Learning From the Red Wings Rebuild the First Time Around

Jim Devellano's blueprint for rebuild. Doug Armstrong signs with Blues. Network battles. Nate Ewell moves to Vegas. Zajac's goodbye.

Detroit is rebounding smartly as Hockeytown USA. 

Steve Yzerman's moves have received positive critical acclaim and the hope in Motor City is that the rebuild remains on track. 

But it would be worthwhile for Yzerman to study The Original Rebuild that was orchestrated by Wings Executive Vice President Jim Devellano back in prehistoric NHL times, ergo, early 1980's.

Wings owner Mike Ilitch hired Jimmy D away from the Islanders after James had helped Bill Torrey annex three Stanley Cups for Nassau. But if you think Yzerman has had a challenge, Devellano had it worse.

"I had made my pledge that I would build the team through the draft," Jim related in his autobiography, The Road To Hockeytown.

His first shot at players took place on June 21, 1983. The Wings had the fourth pick and Devellano had three players in mind, Pierre Turgeon, Pat LaFontaine and -- guess who? -- an Yzerman named Steve.

North Stars g.m. Lou Nanne picked first and stunned the throng by selecting a high school kid of all things -- Brian Lawton.

"Did we get lucky or what?" chuckled Jimmy D. 

Going second, Hartford chose Turgeon and then Devellano's former boss, Bill Torrey, got LaFontaine. And that's how Detroit wound up with the Red Wings current boss. 

"Steve turned out to be the very best pick we could have made," said Devellano. "In his 22 years in Detroit he would miss the playoffs just twice. Over 20 years he became the longest serving captain in league history."

In that same draft, Devellano corralled two of the NHL's toughest hombres, Bob Probert and Joey Kocur, alias “The Bruise Brothers.” The Wings were looking for toughness and they got it.

From that point, it was a matter of patience and fortitude as Jim built his club. With a daring cloak and dagger move, he managed to spirit Petr Klima out from behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia.

Occasionally he had to deal for older players. In one such exchange with the Rangers, he sent Willie Huber, Mike Blaisdell and Mark Osborne to the Rangers. His reward was Ron Duguay, Ed Mio and Eddie Johnstone.

Devellano: "I badly needed to upgrade our first line and I was right about that. Getting Duguay allowed us to put together a very good first line of Yzerman at center, Duguay on the right and John Ogrodnick on the left."

Since there was no free agency in those days teams could control players' rights. But when he learned that future Hall of Famer Brad Park was available he signed him for the 1983-84 season.

"Brad was a big reason we went from 57 points to 69 points," chuckled Devellano, "but the big thing was that it got Detroit into the playoffs for the first time in six years. He made a big difference on the power play."

But as g.m. Yzerman has learned there are bumps on the road to reconstruction. Devellano's club soon faltered both on and off the ice.

Once vigorous players such as Tiger Williams had run out of gas. Ditto for Darryl Sittler. When owner Mike Ilitch urged his g.m. to sign college free agents he did just that.

The best was Adam Oates out of RPI but the others didn't amount to much and Jimmy's job was in jeopardy. His club finished the 1985-86 season with a record of 17-57-6 for only 40 points; last in the league.

And when he tried Brad Park as coach that, too, was a disaster. 

"Then, I got lucky," Jim recalled. "I accidentally ran into the very successful Blues coach, Jacques Demers, and discovered that he'd be available. We needed a good coach and Jacques was the best out there. I signed him and the turnaround began."

Slowly but surely, the Wings got out of the woods. Good draft picks such as Adam Graves helped, as did his promotion of Ken Holland as the club's

Western Canada scout. (That's the same Kenny as in Edmonton.)

Devellano: "I had survived as general manager after a horrendous '85-'86 season, got a new two-year contract and went to work trying to make the team better."

Demers convinced Devellano to make Yzerman the captain since Steve was the team's best player.  Great coach and great player was the combo that lifted the team from 40 points to 78 points and a berth in the Final Four.

Yes, there still were a few blowouts here and there but by the 1989 draft, the cornerstones were in place for the future dynasty. The first two picks -- Mike Sillinger and Bob Boughner were average. 

But the third selection -- 53d overall -- was Nicklas Lidstrom. Then, in the fourth round -- 74th overall -- Sergei Fedorov.

"Imagine," Jimmy D concluded, "getting the best 18-year-old in the world in the fourth round!"

Stevie Yzerman should be so lucky!


