Commentary

These Wings were brought up right

Updated: June 1, 2009, 5:53 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- It must be that time of year again. The Detroit Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup finals, and we are examining how they build their teams.

But perhaps we've been asking the wrong question all along. For years, the focus has been on whom the Wings were selecting and how ridiculously low those players were being selected in the NHL draft. But just as important a question as whom the Wings have been drafting may be how they are developing them.

The contributions of the latest round of Detroit newcomers -- Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Ville Leino and Jonathan Ericsson -- speak more to that question. Are we convinced that if other NHL teams had drafted these guys, they would have turned out this good? Or would some of those teams have ruined their development by rushing them to the NHL when they were not ready?

[+] EnlargeDarren Helm
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireDarren Helm has eight points in 18 games for the Red Wings.

"Had we brought Abby here at the start of the year, he wouldn't have scored 23 goals in pro hockey," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Monday. "He might have never scored again in his life."

OK, Babcock was exaggerating a little, but you get his point. The Wings are deep enough where they can nurture the kids in the AHL until they are deemed ready. That always has been the way with Wings GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill.

"I think Kenny's line is overripe," Wings assistant coach Brad McCrimmon said Monday. "Jonathan Ericsson spent three years in the minors. He's 25, not 18, trying to survive in the NHL. It's a tough league, let's not kid ourselves. It's the toughest league in the world. Justin Abdelkader [22 years old] is not a kid, either; he spent a year down there [AHL]. He's candidate for rookie of the year down there. He had a great year of growth. That's critical. You have to go down there and learn."

It sounds good and dandy, but in this day and age, it can be a tough sell on the higher-end prospects and their agents, particularly those from Europe. That the Wings were able to keep Ericsson in Grand Rapids, Mich., for that long is almost unheard of. Most Swedes in his position would have stayed home to play in the top league there. But his patience speaks to the legacy and the reputation the Wings have established.

The tough thing for Detroit's prospects is riding AHL buses while their contemporaries they came up with in junior or college are already earning NHL money.

"You think about it a little bit, but you trust the organization," said Abdelkader, whose first two NHL goals have come against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Cup finals. "They've proven themselves time and time again. You don't get frustrated; you just do your job and get ready for that call."

The Wings aren't alone in this practice, they just do it better than anyone else. The Nashville Predators, for example, deserve credit for trying to keep their prospects in the AHL as long as possible. But generally, in most NHL markets, especially for a team with obvious holes in its lineup, there's pressure on the GM to showcase the young talent as a means to tell the fans that the club is improving.

"We want to give guys a chance to grow and have a chance for success," McCrimmon said. "There's a whole bunch of teams where there's a lot of pressure to put in their draft picks, for marketing reasons, or because you don't have the depth that you can say you don't need that kid right now. All of a sudden, he's on the second line."

Helm, 22, would have made at least 20 NHL rosters this past fall. But in Detroit, he was sent down. He accepted his fate, even though he admitted he was a bit frustrated.

"At the time, it is a little bit, at the start, getting sent back down," Helm said Monday. "But you take it as a challenge, as an opportunity to get better. It worked out and paid off for me. I don't know where I'd be if I was here the whole year."

Helm has been dynamite in these playoffs, coming of age in a pressure cooker, proving once again that when Detroit's youngsters finally get their shot, they are ready.

"If you're not rushed, you've got time to develop. You're not thrown in a situation. When you're ready, you'll be up," Abdelkader said.

Curt Fraser is the head coach in Grand Rapids and deserves his due for helping prepare players such as Helm, Ericsson and Abdelkader for this kind of challenge.

"They're well coached in the American League," Wings assistant coach Paul MacLean said. "When they get here, they're easy to handle. And I think the best coaches that we have are the 22 guys in the room. They set a very good example. It started with Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan and now Nick Lidstrom, [Kris] Draper, [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk. A lot of times, the best coaches are the 22 teammates they have that show them, 'This is the way to do it.' That makes it easier for them to come in and be a part of this team."

Veteran forward Kirk Maltby has seen this movie before. One of Detroit's longest-serving players has been around to see the likes of Niklas Kronwall having to pay his dues in the AHL.

"From the time I've been here, the management and ownership has always been big on developing the players and letting them spend their time in Grand Rapids and develop their game," Maltby said. "Whether they come from college or junior, it's a different monster when you're playing a lot more games.

"You're skating a lot more [in the AHL], you're playing against bigger and more talented guys. And I think they've done a great job of that. These kids are skilled guys, and they're going to be NHL players regardless, but I think it just allows them to go down there and prepare themselves for what it's going to be like. Now they're up here, filling in and doing a great job."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.