Published April 14, 2018
In 1978, the Red Wings had two picks in the first round of the NHL entry draft. It was the last time such an occurrence…occurred.
They have two picks in the first round this year. Right on time—once every 40 years.
The Red Wings’ GM at the time was Terrible Ted Lindsay. As a player, Teddy’s nickname was appropriate for his on-ice behavior, which was of nasty countenance. As a GM, the nickname was also appropriate.
The Red Wings in 1978, in Teddy’s first year in the front office, were coming off a rebirth of sorts. They doubled their win total from 16 to 32. Their points total went from 41 to 78. They made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They even won a series, though it was one of those best-of-three jobs that the league held in those days.
The mighty Montreal Canadiens blasted the Wings out in five games in the next round, but it was still a remarkable season. Teddy looked like he would be pretty good at this GM thing.
But the summer of 1978 showed that Teddy still had a lot to learn.
It started with the draft.
The Red Wings had those two first round picks and coming off a season in which fan interest was the highest it had been in nearly a decade, the team looked to be on the precipice of good times after the dreary years of Darkness With Harkness—that old-time Red Wings fan’s moniker bestowed on embattled GM Ned Harkness.
Then Terrible Ted lived up to his nickname, the wrong way.
Lindsay drafted Willie Huber, a German-born defenseman, with the ninth overall pick. Three slots later, Lindsay grabbed Brent Peterson, a forward from Alberta. Both were 20 years old.
Within five years, both were traded, ending up as nothing more than fodder in multi-player deals.
Peterson never lived up to his hype as a high-scoring power forward type, scoring a whopping eight goals in his 91 games as a Red Wing. He was traded with a bunch of higher profile Red Wings to the Buffalo Sabres in 1981.
Huber was a little better but in the summer of 1983 he was part of a multi-player trade with the New York Rangers. Huber played in 372 games as a Red Wing but never was he a Norris Trophy candidate, which isn’t unreasonable to expect from a ninth overall pick.
The point is that Teddy had two first round picks and neither helped the franchise get over the next hump.
Lindsay capped off a bad off-season by signing 33-year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon from the L.A. Kings. The signing cost the Red Wings young Dale McCourt as compensation, and only a long court battle kept McCourt on the Red Wings. The Kings had to settle for Andre St. Laurent, an older and much less appealing player.
Teddy won the battle but he lost the war. Vachon was horrible with the Red Wings and was traded two years later.
Why all this bluster about the bad old days?
Forty years later, another golden opportunity
Kenny Holland, who just re-upped for another two years as Red Wings GM—not what I would have done if I was the Red Wings but that’s another story—has two first round draft picks at his disposal this summer.
The Red Wings, according to the mathematicians, have a less than nine percent chance of turning their fifth overall pick into the number one in the NHL’s lottery. The prize this year is generational defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who has league observers drooling.
Assuming the Red Wings don’t get Dahlin, they will have two chances to slice even deeper into their rebuild in the first round.
Holland, his lieutenants and his scouts better get it right.
The Red Wings have, all told, 11 picks in this year’s draft, which is to Holland’s credit. I’ve been a critic, but I have to be fair. Eleven picks is 11 picks. The Red Wings can make the 2018 draft one that NHL experts and historians will look back on as the turning point in the team’s return to glory.
The entry draft in the NHL is much like that of the NFL. It’s sometimes nothing more than a glorified game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.
Yet countless time, energy, money and resources are put into this game. The experts will grade the Red Wings as soon as the last pick is made. They will apparently use a crystal ball that no one else possesses to tell us which teams had a good draft and which teams didn’t. As if.
But one thing isn’t debatable. The Red Wings have an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Any franchise that wants to undergo a self-facelift would fall all over itself to have two first round draft picks among 11 overall. A franchise could accelerate things greatly with such an opportunity.
It’s all there for the Red Wings and the newly-extended Ken Holland.
All they have to do is not blow it.