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'Hawks get closer using Wings' own strategy

by Larry Wigge /

"Everyone can see the talent and skills of the blue-chippers and can't-miss prospects. Teams aren't just skill and talent, they're made of grit and character guys, players who are willing to do whatever it takes to make the team ... and make the team better."
-- Kris Draper

CHICAGO – Almost there.

When Dustin Byfuglien got the puck down low to teammate Samuel Pahlsson, who then zipped a pass through the slot to Patrick Sharp for the overtime winner in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, it was sign that the Chicago Blackhawks are getting closer to the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

Detroit's scouting staff rightly gets heaps of praise for the lower-round draft gems it has uncovered through the years: Tomas Holmstrom (No. 257 in 1994), Pavel Datsyuk (No. 171 in 1998), Henrik Zetterberg (No. 210 in 1999) and Jonathan Ericsson (No. 291 -- last in 2002).

But the Wings aren't the only ones who've done well in the Entry Draft's bargain bin. The Blackhawks are in the Western Conference Finals thanks to key contributions from players like Adam Burish (No. 282 in 2002), Byfuglien (No. 245 in 2003) and Troy Brouwer (No. 214 in 2004).

"Everyone can see the talent and skills of the blue-chippers and can't-miss prospects," Red Wings center Kris Draper said before Game 3. "Teams aren't just skill and talent, they're made of grit and character guys, players who are willing to do whatever it takes to make the team ... and make the team better.

"Burish competes and provides energy every time he's out there,” Draper said. “Byfuglien is showing more and more that he can be an impact player like Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary are for us. And Brouwer is just a solid two-way contributor."

The story is no different with these late bloomers.

Byfuglien's story began at the door of a trailer on a 10-acre trucking farm behind his grandparents' house five miles outside of Roseau on Minnesota Route 11. He was the son of a single mother who drove a forklift at a snowmobile plant.

"I hated school and couldn't play hockey with my friends because I didn't make the grades to be on the team," Byfuglien said. "It wasn't until I was 16 and was playing for a midget team in Chicago ... of all places. That's where a scout saw me and invited me for tryouts with the Brandon and Prince George teams in the Western Hockey League.

"Hockey was beginning to look like a chance to me to do something with my life, although some will tell you that I was far from NHL material back then when I weighed about 275 pounds and never worked out. I remember guys always telling me that they thought I'd be quicker if I'd lose about 20 pounds, so ..."

A more svelte Byfuglien played well enough to get spotted by one of those sharp-eyed Blackhawks scouts. And Chicago fans no doubt were happy that happened after the way he's has played in this year's playoffs.

Still, there are no promises. No guarantees with any of these late draft picks. Only hard work made them into NHL prospects.

"I didn't know I had a chance to play in the NHL, even after I was drafted. It was just a dream that seemed so far away," Brouwer said. "They talk about obstacles you have to overcome. Mine was always skating.

"One year the Blackhawks sent me to Fargo, N.D., to a power skating camp. The next two years I worked with Dan Jansen (the U.S. Olympic speed skater). The last couple of years I worked with a guy at home in Vancouver -- Derek Popke. My work at skating is never finished."

It wasn't until Brouwer turned pro and scored 40 goals at Rockford of the AHL that suddenly a light went on for both player and team.

"It was like I was suddenly not under the radar. The Hawks started expecting offense from me," Brouwer continued.

It's hard to get any further under the radar than the Wings’ Ericsson, the final player taken in the 2002 Draft.

"No one ever came to see me, I'm sure of that," Ericsson said. "The Wings had to have been looking at someone else ... and said, 'Hey, look at that big guy on defense. Someday, he might be a player.' "

"You get to your first pro camp and you don't know anyone. You wind up hanging out with guys from the WHL or OHL or Quebec League or college or European leagues. Guys who also were drafted late with no better than a chance to make an impression," said Wings rookie center Darren Helm. "For me, the guys I palled around with were Bretton Stamler (No. 214 in the same 2005 draft in which Helm was selected No. 132) and Jeff May (No. 151st 2005)."

Even though there is a different game plan to scouting in Detroit and Chicago, the end result ... is results.

"They look for skill in the first through last rounds," Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg said. "In Chicago, the plan is to find hard-working, gritty players. The kind of players that this town loves to root for -- those lunch-box hard workers."

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