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Meeting of the Minds

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
As NHL teams head into the dog days of summer, team officials – and the Red Wings are no different – conduct organizational meetings to discuss off-season moves meant to help the team compete for the 2012 Stanley Cup while also building for the future.

This week, Bill Roose, managing editor for, was given unprecedented access to the Red Wings’ scouting meetings, sitting in on Day 1 at MotorCity Casino & Hotel. Here is what he observed:

Team officials go over material for every possible scenario that may arise in free agency or trades. (Photo by Bill Roose/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – It could have been a scene from any fantasy draft that occurs before the start of each NHL season. A dozen or so grown men sitting around a table in a dimly lit, spacious room, ranking players while mulling past statistics and forecasting future values.

But this wasn’t any gathering of hockey enthusiasts.

The men seated around this large linen-covered table in Room No. 1511 inside the MotorCity Casino & Hotel were working together for one common purpose – to improve the Detroit Red Wings.

In a suite, 15 floors above Grand River Avenue, Wings executives came together this week for two-days of brainstorming sessions that will create a blue print to shape the club’s roster for the upcoming season and beyond.

With a week to go before the NHL draft and a fortnight prior to the start of free agency, general manager Ken Holland heard suggestions from staffers, pro scouts and coaches as they weighed options for the hockey club.

Senior vice president Jimmy Devellano, assistant GM Jim Nill, and coach Mike Babcock were vocal in their recommendations for the type of players they want added to the Wings’ roster. Ryan Martin, the team’s resident capologist, offered insight into possible landmines with regards to what certain free agents might seek in the open market. And Holland solicited player evaluations from his lieutenants – pro scouts Mark Howe, Glenn Merkosky, Bruce Haralson and Kirk Maltby. Between everyone in the room – including goalie coach Jim Bedard and video coach Keith McKittrick – Wings officials have seen every player who will hit the open-market on July 1.

Before team officials began to dissect possible free agents and trade scenarios, Holland presented a review of salary cap challenges facing the Wings for 2011-12. Even though the cap ceiling will increase ($61 million to $64 million), the floor, which all 30 NHL teams must commit to spending, is $16 million less than the cap maximum.

“I don’t think the cap going up gives us an advantage,” Holland told the room. “As the cap grows you have to adjust your thinking because there are 29 teams in the league that also got a $4.5 million increase.”

The Wings will take a $450,000 cap hit on bonuses due to Ruslan Salei and Mike Modano, leaving between $60.55 million to $63.55 million in cap space. However, Holland said, one option is to hold cap dollars for the trade deadline and an emergency call-up.

“Our thought process last year was to spend all of our money,” Holland said. “Do we want to hold money for the trade deadline or do we go in a different direction?”

A large portion of Tuesday’s meeting was also spent reviewing the team’s defensive needs and filling the hole created by the retirement of Brian Rafalski.
However, the biggest wrinkle to the team’s planning sessions was the uncertainty of Nicklas Lidstrom’s future. If the six-time Norris Trophy winner decides to retire, the Wings’ defense will need a serious overhaul. But if Lidstrom tells Holland next week that he will return for a 20th NHL season, the Wings feel that they have the key pieces in place to compete with the other 14 Western Conference clubs to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The process that the Wings have coursed over the last 20 seasons is something that they, as an organization, are very proud of, especially since 2005-06 when the league instituted a salary cap meant to provide equality.

“We’re trying to do what all teams are trying to do,” Holland said. “We want to compete today and build for tomorrow.

“We were incredibly lucky that our amateur scouts found Pavel Datsyuk (sixth round, 1998) and Henrik Zetterberg (seventh round, 1999).”

And it was those two draft picks, particularly, that allowed the Wings to stay competitive, even after the departures of Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman.

“The good news is that we have committed ownership that allows us to go to the cap ceiling,” Holland said. “We’ve got great history, great tradition, and we’ve got players who are in the prime of their careers that other players want to play with. So we have a chance to recruit.”
Red Wings
Pro Scouting Meetings

Mike Babcock told team officials he believes, and hopes, that Lidstrom will be back to anchor the Wings’ defense for at least another season.

Lidstrom’s decision has a huge effect on every decision that the Wings will make this off-season. If he returns, the Wings can set their attention to other pressing elements, like making decisions on re-signing Jonathan Ericsson and/or Salei, or abandoning them to test free agency.

Another issue involves Jakub Kindl and whether or not the 24-year-old is ready to log a greater workload in 2011-12? Babcock was very positive and upbeat in his praise of Kindl’s development on and off the ice last season.

Yet there was plenty of philosophical discussion about right-handed shooting defensemen likely to be available in free agency, and whether the Wings need to target any of them. With Rafalski’s retirement, the Wings no longer have a right-hander to compliment Lidstrom’s left-handed shot.

When conversation in the suite shifted from philosophical directions to actually ranking players that might look good in a Wings’ uniform, there were a few tense moments as guys spoke persuasively.

But in typical Ken Holland fashion, the Wings’ general manager was able to lighten the mood with his own brand of levity.

“My mom knows superstars,” he said. “I don’t need you guys to find us superstars. I’ll hire my mom who can do that at half of your guys’ cost.”

Quickly, the room erupted in laughter when Glenn Merkosky retorted, “She’s not doing it for half of my salary.”

As the laughter settled, Holland continued, “The bottom line is we need to find and develop players.”

Reading from a list, Holland rattled off the name of nearly every free agent defensemen – only stopping to add names to the large yellow board propped on an easel in front of the room when someone voiced their support. When that process ended and Holland had the names of several defensemen on the board, team officials debated the perceived worth and fit of each guy.

Later in the afternoon, as Day 1 of the scouting meetings wound down, Holland told staffers that he has fielded calls already from other GMs. Before adjourning, the 12 men discussed whether or not the Wings should pursue trade options.

Wednesday’s Day 2 was spent similarly as Day 1 as staffers discussed free agent forwards.

Whatever personnel decisions come out of Room 1511, the Wings’ plans will be chiseled from a comprehensive philosophy built on 154 years of accumulative front office experience.

“It’s a fine line now between being a Cup contender and missing the playoffs,” Holland said.

However, the hope is that this week’s meetings sets the course for a successful off-season, and an even better 2011-12 campaign – one that ends in the organization celebrating its 12th Stanley Cup championship.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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