As the 2013 NHL season wound down, it looked as though the Detroit Red Wings would finish out of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years.
Around the league there was acknowledgment that not even the Big Red Machine, long regarded as the model for success, could avoid the inevitable decline brought on by aging athletes, a salary cap and the league's relentless quest for parity among its teams. Other champions such as the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche had suffered similar fates. So should the Red Wings, particularly as superstar defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom followed former teammates Tomas Holmstrom, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart into retirement or free agency.
But six weeks later, after winning their final four games to grab the seventh Western Conference playoff seed on their last night of the regular season, the Red Wings are pushing through the second round of the NHL playoffs and driving the Chicago Blackhawks, winner of the Presidents' Trophy, to distraction. The Wings lead the Blackhawks 3-1 in their best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final with Game 5 on Saturday in Chicago. As an added bonus, the Red Wings' top development team, the Grand Rapids Griffins, are in the final four in the AHL playoffs.
The Red Wings prove that smart management can still trump the obstacles in today's NHL, from ice level to the boardroom. These are not your father's Red Wings, although familiar names such as Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall and Cleary linger in important roles. This is largely the next generation, carefully groomed to replace the teams that last won a Stanley Cup in 2008 but produced four Cup winners since 1997.
Now names such as Abdelkader, Kindl, Andersson, Brunner and Nyquist are in the mix.
The Wings are alive and well in May, those involved say, because no matter who comes and goes, everyone sticks to a plan focused on developing players. Everyone, from Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch to general manager Ken Holland, to his fellow executives to the scouts, the coaches and the players, can share in the spoils of winning.
"When you look at the whole thing it's leadership at the top," said Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, whose hard-driving style is in the mould of Scotty Bowman, who was behind the bench for three of those recent NHL champions, with Babcock winning in 2008.
"It starts with our owner, and it's not like I see him every day," Babcock said. "Our owner treats your family great and is very demanding. He expects you to have success, period.
"He wants you to be in every day and he wants you to work. That goes from the GM to the coach to the players, from the minor-league team, to the rink to the scouting staff. He sets the tone that way, the expectations are high and we're proud of that."
The plan, which has produced a run of sustained excellence since 1990, their last season out of the playoffs, did not take shape overnight. It was implemented in 1982 when Mike Ilitch and his wife Marian bought the franchise, which had been run into the ground by the Norris family, and hired Jimmy Devellano as their first general manager. He got the job because he came from the New York Islanders dynasty, which was built through the draft. He set about doing the same thing in Detroit.
Holland says the plan went through many phases and revisions over the years, some because of learning pains and others because of the changing economics of the NHL, which work against old-style dynasties. The Red Wings, for example, were always among the NHL's biggest spenders before the salary cap was implemented after the 2004-05 lockout. While some of that money was spent on a few pricey free agents, most went to keeping Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom, stars the Red Wings drafted.
The goal was to draft and develop players who would form the team's core. And since the Red Wings were good enough never to have a high pick in the NHL entry draft (their last top 10 pick was Martin Lapointe, taken 10th overall in 1991), their prospects would undergo a careful grooming process in which almost all of them spent years with the Wings' farm team.
"You need a core," said Holland, who was promoted to GM in 1997. "In order to be a good team year-in and year-out you need a core group of four to six players who really drive your team."
No 18-year-old first-round draft picks step right on to the Red Wings roster. And Holland, with few exceptions, leaves the chasing of each year's hot free agent to others, pulling out the Ilitch chequebook only when a player suits the team's needs.
"We've chosen at times to pursue the high-priced free agents if we think he fits into what we're doing," he said, citing last summer's failed pursuit of defenceman Ryan Suter as a replacement for the retired Lidstrom. "We just don't chase every one."
The farm team gets the best coaches and mentoring is a key part of the process, beginning with the NHL veterans and extending to the front office, which is stocked with former players such as Chris Chelios, Jiri Fischer and Kris Draper who pass on their experience to the kids in Grand Rapids.
