Red Wings boast No. 1-ranked NHL/AHL affiliation since Ilitch era
It doesn't come as a surprise to former American Hockey League commissioner Dave Andrews that the Detroit Red Wings have won the most combined National Hockey League and AHL championships since owner Mike Ilitch purchased the team in 1982.
Andrews, 71, retired in July after 26 years as commissioner and another seven years as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers' top farm team in the AHL.
During that time and heading into the 2020-21 season opener on Dec. 4 when the league is tentatively scheduled to resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Wings have won nine titles with five Calder Cup and four Stanley Cups, three more than the Oilers with five Cups and one AHL title under Andrews in 1992.
"If you look at what the Red Wings have done from a player development point of view, it's probably second to none," Andrews said.
"They've always respected the American Hockey League and they've always seen winning as important. From (general managers) Jimmy Devellano to Kenny Holland and now to Steve (Yzerman), the idea has not changed. It's never really been acceptable for their AHL teams to just be younger players developing and just draft picks. They really build teams to be successful and they want their players in a winning atmosphere."
Detroit's top farm teams in the AHL have primarily been in Adirondack (1979-1999) and Grand Rapids (2002-present with the latest five-year contract extending through the 2021-22 season). There was also a three-year shared affiliation in Cincinnati (1999-2002) when Mike Babcock coached the top Detroit-Anaheim prospects before becoming the Red Wings' all-time winningest coach (458 wins, 223 loses, 115 OT loses).
Nearly 90 percent of NHL players have played in the AHL, including Calder Cup MVPs Tomas Tatar (2013) and Tyler Bertuzzi (2017). Tatar scored 115 goals in seven years in Detroit before he was traded to Vegas for three draft picks (Joe Veleno, Robert Mastrosimone and a third-round pick this year) and Bertuzzi has back-to-back 21-goal seasons with the Red Wings and was named to the NHL All-Star Game this year.
Devellano credits the team's development of managers, coaches and players in the minor leagues for playing an important role during the parent team's 25-year playoff run including four Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002, 2008). He said it's the same model which he brought to Detroit after helping the New York Islanders draft and develop players on the way to four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-1983.
"When Mike Ilitch hired me, he liked the Islander model," Devellano said. "I ran the farm team and did the draft with (GM) Bill Torrey. He saw how we operated and saw that it worked. Nothing is a hundred percent and it's not an exact science but the Islanders' philosophy in the '70s is the same as the Red Wings' philosophy in 2020."
Devellano said the Islanders' farm team in Indianapolis provided a steady stream of depth players like goaltender Kelly Hrudey (second round/1980) and forwards Hector Martini (third round/1977) and Billy Carroll (second round/1979).
The same thing happened in Adirondack when forwards Joey Kocur (fifth round/1983) Darren McCarty (second round/1992) and Martin Lapointe (first round/1991) arrived in time to provide a physical presence especially in the NHL postseason.
"We've had success," said Devellano, now the team's senior advisor and owner of 15 championship rings (five Calder Cups, four Stanley Cups in Detroit, three Stanley Cups with the Islanders, two Adams Cups in the Central Hockey League with Indianapolis and Fort Worth and one Riley Cup in the East Coast Hockey League with Toledo).
"Our focus in Detroit is to put a good team on the ice on the farm. Our veteran guys are good character people and they teach the young players how to be pros, how to win. The pace is a little slower down there but it's a mini-NHL with the same rules, similar schedules and playoff formula. We're pretty proud of our championships."
Now under the guidance of Yzerman, Devellano says they hope for similar success with AHL-developed forwards like Filip Zadina (first round/2018), Veleno (first round/2018) and Michael Rasmussen (first round/2017) as well as defensemen Dennis Cholowoski (first round/2016) and Moritz Seider (first round/2019).
"Steve saw how we operated and how it works," Devellano said. "Of course, he didn't have to play in the AHL but he saw our draft picks became better players who could contribute when they got called up. The same thing with Jeff Blashill. I don't think he would be able to coach in the NHL if he didn't have the chance to work and win with young pros in the AHL. Steve's observed all this. He's on the same page."
Andrews, who is assisting with the transition for his replacement Scott Howson and chairing the AHL Return to Play task force which includes Yzerman, said winning AHL championships isn't the only way to determine an organization's success.
He cites the Pittsburgh Penguins, who haven't won a minor-league title but their back-to-back Stanley Cup teams with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in 2016 and 2017 featured coach Mike Sullivan and 16 players from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate, including Pontiac's Brian Rust who scored 13 playoff goals in two years.
"The one decision we made which really has been the cornerstone of the AHL's growth and ultimately the takeover of the IHL in 2001 was our development rule," Andrews said. "They (IHL) were free spending, they were in larger markets and they had deep-pocket managers. We needed to differentiate ourselves from the competition and the way to do that was to be the main developer of young players for the NHL.
"Essentially, our development rule limits the amount of veteran players on each team and ensures that there's a level playing field across all of our clubs and ensures that young players are going to compete against young players. The Red Wings have had a real focus on that player development and you can feel the organizational pride."
Devellano said he is sure of one thing when it comes to the AHL's future.
"Based on his body of work, Dave Andrews should be elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame," said Devellano, who was inducted into the hall of fame in 2010.
"He turned out to be a great administrator and learned how to work with diverse ownership groups, some owned by NHL teams, some owned privately. Now everybody is doing the Red Wings-Islanders model but it wasn't always that way. Until someone comes up with a better idea, the AHL will always be vital and necessary."
Championship titles since 1982-83
(Stanley Cups listed first, Calder Cups second)
►Detroit Red Wings 9 (4+5)
►Edmonton Oilers 6 (5+1)
►Pittsburgh Penguins 5 (5+0)
►Washington Capitals 5 (1+4)
►New Jersey Devils 4 (3+1)
►Montreal Canadiens 4 (2+2)
►Philadelphia Flyers 4 (0+4)
►Colorado Avalanche 3 (2+1)
►Los Angeles Kings 3 (2+1)
►Chicago Blackhawks 3 (3+0)
►Buffalo Sabres 3 (0+3)
►Carolina Hurricanes 2 (1+1)
►Dallas Stars 2 (1+1)
►Tampa Bay Lightning 2 (1+1)
►New York Rangers 2 (1+1)
►Boston Bruins 2 (1+1)
►Atlanta Thrashers 2 (0+2)