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Red Wings trying to rebuild, remain competitive

Senior VP Devellano optimistic about turning Detroit around through draft

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

There are less than three weeks remaining in the 2017-18 NHL regular season, and teams are fighting for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the annual general managers meetings taking place in Boca Raton, Florida, this week, is sitting down with some of the biggest names in the game. Today, Detroit Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, talks about hard times in Hockeytown.

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The Detroit Red Wings need to rebuild. They know it and have started the process, even though general manager Ken Holland avoids the "r" word and won't tear down the team completely.

The Red Wings are sixth from the bottom of the NHL standings and are on the verge of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season.

"Certainly I'm not in denial, and I would say to you Ken probably isn't in denial either," said senior vice president Jimmy Devellano, 75, part of the Red Wings' front office since 1982. "We know where we're at. We understand the state of our team.

"We are not surprised. We knew that it would eventually happen."

The Red Wings made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons from 1990-91 to 2015-16. In that span, they won more games in the regular season (1,133) and playoffs (170) than anyone else. They won the Presidents' Trophy six times, three times more than anyone else, and the Cup four times, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for most. But thanks to success and trades, their average first pick in the NHL Draft was No. 38. That made it hard to restock elite talent.

They tried to keep the playoff streak going as long as possible. But when they saw it was about to end last season, Holland sold at the NHL Trade Deadline and collected picks. He did the same this season. They have 11 picks in the 2018 NHL Draft, including seven in the first three rounds and two in the first. The plan is to try to remain competitive, while playing out some contracts, working in some younger players, collecting more picks and finding the next generation of stars in the draft.

"For the Red Wings to rebuild, we need a lot of kicks at the can," Devellano said. "They certainly all don't come through, but if you have 10 or 11 picks, if three come through real good for you, that's what counts."

Devellano declined to comment on the futures of Holland and coach Jeff Blashill in a wide-ranging interview with, but Holland and Blashill are expected to return.


On the playoff streak

"You have to understand that while that playoff streak was intact, this was the criticism we started to get: 'Oh, the Red Wings are starting to fade. They can't even get out of the first round now. Yeah, you make the playoffs, but big deal. You go out in the first round.'

"Ken would address that sometimes with me to discuss it, and this is what I would say: 'Ken, playoffs in the National Hockey League are very, very important to a lot of people. First of all, it's important to ownership. There's revenue involved. It's important. It's important to the coach, because they make their living on winning. They have to win to eat, OK?'

"I said, 'How do we all of a sudden collapse this thing because we don't win in the first round of the playoffs? How do we look [center Pavel] Datsyuk in the eye? How do we look [center Henrik] Zetterberg in the eye? They want to win.' We had culture in our room. And by the way, as bad as we are now, guess what? There's still culture, thanks to [Zetterberg], thanks to [defenseman Niklas] Kronwall. I'm telling you: It's there.

"I said, 'There's too much importance to making the playoffs.' I said, 'Ken, the [criticism] will be four times as great if you miss the playoffs. Four times.' And I've been right about that.

"Look, the National Hockey League is the best hockey league in the world, and it is a business. Do we deny that? It has to be a business when you charge $100 for hockey tickets. It has to be a business when you pay players seven, eight, nine million. So to just say, 'Oh, we're just going to collapse the team,' we weren't going to do that."

Video: DET@SJS: Zetterberg scores to pass Lindsay


On Holland and Blashill

"As Ken always says -- and he's right -- we do have to try to put a team on the ice. People pay good money to see us play. We have a coach that wants to win. He's trying to keep his career alive and going. You've got character people like Zetterberg and Kronwall, just as an example. I'll put [goaltender] Jimmy Howard in that mix. You owe them that you have to try to try, and we've done that.

"But if you look at the job Ken did the last two years, once the team fell out, he was active in going out to pick up additional draft choices to give us a chance to get rebuilding and get some real good talent in the system. Ken's done a terrific job in picking up draft picks.

"To be fair to our coach, Jeff Blashill, he came in at a tough time. He was following Mike Babcock, and the team was starting to decline. We knew that. Jeff knew that. So it's been hard taking over a team that's used to being so good and yet being on the decline. But that's not Jeff Blashill's fault. It's just where the team's at.

"And to be fair to Jeff, he's pushed the team hard to try to compete. Most nights, we do. I know we lose a lot now, but if you watch the Red Wings play, for the most part, they play hard, they compete and we lose a lot of close games. We don't get whipped out, so to speak."


On how long he'll be with the Red Wings

"As long as they'll have me. I haven't had a contract in 23 years, so I'm day to day, but I've been day to day for 23 years.

"I love what I do, and I love the Red Wings. I made a deal with (late owner) Mike Ilitch 23 years ago. We didn't do a contract. It was a handshake deal, and it's allowed me to enjoy my personal life a little more. Obviously I'm not there day to day, but anybody that knows Jimmy Devellano knows in a way he is there day to day. I go to every Tampa Bay Lightning game. I do a report for Ken on the visiting team, unrestricted free agency. I don't miss a Red Wing game. I look at other teams."


On if you can rebuild without bottoming out

"I can't answer it, because I don't know the answer to it. What I will tell you is, if they were worried about us bottoming out, it's happening right now. Fortunately or unfortunately, we are bottoming out. [Laughs]

"Look it, it is what it is, and people are just going to try to have patience. I think the real good fans will have some understanding of what the process is, what we were able to accomplish. We're not trying to live on what we accomplished all those years. We know now, as we have for a few years that, hey, we've got to draft.

"We haven't been in a position for a quarter of a century to really draft difference-makers. We got lucky in some rounds. Notice I say lucky with Zetterberg (seventh round, No. 210, 1999 NHL Draft) and Datsyuk (sixth round, No. 171, 1998 NHL Draft). I said lucky, OK, because if we were really that bright, we're honest enough to admit, we would have taken them in the first round, not six or seven. So we're not going to [mislead] anybody about that.

"We know what the business is like, and it's getting even harder and harder to steal guys in the later rounds. [Director of European scouting] Hakan Andersson would tell you, when Jimmy D first started his European scouting program -- and we were the first in; back in '84 I started it -- we had the territory virtually to ourselves. Those days are over. They've been over for a long time. Hakan said, 'I'll go to a game in Sweden or in [the Czech Republic] or in Finland, and where there might have been two, three teams with me, Chicago's got two people there, the [Toronto] Maple Leafs have got three people there, the [New York] Rangers got two people there …' I mean, everybody's seeing everybody. There are no secrets.

"Hey, we've got 11 picks this year in a seven-round draft, three in the third round. Now, when we go to the third round with three picks, we're not hitting on all three. We're not [misleading anyone]. Can we hit on one big-time?"

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