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Red Wings won't 'sit back' in attempt to rebuild

Detroit front office pained by losing record, lack of superstar

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- One day last week, Jimmy Devellano showed Ken Holland a newspaper column from 1984.

Devellano was the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings then, not yet the senior vice president. Holland was a goalie in the organization, not yet the general manager. Jeff Blashill, now the coach, was 12.

The criticism sounded familiar.

"Basically, the things they were saying about me they're saying about the people that run the Red Wings now," Devellano told on Thursday. "You just had to change the names."

Devellano said he and Holland laughed, but not because they take this lightly. Quite the opposite. They take it to heart. Devellano has been in the front office since 1982. Holland started as a western Canada scout in 1985 and rose to GM in 1997. They bleed red.

They are proud that after years of rebuilding, the Red Wings made the playoffs 25 straight seasons from 1991-2016, winning more games in the regular season (1,113) and Stanley Cup Playoffs (170) than anyone else. They won the Presidents' Trophy six times, the Stanley Cup four.

It hurts that now, in Devellano's words, they're "back in the 1980s."

The Red Wings missed the playoffs the past two seasons and rank last in the NHL with a 1-6-2 record entering their game against the Winnipeg Jets at Little Caesars Arena on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, FS-D, TSN3, NHL.TV). This is the fourth-worst nine-game start in their 93 seasons, after 1985-86 (0-8-1), 1975-76 (0-6-3) and 1982-83 (1-7-1).

Devellano said he and Holland accept responsibility and the criticism that comes with it.

"We're in a 31-team league, and if you're at the bottom or close to it, you're going to get criticized," Devellano said. "We understand it. We don't enjoy it. But it's just part of the business, and we're big boys."

At the same time, they are resolute that they know the root of the problem and can fix it one way or another, even if they need a reminder, like that newspaper column, of the cycle of life in the NHL.

"We know how we got here," Devellano said.

The Red Wings were star-studded during their glory days. They extended their window by mining two star centers deep in the NHL Draft -- Pavel Datsyuk in the sixth round (No. 171) in 1998, Henrik Zetterberg in the seventh round (No. 210) in 1999 -- but that's hard to do consistently. During their playoff streak, their average first pick was No. 38.

Datsyuk went home to Russia after the 2015-16 season. Zetterberg failed his physical before this season and cannot play anymore because of back problems. The Red Wings selected forwards Michael Rasmussen No. 9 in the 2017 NHL Draft and Filip Zadina No. 6 in 2018 NHL Draft, their highest picks since forward Martin Lapointe at No. 10 in 1991, but neither is ready to make a big impact yet. Rasmussen likely will be scratched Friday. Zadina is with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League.

"We're superstar driven, and it pains me, it pains Ken, that we are bereft of a superstar," Devellano said. "Superstars win games. Superstars sell tickets. Superstars drive TV ratings. And to sit here and not have that kind of player, or preferably players, is painful. But that's as candid as I can be with you. We do have a plan."

The Red Wings tried to extend the playoff streak as long as possible. But when they saw it was about to end in 2016-17, Holland sold at the NHL Trade Deadline and collected picks. He did the same last season. They want to be as competitive as possible, while playing out contracts to create salary cap space, developing young players, collecting more picks and finding the next generation of stars in the draft. 

The worry is that a rebuild will take many years, as it has for other teams. If you finish last, you aren't guaranteed the No. 1 pick because of the NHL Draft Lottery. You can fall as low as No. 4. Even if you get the No. 1 pick, you aren't guaranteed a quick turnaround.

"The one thing we don't want to do is make promises," Devellano said. " 'Oh, we're going to be really good two years from now.' 'Oh, we're going to be really good four years from now.' Because quite frankly, we don't know, and we have precedents with these other teams to see how long it has taken.

"Quite frankly, we're not the most patient people. We've been used to winning. We may have to go outside the box to push this program along. I won't go into detail about that, but we may have to go outside the box and do things that normally aren't done in order to push us up the standings and to get more competitive."

Devellano is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. He was an eastern Canada scout with the New York Islanders when they selected defenseman Denis Potvin No. 1 in the 1973 NHL Draft. He was the GM of the Red Wings when they selected center Steve Yzerman No. 4 in the 1983 NHL Draft. Eventually, Potvin won four championships with the Islanders, and Yzerman won three as a player and another as an executive with the Red Wings.

"You need to start somewhere with a superstar," Devellano said. "We recognize that. I can tell you as long as Ken Holland and Jimmy D are involved, we will be aggressive.

"We won't be placid. We've been placid the last two years. We're going to be placid the remainder of this year. There's not much we can do. But if people think that as long as Ken and I are involved that we're going to sit back and not do something to shake the tree, so to speak, that ain't happening.

"That's where we are. We're in a tough situation."

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