Coordinating cloak-and-dagger tactics with dogged pursuits of overlooked prospects, the Detroit Red Wings during the 1980s established a dominant standard in international scouting. Guided by former General Manager Jimmy Devellano, the Red Wings’ scouting staff revived a previously stagnant franchise by stockpiling talent via unconventional means.
Members of the Red Wings’ staff smuggled Russian Sergei Fedorov out from behind the Iron Curtain and gambled on an unknown skinny defenseman from Finland, Nicklas Lidstrom. Both developed into hall of famers.
The Red Wings’ drafting prowess are stuff of NHL scouting legend, highlighted by their classes in 1983 and 1989, which many insiders consider to be two of the all-time best. The two drafts formed the foundation of the franchise’s three-decade run as one of the league’s prime attractions.
The 1983 draft was centered on Steve Yzerman and featured Petr Klima, Joey Kocur, Stu Grimson and Bob Probert. Seven players from the class of 13 went on to dress in 5,069 NHL games. The 1989 edition was headlined by Lidstrom and Fedorov and included Dallas Drake and Vladimir Konstantinov. Seven of the 14 drafted players competed in 5,930 NHL games.
Driven by owner Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings scouts were among the first to mine for European treasures and the organization was one of the few to maintain the challenging – and costly – process when other teams shied away the opportunity. Now, it’s standard practice for all NHL front offices.
Among the late-round diamonds the Red Wings uncovered were Pavel Datsyuk, a sixth-round draft pick in 1998, Henrik Zetterberg, a seventh rounder in 1999, and Tomas Holmstrom, a 10th-rounder in 1994. Late-round jewels like those three would never be overlooked today.
The Red Wings have qualified for the postseason for 25 consecutive seasons, in part, because they effectively subsidized high free-agent spending with an influx of homegrown talent. But for all of the Red Wings’ excessive due diligence and trend-setting tactics, the franchise suffered its share of disappointing draft picks. Here is a look at the franchise’s top 15 worst draft mistakes.
15. Anatoli Ustyugov
The fourth-round pick in the 1995 entry draft was expected to be another European heist by the scouting department. Ustyugov was projected to bring speed and scoring to help offset the era’s defense-first mentality. How can defenders clutch-and-grab when they can’t catch up to the 165-pound speedster?
The trouble was the 104th overall selection failed to continue developing his skills. Ustyugov did not grow his game at the pace Red Wings brass initially anticipated and he never left Russia for North America. It’s always a gamble when you take a player that has yet to play the game in North America and the Wings found this out the hard way. Thankfully, it was only a fourth round pick that they squandered. Still, there were diamonds in the rough left to snag at this point in the 1995 draft like Miikka Kiprusoff and Stephane Robidas.
Only once during his 11-year Russian career did Ustugov score in double-digits, collecting 11 goals in 41 games for Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL during 2000-01. Ustyugov sadly passed away in 2004 after being mugged in Russia.
14. Philippe Audet
After being drafted in the second round in 1995, Audet combined to score 92 goals over his final two junior seasons. With the 52nd overall selection, the Red Wings believed they were adding offensive depth.
Audet’s professional career, however, started with an unfortunate break. On the opening practice of the 1997-98 training camp, Audet suffered a fractured bone in his arm. He returned to play with the Adirondack Flames of the AHL and underwhelmed in 50 games, collecting seven goals among 15 points. The next season, he collected 20 AHL goals and was granted a four-game NHL audition. During those four games, he failed to produce a point.
It proved to be his lone NHL experience as he competed in the AHL for the next three seasons, before closing his professional career overseas. Granted, 1995 was a weak draft, but there were some good names available when Audet was taken, including Marc Savard and Sami Kapanen.
13. Fred Williams
Selected fourth overall in 1976 during the “Dead Wings” era, Williams was considered a forward prospect who would help revive the then-struggling franchise.
Considered a strong skater, Williams didn’t prep long in the minor leagues. A few weeks into his first season, Williams debuted with a goal. That turned out to be the high point of his NHL career.
Williams collected just six points over his next 43 games and was sent back to the minors. He never returned to the NHL.
The older brother of ex-NHLer Gord Williams, Fred Williams attempted a switch to defense to expand his career, but after four minor league seasons, Williams retired.
Just a few picks later, the St. Louis Blues selected Bernie Federko, who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. In 1981, the Blues and Wings were both placed in the Norris Division, which made this draft miss all the more painful for Detroit, who struggled throughout the 80s.
12. Tom McCollum
McCollum was drafted 30th overall in the first round of the 2008 draft, in part, because the goalie was fundamentally sharp by staying “square to the shooter” and controlling rebounds. He also demonstrated a quick glove hand.
But it was the goals allowed that stunted the growth of the no. 30 overall draft pick.
Still with the organization, McCollum twice was called up by the Red Wings as an injury replacement. Appearing in three games, he earned his first NHL victory on Jan. 18, 2015, when he came on in relief and backed the Red Wings to a comeback victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
Through a majority of his career, McCollum has shuffled back-and-forth from Grand Rapids of the AHL and Toledo of the ECHL.
Just eight picks after Detroit, the Nashville Predators selected Roman Josi, who is now one of the NHL’s elite defencemen, while McCollum has yet to establish himself as an NHL goaltender.
11. Jesse Wallin
Envisioning a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman, the Red Wings selected Jesse Wallin 26th overall in the 1996 draft, aiming to help restock a roster that featured aging defenders such as Paul Coffey, Mark Howe and Terry Carkner.