"Regardless of who's coming in or going out, we always have really good people coming in," said defenceman Niklas Kronwall, 32, who was tutored by Lidstrom, Chelios and Brian Rafalski. "It's not just a player or a coach, it's good people in the right positions. I think it's only good for the young players.
"You get to play in Grand Rapids, which is a great city, and you get put into a system where you learn how we play the game. You are put in all kinds of situations there, whether it's the power play, penalty killing, five-on-five, late in games, whether you're up a goal or down a goal, you play in key situations. That really prepares you for when you get here."
Draper, whose playing career ended in 2011 and is now a special assistant to Holland, said mentoring is a leadership thread that weaves 30 years back through the franchise to when Devellano drafted a teenager out of Ottawa named Steve Yzerman.
"When Stevie Y was coming to the end of his playing career, we had Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Stevie really took those guys under his wing," Draper said. "They were able to learn from one of the greatest of all time. And Igor Larionov had a big impact on Pavel Datsyuk's career early on.
"I was a younger guy watching those guys interact and make sure the organization was going to be in good hands."
"For me, it was when Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm came in," Draper said. "I knew one day that those guys were going to take my job. But the fact is, when I saw a great player like Stevie Y take on the role of mentoring those guys, I knew it was the right thing to do.
"For me to be able to help those guys and see what they do now puts a smile on your face. Abdelkader has turned onto a force, playing on our top line, and it's great to see."
At the same time, the system requires great patience from the prospects. It is made clear to players such as defenceman Jakub Kindl, who was a first-round pick in 2005, that it will be years before they can expect a full-time job in Detroit. He had to spend four years in Grand Rapids, waiting for a vacancy, before landing a job this season at the age of 26.
"It was tough but at the same time I tried to stay patient," Kindl said. "Basically, it was what I knew was going to happen and then it was the best thing that could happen for me."
The greatest test of the plan came this season. The last of the great nucleus of talent that carried the Red Wings for 20 years dribbled away – Rafalski and Draper retired in 2011 and then last summer defenceman Brad Stuart and forward Jiri Hudler left as free agents, winger Tomas Holmstrom retired and, worst of all, so did Lidstrom, perhaps the best defenceman of his generation.
"It's getting harder and harder; we don't have those veteran guys," Holland said and recited the list of names. "A hockey team retired. There's Hall of Famers in that group."
Hockey observers were certain the Red Wings would finally hit the wall. Then, when the season started in January after the lockout, the Red Wings ran into a string of injuries. Their entire third line – Helm, Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson – was lost for almost the entire season.
But down on the farm, Joakim Andersson was deemed ready and was promoted in February. Gustav Nyquist came up from Grand Rapids in March and along with 27-year-old rookie Damian Brunner, who spent the lockout playing with Zetterberg in the Swiss league, joined with Andersson to form a third line that is scoring big goals against the Blackhawks.
"I did 2 1/2 years down there," Andersson said. "I know the Red Wings' plan. They want their guys to be ready when they get up here and I felt I was ready when I got here."
Kindl and Jonathan Ericsson stepped up on defence to support Kronwall, who became the No.1 blueliner but not one expected to log the kind of minutes Lidstrom did. Jimmy Howard's emergence as a star goaltender is another big reason why the Wings are not going away quietly.
Holding it all together is Babcock, who may have performed his greatest run as a coach this season, pulling the Wings into the playoffs. Now, they look like a team that was simply getting better slowly because of the transition to a new generation.
"I think he finds a way regardless of who's in the lineup," Kronwall said of Babcock. "Over the last few years we had some players leave us but he's found a way to get everybody on the same page and get the job done. I don't think there's a coach out there that compares to him."
There may be envy of the Red Wings' success around the league but it has benefited other teams. Two of graduates of the Red Wing Way are Yzerman, now the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Jim Nill, who after years of wooing from other teams accepted the GM's job with the Dallas Stars last month. Among the eight teams still alive in this year's playoffs as of Friday, two have former Babcock assistants as head coaches: the Ottawa Senators with Paul MacLean, who is the favourite to be coach-of-the-year, and the San Jose Sharks with Todd McLelland.