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The (Early) Detroit Model

Would you smack me if I said the phrase "the Detroit model" again? I know, I know, you hear it all the time. It's a doubly irritating turn of phrase given that nobody's entirely clear what it's supposed to mean. "Draft a couple Hockey Hall of Famers, sign good players for cheap, luck into Jimmy Howard, and maybe give Chris Osgood a contract every couple years just to keep the hockey gods happy". Yeah, that is a pretty good model, but it's not exactly an educational one.

Most of the attention given to the Detroit model from the Oilogosphere has been mocking. Comparisons to the Pittsburgh/Chicago models (finish last a lot, draft studs) or the Toronto Maple Leafs model (finish last, don't draft anybody). After all, it's easy to say "you should draft the next Nicklas Lidstrom" and much harder to actually do it. But, guys, I think there's something to learn here. We're Oilers fans and we're choked, but there's hope to be had from the Detroit model. Because we're following it.

I can see you from here, raising your Sunday morning highball glass to indignantly whip it at the monitor, but this makes sense. Mike Ilitch, the somewhat reclusive megabucks owner of the Detroit Red Wings, bought the then-Dead Things in 1982. The 1981-82 Detroit Red Wings finished with a record of 21-47-12. The 1982-83 Red Wings went 21-44-15. In neither case were they dead last, but that was only because the Colorado Rockies existed. Of course, they weren't nearly as badly injured as the 2009-10 Oilers, either: the leading scorer for the Red Wings in 1983 was John Ogrodnick, who ain't no Dustin Penner. The head coach was Nick Polano, a long-time minor league defenseman (sound familiar yet?).

Now, everybody knows the Red Wings were bad in the early 1980s but what we all forget is that the Ilitch era didn't immediately turn it around. So perhaps we can forgive Daryl Katz starting off slow.

Remember 1982, when the Red Wings were second-to-last in the NHL? Their draft pick was a talented centre from Medicine Hat by the name of... well, Murray Craven. The Red Wings model isn't infallible.

In 1983, of course, the Red Wings famously drafted Steve Yzerman in the legendary draft that also brought us Brian Lawton, Sylvain Turgeon, and Andrew McBain. Eventually Nick Polano was relieved of his duties as Red Wings coach and replaced by an older long-time member of the hockey community who was well past his best-before date by the name of Harry Neale.

So did the Red Wings immediately turn their fortunes around? In 1984, after all, they made the playoffs, going down in the first round to the St. Louis Blues. But they also went 31-42-7. The next year they went 27-41-12 and still made the playoffs in those days of divisional semi-finals and easy playoff berths in lousy divisions. In 1986, when according to conventional narrative the Red Wings had Steve Yzerman for three years, Mike Ilitch for four, and were probably winning Stanley Cup two of thirty consecutive, the Red Wings went a frankly stunning 17-57-6, picked first overall, and somehow managed to draft Joe Murphy in one of the worst first rounds in NHL history.

Even the next year, when the Red Wings got to the Conference final against the Oilers (and lost in five), the Red Wings were two games below .500. This was an awful bad hockey team for an awfully long time. Their first regular season over .500 was the 1991-92 season, when Mike Ilitch had been owning the Red Wings for a decade.

During this time, Ilitch was famous for getting a little too involved in hockey operations. On Ilitch's instigation, general manager Jim Devellano went after a bevy of college free agents, of whom only Adam Oates panned out, while the Red Wings splashed big cash on one-year wonders like Warren Young (Mario Lemieux's former linemate in Pittsburgh), Brent Ashton (who got close to a point per game with the Quebec Nordiques, was traded for the reliable John Ogrodnick, and never approached those dizzying heights again), and a last season from a very, very washed-up Bernie Federko. Only when Ilitch and company overcame their wheeling/dealing instincts and the Red Wings learned to rely on their promising young iron like Yzerman, Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, and Slava Kozlov did success develop.

There's a lot on that history that screams "Edmonton Oilers". The Oilers are, if anything, a little better than the early Ilitch Red Wings. Detroit even had their old goalies who sucked up payroll but weren't all that good in Glen Hanlon and Greg Millen. The Oilers prospects are a bit more promosing than the likes of Shawn Burr, Brent Fedyk, and Yves Racine ever panned out as. And while the Red Wings famously dug deep into the gold mine of eastern Europe, those players didn't begin showing up until the 1990s.

So cheer up, Oiler fans. We're on the Detroit model after all. Although perhaps not quite in the sense you wanted.