THE JIVE; "We're in a good spot to make waves," says Scheifele. I like that. Winnipeg is one of my favorite teams. Paul Maurice is one of my fave coaches and I love Kevin Cheveldayoff, the boss, from the last century. But if Peg goes as far as I'd like to see them go, Sir Scheifele had better avoid torpedoing his team the way he did with his four-game playoff suspension after mauling the Habs Jake Evans from behind. I'm sure Mark will mark my word that he's learned his lesson.


THE JIVE: New Blueshirts boss Chris Drury couldn't believe how abysmal his boys had been at face-offs. Maybe even beyond abysmal. What to do? What to do? He couldn't hire Bob Clarke, greatest face-off man in the world, because Bob still works for the Flyers. Ah, but Pierre Racicot no longer works for the NHL. So who would know better about face-offs than the guy who drops the puck. Puck Professor Racicot currently can be found at every Rangers practice, dropping the puck. Trouble is that every time he does so, a Ranger wins the face-off!


THE JIVE: Surely he can't be serious. I beg to differ, my fine, feathered friend. Hey, Patty Boy, the Blue Jackets traded for you in the hopes that you'd do a ton more for the team than you did last year. Ergo: You gotta prove your worth! New coach; new feel; go prove you're a star!


THE JIVE: It's always refreshing when good guys are rewarded for good work. In this case, Blues boss Doug Armstrong had his deal extended through the 2025-26 season. And why not? On his watch the Blues won their first Stanley Cup and three Central Division titles and had nine playoff teams in eleven seasons. Good enough! Good for the Blues.


JAVA JIVE: Don't say I didn't warn you, 'cause you know darn well that I did. I mean a soap opera is a soap opera but this Jack Eichel melodrama has become ridiculous-to-the-radical-50. So, I'll tell you why I say this:  After Sportnet's Elliotte Friedman provided his "insights" followed by the Darren Dreger-Pierre LeBrun Eichel communiques, you'd figure enough was enough -- I mean really telling us 0 on top of 0. 

So then TSN has to pull off a topper. This time a quartet of savants -- including my old and wise Long Island buddy, Jamie McLellan, and Philadelphia's all-time second-best captain, Dave Poulin, Andi Petrillo and

Jeff O'Neill joined the Eichel fray. Now you'll have to admit that from that foursome there should be something amounting to the scoop-of-all scoops. Okay, I'm patient; I'm still waiting. 

At the expense of being redundant, I'll point out what we've known all along: 1. Eichel will remain hors de combat until some sort of surgery is performed; but nobody knows when that miraculous event will take place. 2. Eichel will remain a Sabre until the guy who's been paying the deposed captain, Kevyn Adams, is good and ready to make a deal that makes 

Buffalonians -- not Jack's esteemed agent, Pat Brisson, happy. 

Then again, why should a soap opera stop in the first place? After all, it's a soap for a reason; and it's not to promote Ivory, Dove or Lifebuoy.


THE JIVE: Let's face it, the critics are going to have a field day. This is like a Heavyweight Championship of hockey network broadcasters. Those who write about the good and bad of NHL broadcasting will have their eyes on ESPN's Mark Messier vs. TNT's Wayne Gretzky, In an airwaves sense that's as good as it gets. 

Whether Messier  knows it or not, he'll be compared as an analyst to his former teammate, Gretzky. And, as one viewer of the NHL tv scene puts it, "Neither likes to lose!" (As they say: Stay tuned!)


THE JIVE:  Frankly, I don't know whether this guy can backcheck or forecheck. What I do know is Sir Ewell has been one of those hidden gems. He starred at p.r. with the NHL Capitals and then moved over to College Hockey, Inc. when that very useful outfit was organized. Not surprisingly he's been a bulwark at C.H.I. for years -- except no more. 

Lucky for them, the Golden Knights have lured The Indomitable Nate to Vegas where he'll continue to do what he's done all his hockey life -- a superior job. (That's gonna be a tough act to follow at C.H.I.)


THE JIVE: Over the decades, Blueshirts fans have been treated to an assortment of books. There were autobiographies of Hall of Famers such as Brad Park and Rod Gilbert, as well as Frank Boucher's "When The Rangers Were Young."

Now we have what I consider the new-breed generation of authors including Sean McCaffrey. His latest work is called "The New York Rangers Rink of Honor and the Rafters of Madison Square Garden."

The book is dedicated to all the legendary figures and names of New York Rangers history, where McCaffrey asks the Rangers to hang banners in the rafters of Madison Square Garden for alumni such as Bill Cook, Bun Cook, Frank Boucher, Emile Francis, Lester Patrick, Ron Greschner, Bryan Hextall and Ching Johnson. 

