Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Devellano's First Foray Into Free Agency An Unmitigated Disaster

I can still hear Jimmy Devellano's squeaky voice, some 26 years after the fact. He had just been hired by the Red Wings as the team's general manager, coming from the excellence of the New York Islanders organization. It was June, 1982. And the Red Wings were a steaming, runny pile of dog doo-doo. Had been for years, near the end of the Norris family ownership. But a pizza pie guy, Mike Ilitch, had bought the team and brought Jimmy D. on board after some due diligence. The Islanders, at the time, had just won their third straight Stanley Cup. They'd win another the following season -- a grand slam of Cups.

Now Jimmy D. was speaking to the Detroit media on his first day as Red Wings GM. And he wanted to emphasize that the team would not mortgage its future for any quick fixes.

"I want to say right now to the people of Detroyet," Jimmy said in his Canadian squeak, "that as long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroyet Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice."

And Jimmy never did.

He chose to cultivate the team from within, mostly. He began working on overhauling the scouting department, which was wretched. Jimmy D. would plug in a veteran free agent here and there -- band-aids, nothing more. Just about every one of the NHL players Devellano brought in was over-the-hill: Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, Stan Weir, Eric Vail. And so on.

Then, after a few years of this method, Devellano got antsy. He decided to make a bigger free agent splash -- still sticking to his promise of not trading away draft choices.

In the summer of 1985, Devellano signed and signed and signed some more. The Red Wings were coming off two straight playoff appearances, but they were bounced in the first round each time, going 1-6 in the process. Jimmy was impatient.

Devellano (left) with coach Nick Polano (right) and 1983's #1 Red Wings pick, Steve Yzerman

First, a flurry of college free agents were signed -- players who weren't drafted but who had OK resumes on campus. If you don't remember names like Tim Friday, Ray Staszak, and Dale Krentz, you're forgiven. Each of them was a bust. The only college FA that amounted to anything who Jimmy D. signed was a center from RPI named Adam Oates.

After the college dudes, Jimmy D. brought in established NHL players -- and ones who didn't appear to be on their last legs, necessarily. Harold Snepsts was signed from Minnesota; Mike McEwen from Washington; and Warren Young, a 40-goal scorer the year before, from Pittsburgh.

The new-look Red Wings caused a stir. Some national pubs picked them to win the Norris Division. There was a photo spread in Sports Illustrated. It showed Snepsts and McEwen and others playfully making pizza pies in a Little Caesars kitchen. Devellano had tossed around a lot of Mike Ilitch's pizza dough, and anticipation for the 1985-86 season was high. There was even a new coach to mold everything together: Harry Neale.

It ended up being the worst season in Red Wings history. In their HISTORY.

The team finished 17-57-6, giving up 400 goals in the process -- an average of five per game. They surrendered 10 goals in a game on four separate occasions before Christmas. They were flat awful. Devellano's spending spree had bought nothing but defective items.

Young was a perfect example. He scored 40 goals playing on a line with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, yet in Detroit it would have taken three or four players' talent to make one Lemieux, and even then it was close. Young scored 22 goals in Detroit without Lemieux to feed him passes.

Neale was fired on New Year's Eve and Brad Park took over. It didn't get any better.

Stung by that failure, Devellano changed course. He made trades. Kids began contributing from the minor leagues. He hired Jacques Demers as coach. The team made it to the Final Four in each of the next two seasons.

Free agency is heating up this summer in the NHL. A bevy of players have switched teams already, on the first day of signing. The Red Wings signed a backup goalie, Ty Conklin, and re-signed defenseman Brad Stuart. If they can add another veteran forward, they will. But there's no sense of urgency. Not when you've just won the Stanley Cup.

Jimmy D. is still around, of course. If he can survive the debacle of '85-'86, he can pretty much survive anything. Owning seven championship rings doesn't hurt, either.

One thing has changed, though: the Red Wings do, indeed, trade draft choices nowadays. But that's worked out pretty well for them, too.

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