Wojo: Red Wings' rebuild gets surprising boost in draft

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It takes smarts and patience and a solid plan. Rebuilding in the NHL is difficult and dicey, which is partly why the Red Wings spent 25 years stridently avoiding it.

It also takes a little good fortune, and it appears the Wings finally got a healthy batch of it. This was their most important draft in decades, a huge moment for GM Ken Holland and his staff, and if you go by numbers and scouting reports, they hit it big.

By most accounts, the Wings essentially got two steals in the first round, which might not alter the long-term timetable, but it sure makes it more interesting. They took Czech winger Filip Zadina at No. 6, after virtually every projection had him going third to Montreal. They took center Joe Veleno at No. 30, a stunner considering three rating services pegged him at six, eight and 11.

Holland didn’t try to outsmart or outmaneuver anyone. The Wings wisely didn’t reach for a much-needed defenseman. They did precisely what a rebuilding team must do — grab as much high-end talent, regardless of position, as you can grab.

Zadina, 18, might be the best scorer in the draft, and brings a confident edge (as well as 82 points in 57 games for the Halifax Mooseheads last season). Veleno is a play-making center some compare to Dylan Larkin. The Wings even went with another skilled forward, Jonatan Berggren, early in the second round before finally taking defenseman Jared McIsaac, a projected first-rounder, three picks later at 36.

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As far as positional replenishment, the Wings didn’t get a break, and they’ll continue their never-ending quest for a top-tier defenseman, the most precious commodity. Buffalo got lucky in the lottery and landed the premier one at No. 1, Rasmus Dahlin.

The Wings found their fortune elsewhere, and added to a promising young forward core that includes Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi and last year’s No 1 pick, Michael Rasmussen. In rebuilds, you take the best player and don’t look back. It’s like what the Tigers have done, under the same ownership. The Tigers desperately need positional players, but pitchers keep popping up where they pick, and they recently added to their stockpile with No. 1 choice Casey Mize.

The Tigers now have one organizational strength — young starting pitching — amid still-glaring weaknesses. The Wings now have one organizational strength — young forwards — amid still-glaring weaknesses.

Surprised and ecstatic

Zadina and Veleno don’t necessarily speed up the rebuild, although I suspect Zadina will be on the team next season. 

It does give the Wings more value in case Holland ever has a hankering for a blockbuster trade. In an otherwise uneventful draft, Zadina’s drop to the Wings was the shocker. The team didn’t even debate at that point about the remaining top defensemen, Michigan’s Quinn Hughes (who went with the next pick) or Evan Bouchard.

“We were real surprised, we thought Zadina would go in the top five, and certainly we’re thrilled to get him,” Holland said. “You always need scoring. Joe Veleno has great speed, we’re excited to get him. … We wanted to get some D, we just felt we couldn’t pass these two up.”

The Wings also drafted a couple of goalies, necessary considering Jimmy Howard is 34 with no clear heir apparent. But as badly as the Wings need a transformative defenseman to add to their aging corps, there are several reasons they finished with the fifth-worst record in the league.

They desperately need creative play-making and scoring, an element they’ve lacked since Pavel Datsyuk walked away. They finished 28th last year in goals and 24th in power-play percentage. And speaking of collecting talent wherever available, that’s why former Stanley Cup-winning coach Dan Bylsma was hired as an assistant to Jeff Blashill.

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In all, the Wings drafted 10 players in seven rounds — five forwards, three defensemen, two goalies. In previous years, some analysts suggested they reached in the first round for size (6-6 Rasmussen) or need (defenseman Dennis Cholowski in 2016). We’ll see, as Rasmussen and Cholowski continue to develop. This time, the mandate was clear, laid out by director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright.

“We want to be fast, we want to try to get big, but at the end of the day, we wanted to get skill, that was pretty much the theme going into this draft,” he said. “Internally, we identified — and we’re not telling the general public anything new here — we need to score goals, we need offensive players, our power play has gotta get better. (Zadina) has good hockey sense, and he isn’t a one-trick pony that just scores. He brings character, he competes.”

Zadina was competing right up until the draft, telling his agent if Montreal didn’t take him No. 3, he’d “fill their nets with pucks.”

After he fell to Detroit, Zadina was still flashing the swagger.

“I just want to prove to (Montreal and Ottawa), they did a bad decision,” said Zadina, who said he models his game after Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov. “But I am so glad I’m in Detroit right now. Just want to prove to Detroit they got a pretty good decision.”

Hold your horses

As always in any draft, it’s wise to temper enthusiasm. It wasn’t that long ago Xavier Ouellet, a second-round pick in 2011, was the defenseman everyone was waiting to see. He was here and now he’s gone, waived by the Wings on Sunday.

The Wings are still hoping someone among their defense prospects – Cholowski, Nick Jensen, Filip Hronek, Joe Hicketts — can make the leap and relieve guys such as Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson. 

This is why you collect so many picks, because so many fail. It’s why it was important for Holland to pull off the trade that sent Tomas Tatar to Las Vegas for a first-rounder, which became Veleno. It’s why this draft was so vital, with the Wings selecting their highest since 1990, when they took Keith Primeau No. 3.

The allure of picks and prospects is why Christopher Ilitch gave Holland a two-year contract extension.

“We’re real happy,” Wright said. “If you’d told me we were walking out with Veleno at 30, I would’ve been shocked. I don’t want to do a lot of comparisons, but he plays the game kind of like Dylan Larkin. He fits the mold of what we’re trying to accomplish — we want to be fast, we want to be competitive and we want to produce more offense.”

The draft Friday and Saturday in Dallas might end up being one of the momentous days in the team’s turnaround. Or it might be just another uncertain step. For certain, on paper and potential, it went about as well as the Wings could have imagined.