The book also champions the Rangers and Madison Square Garden to create a "New York Rangers Rink of Honor" museum, where alumni such as Ron Duguay, Mats Zuccarello, Nick Fotiu, Dave Kerr, Chuck Rayner, Gump Worsley, Murray Murdoch, the Colville brothers, John Davidson, the Maloney brothers, Mark Pavelich, Pete Stemkowski and others from all eras of Rangers history would be included.

There are over one hundred legendary Rangers talked about throughout the book, while also looking at nearly a hundred years worth of New York Rangers history. The New York Rangers Rink of Honor and the Rafters of Madison Square Garden is full of historical facts, ironies, testimonies from players and anecdotes.

To purchase the book, visit Amazon. The book is available in Kindle, paperback and hardcover formats.

It's McCaffrey's mission with the book, to see the Rangers fix what he perceives to be mistakes, and rightfully honor many members of the alumni up to the rafters of Madison Square Garden.


THE JIVE: When NHL players retire, their good-bye messages are rather prosaic although always since and often written by others. Not so with the Devils icon, Travis Zajac. His departure as a player inspired him to pen a farewell that's so since, it really resonated with me. And having, worked with Travis since his rookie year, I know he meant every word of it.Here's what he wrote:

“I was drafted in 2004 and played my first game in 2006. As I stand here nearing the end of 2021, I can only be grateful to sign one last time, and retire as a New Jersey Devil.

“As a kid playing hockey on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg, I dreamt about playing in the NHL. Growing up the oldest of four boys, it was the perfect hockey environment. Thanks to my parents unwavering support in our lives, that dream became a reality. Then, I got to live that childhood goal for 15 years with the Devils. 

“I want to thank the New Jersey Devils organization for giving me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world. To the past and present ownership, managing partners, managers, coaches, and trainers, your hard work has not gone unnoticed- thank you. And thanks also to my agent, Kurt Overhardt, for always believing in me. 

“I have to acknowledge all my teammates who helped me throughout my career. I will cherish all the memories made and I hope that I’ve impacted your life the way you’ve positively impacted mine. 

“Now, to the fans, you are the reason this game is so special, and I leave the game knowing I enjoyed every moment I got to play in front of you.

“Lastly, I want to thank my beautiful wife Nicole and our kids Zenon, Veronika, and Anya. We have deep roots in New Jersey now. My wife went to graduate school at Montclair State, our three children, were born in Jersey and raised right here in this rink at Prudential Center. They know no other home and no other community like the Devils. It’s now time for me to embed myself into this same community where I grew into adulthood. It is where my heart is, my home, and I’ve never felt otherwise.

“Born in Winnipeg, Made in Jersey.”

Emmy Award-winner George Falkowski, who covered the Devils for News 12 New Jersey, adds the following testimonial to the Devil:

When Travis Zajac joined the Devils, he had the benefit of learning from veteran players, several who had been on multiple Stanley Cup winners.

When he was traded last spring, he was the lone remaining Devil with a direct connection to a New Jersey Stanley Cup Final team, the terrific Cinderella Bunch who knocked out the Rangers before falling to the Kings in six games, way back in 2012.

Zajac chose retirement this past week, but to show you how valued he was, not only did Lou Lamoriello and the Islanders want him back, so did Tom Fitzgerald and the Devils!

Travis was never a big scorer, but he was a terrific center, never better than when paired with Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner on the ZZ Pop Line. In his later years, he was a tremendous defensive centerman, specializing in attaching himself to the likes of Sidney Crosby and driving him nuts in the process.

In front of the media, he was always available and provided thoughtful, useful quotes, an absolute must for people on our side of the microphone. Off the ice, much of his charitable work was done off the radar. The Winnipeg native is now as much a part of Garden State as the Jersey Shore or the Pulaski Skyway.

He became one of us.

Though he never wore the captain's C, he certainly had the respect of one. In these last few seasons, with so much young talent arriving, Zajac was a leader, a steadying influence and one of the few veterans who could show the young pups how things were done.

And in his first interviews, he spoke passionately about "The Devils Way"...what it means to be a New Jersey Devil, what being a part of the organization's history means. After all, he learned from the likes of Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner.

In the post-Lou years, it seemed there was a concerted effort to move on from what made the Devils a great franchise. Zajac and Andy Greene were the last links. That Travis Zajac will stay with the Devils organization guarantees the new blood will learn the old values. The values that worked. 

Just look at the banners at Prudential Center if you need proof. Travis Zajac is now a keeper of the Devils' flame.