house while still living in it.
And it is perhaps a more risky enterprise than commonly understood.
Roster changes are considerable but not wholesale. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall remain. Meanwhile, the string of consecutive playoff berths is three years into a third decade, with the Wings looking to make it 24 years this season.
From the owners to the clerical and maintenance staff, it would seem, the Red Wings are invested in the thought that to allow the franchise to finally grind down fully, and garner top-three, -four or -five draft choices for a few years running to accomplish a major reconstruction is a concept to be banished.
It is a considerable gamble, because if rebuilding while in motion does not work, the major reconstruction will certainly ensue, regardless.
At that point, Devellano and Holland might well both be gone.
And so, the Wings take hammers to a couple of rooms on the house, while fully using the others, all of the while hoping the company does not complain.
Not giving in
"It's a tough, tough puzzle," Devellano said, as he stood Saturday in the hallway between the dressing room and the coaches' offices.
"What Kenny's really trying to do is to rebuild the team on the fly, without ever missing the playoffs. That's what we're trying to do, keep the team entertaining, keep trying to compete for a playoff spot.
"From ownership on down, we don't want to gut it and go to the bottom. We just don't want to do that — we're going to a new building.
"OK, so, we're trying to rebuild on the fly. We're doing it with young players, we've got a good coach and we'll keep our fingers crossed."
Bottoming out fully alienates some fans for a while, probably longer than anyone would desire, in Detroit. But the franchise might then resurrect with serial top draft choices who pan out.
The Blackhawks did it, and they now skate with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, and their future of success appears to extend beyond the horizon.
"We think we owe it to everybody not just to say, well, the only way we're going to get (players like that) is to go to the bottom. That can be a tough, tough period for the franchise. But the teams that have done that, like Chicago, they wind up with the Kanes and the Toewses and the Keiths."
The grand scheme admittedly hit a hazard, this summer.
Two free agents, the offensively talented defenseman Matt Niskanen, who left the Penguins and signed with the Capitals, and Dan Boyle, who left the Sharks for the Rangers, were offered as much or more by the Red Wings and — horror of horrors — TURNED THEM DOWN.
It is not something that has happened often, since Devellano showed up in town and Mike and Marian Ilitch figured they could spend, spend, spend.
"And what we found when we went after unrestricted free agents this summer, for the first time, we kind of got slapped," Devellano said.
The frustration is still ripe enough that between the words "of" and "got," Devellano paused and added a physical gesture to emphasize his point.
He actually slapped himself on the cheek.
"You know?" he asked, incredulously, "people turned us down!"
The march of time
Devellano stated explicitly that one reason the Red Wings chose not to deconstruct fully, in order to reconstruct, is the accumulating ages of Mike Ilitch, Holland and, Devellano said, himself.
Holland is 59 in November. These days, he is most often in the company of Kris Draper, around the building.
Devellano also said that in addition to developing the new arena simultaneously with the disruption of the roster, the feeling was the damage to the fan base of perhaps several consecutive seasons out of the playoffs might simply be too much.
Meanwhile, as last season proved with mostly Grand Rapids Griffins players taking the Red Wings to the playoffs, in a season in which Babcock may have been at his very best, the kids are all right.
"They surprisingly did well — I think better than maybe we had reason to expect," Devellano said. "And so they have that experience now under their belt.
"And we had another draft. We like the kids we took in the draft, but they're obviously a ways away, here."
Clearly, there is much jeopardy in the plan. And when one hears the wizard acknowledge there is considerable peril, one knows the degree of risk.
"Now, what are we hoping? We're hoping we can keep the team competitive with good young players. We've got a new building coming up, three years from now. We're hoping if we can keep the team competitive and they see the new building and the beautiful district there, that it will then allow us, when the time is right, to go in and get a good unrestricted free agent or two.
"So, that's the plan.
"Will it work? We'll have to see.
"Last few years, we just sneaked into the playoffs. So, it always keeps you on edge."