February 17, 2017
Spectacular near-miss by Red Wings
highlights uncertainties of NHL draft
By KEITH GAVE
Blame Petr Klima. It’s entirely his fault the Red Wings failed to select one of the most gifted scorers in the history of the National Hockey League.
The year was 1990 – the last time the Detroit Red Wings failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. After three-seasons of making the post-season under then-coach Jacques Demers, including improbable trips to the Cup semifinals in 1987-88, the Wings took a giant stride backward, finishing with a 28-38-14 record for 70 points, the third-worst record in the old 21-team league.
Demers was fired and replaced by Bryan Murray, who was also given the general manager’s portfolio. But it was Jim Devellano, the man the newly hired Murray replaced in the front office, who sat at the head of the draft table that June, when the Wings had the third overall selection in a draft loaded with first-round talent.
But one kid stood above all the rest, and the Wings could have had him. Should have had him.
But no. Thanks to Klima’s myriad off-ice issues, the drinking and womanizing and breaking curfew to go clubbing at places like Goose Loonies in Edmonton during the Stanley Cup playoffs, Devellano wanted nothing to do with another player from Czechoslovakia no matter how talented he was.
Nick Polano, the assistant GM who had been spending a lot of time in Europe scouting players while helping orchestrate defections of Soviet players to Detroit, pleaded with Devellano to make an exception and select Jaromir Jagr with the third overall pick.
According to projections, Quebec took right wing Owen Nolan with the first overall pick and Vancouver selected Czech left wing Petr Nedved with the second. Jagr was sitting there ready to be gift-wrapped with a No. 68 red and white sweater with the winged wheel in the front.
Taking Jagr with that pick made too much sense. The year before, the Wings went all-in on Europeans, making history by taking Sergei Fedorov in the fourth round – at the time the highest a Soviet player had ever been drafted by an NHL team. (They had selected defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom with their third-round pick and got Vladimir Konstantinov with their 11th round pick – in a draft that ranks today as the best haul ever by an NHL team.)
In my fondest daydreams, I like to think of how Jagr would have looked playing on the right wing with Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov in those early years of his NHL career. As it turned
out, Jagr did OK on Mario Lemieux’s wing in Pittsburgh, helping to win the Stanley Cup his first two years in the league.
So no, Jaromir Jagr was passed over by the Wings in favor of Keith Primeau, the 6-foot-5 center who enjoyed a decent, 909-game career, having his greatest success after leaving Detroit.
My point is this: Where the Wings are sitting in the standings today – 27th among the league’s 30 teams – they’re a lock to get their highest draft pick since 1990, and a good bet still to get one of the top three picks.
Which is nice – but it doesn’t mean anything if you take the wrong guy. Especially in a class of candidates that is considered one of the weakest in the past 12 years or so. Just Detroit’s luck. So this is where scouting, a little luck and, perhaps most importantly as the general manager, swallowing your biases and listening to your most trusted advisers.
In that 1990 draft, a GM could virtually throw a dart and get a great player. Other first-rounders included center Mike Ricci (4th to Philadelphia), defenseman Darryl Sydor (7th to Los Angeles), defenseman Derian Hatcher (Sterling Heights, 8th to Minnesota), goalie Trevor Kidd (11th to Calgary), left wing Brad May (11th to Buffalo), center Keith Tkachuk (19th to Winnipeg), goalie Martin Brodeur (20th to New Jersey) and center Bryan Smolinski (Michigan State, 21st to Boston).
Remarkably, Jagr is the only player among 250 drafted in 1990 still playing today. On Wednesday, he celebrated his 45th birthday by recording an assist in a 6-5 overtime victory by Florida at San Jose. The assist was his 1,900th. He is only the second player to reach that plateau. The other is some guy named Gretzky.
Finding players in the NHL draft is an inexact science, since teams are selecting 18-year-olds and trying to project what kind of player they might develop into in 4-5 years. Jagr, like the past two No. 1 overall picks – Connor McDavid in Edmonton and Austin Matthews in Toronto – was a generational player. Scouts in Detroit who saw that in him were overruled.
The Red Wings are universally celebrated for having a scouting staff noted for finding players in the later rounds, like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Jonathan Ericsson, Tomas Holmgren and many others. But Detroit has had its share of bonehead calls in the first round, as well.
In 1987, for instance – the first with Demers at Detroit’s draft table – Devellano overruled his chief scout, Neil Smith, and selected a hard-hitting, puck-moving defenseman Yves Racine with the 11th overall pick. Smith was visibly upset, and he was almost apoplectic four picks later, when Quebec selected the guy Smith was lobbying hard for: center Joe Sakic.
The best player taken in that ’87 draft? Brendan Shanahan, taken second overall by New Jersey. He wound up playing 1,524 games over 22 NHL seasons, scoring 656 goals among 1,354 points. Shanahan spent nine highly productive seasons in Detroit, helping the Wings win three Stanley Cups.
As a certain generation of Wings fans will recall, Shanahan joined Detroit for its first home game of the 1996-97 season after a blockbuster trade with Hartford. The Wings sent a No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft, three-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Paul Coffey and Primeau to the Whalers for Shanahan, the last piece of the puzzle needed for their run of three Cups in six years.
Maybe drafting Primeau instead of Jagr wasn’t so horrible after all. But I still blame Petr Klima because Jaromir Jagr would have been fun to watch with those Euro-Wings of the 1990s.