While the elders eventually departed over the next few seasons, Wallin failed to provide a bridge to the next generation of blueliners. Injuries robbed Wallin a prolonged opportunity to develop and allow the Red Wings to cash in on the first-round investment. He appeared in just 49 career games with the Wings.
Over his final three professional seasons, ending in 2004, Wallin dressed in a combined 53 games and retired after suffering a concussion while playing in his first game with Lowell of the AHL.
If the Red Wings were seeking a towering blueliner, there was a gem selected 56th overall. How good would have Zdeno Chara looked in the Winged Wheel uniform?
10. Ryan Barnes
He could forecheck and fight and the Red Wings were attracted to Barnes after he compiled 608 penalty minutes during his final three junior seasons. But he couldn’t brawl his way into an extended stay with the NHL club.
A decade after the franchise employed the “Bruise Brothers,” Bob Probert and Joey Kocur, the Red Wings added Barnes with the 55th overall selection in 1998 to help police the ice.
An unorthodox skater with limited offensive upside, Barnes spent four seasons in the minor leagues before finally dressing for the Red Wings. That’s about all he did, however. In his only two games with the Red Wings, Barnes barely left the bench and did not register a point – or a fighting major.
A tenacious forechecker, Barnes often skated out of position to create a check instead of throwing his body around in the flow of the game.
Brad Richards was selected just a few picks later. Oh well, at least the Wings still got Pavel Datsyuk out of this draft.
9. Curtis Bowen
Drafted 22nd overall in 1992, Bowen was perceived to be a two-way specialist who would eventually fit into the explosive offensive core the Red Wings displayed the previous season.
Steve Yzerman (45 goals), Ray Sheppard (36), Paul Ysebaert (35), Jimmy Carson (34) and Sergei Fedorov (32) all topped the 30-goal milestone during 1991-92. A young grinder with a scoring touch was needed to balance the high-octane offense and Bowen was chosen in the first round over the likes of Valeri Bure and Micael Peca.
Bowen demonstrated during his junior career that he was comfortable playing in a balanced, high-scoring situation. Bowen was one of five forwards that same season who scored at least 30 goals for the Ottawa 67’s.
But Bowen could not elevate his two-way game in the professional ranks. He never dressed for the Red Wings during the regular season and was exiled from the organization after three seasons with Adirondack of the AHL.
8. Igor Grigorenko
With a proven offensive skill-set, Grigorenko impressed the Red Wings scouting staff with a strong finish to the 2001 season. The Red Wings snared the Russian sniper with the 62nd overall selection that summer.
Competing with Lada Tolyatti of the Russian Superleague during his first two professional seasons, Grigorenko improved dramatically as a sophomore, scoring 19 goals in 47 games. His career was jeopardized when he was involved in an auto accident that nearly claimed his life. Recuperating, he missed the 2003-04 regular season and dressed for just 11 games the next season.
Finally healed enough to compete, Grigorenko ventured to North America in 2007 and appeared in five games with Grand Rapids of the AHL. Citing a lack of commitment and conditioning, the Red Wings brass sent the prospect back to Russia. He never returned.
To be fair, the 2001 draft wasn’t too deep, as the only noteworthy selection after Grigorenko was Patrick Sharp, who went 95th overall to Philadelphia.
7. Claude Gauthier & Pierre Guité
Gauther and Guité were drafted a decade apart, but they are linked as first-round busts as neither played a single NHL game.
Opening the NHL’s second entry draft in 1964, the Red Wings made Gauther the first overall pick. Talk about missing on the selection. And talk about regretting the choice. The Red Wings overlooked future Hall-of-Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who played a role in five Stanley Cup championships and had his jersey retired by the Montreal Canadiens.
Eight years after Gauther, Guité was drafted 26th overall in 1972 and never came close to making the Red Wings regular-season roster. He spent his 377-game professional career in the WHA.
He is the father of former NHLer Ben Guité.
6. Jiri Fischer
Jiri Fischer experienced a lot during his short career, including the 2002 Stanley Cup championship run. Unfortunately, heart problems forced the 1998 first-round selection to retire at age 25.
Fischer was developing nicely for the Red Wings as a young defenseman and was learning from veterans such as Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider.
Before Fischer suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the bench during a game in 2005, he had three goals, 33 penalty minutes and a plus-8 rating in 22 games. If not for the immediate presence of doctors and arena personnel, it’s very likely Fischer wouldn’t have survived the episode.
To select Fischer with the No. 25 overall pick, the Red Wings passed on gritty forward Mike Fisher, whose play on both ends of the rink would have meshed with the Red Wings’ puck-control style. Obviously though, this was just a really unfortunate circumstance rather than a poor selection.
5. Maxim Kuznetsov
At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Kuznetsov was selected in the first round of the 1995 draft with expectations of developing into a physical, in-your-face defenseman.
But the 26th overall selection played soft following a quality rookie campaign with Adirondack of the AHL in 1997-98. During his second full professional season, however, Kuznetsov appeared in 60 games and registered just four assists and 30 penalty minutes. Plus, he had a rating of minus-23.
Kuznetsov skated well for his size and offered a blazing shot from the point, but he often struggled with consistently making crisp outlet passes. He went on to appear in 136 NHL games with the Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings, but never established himself as a top-4 defensive presence. We’ve already mentioned the names that were available later on in the 1995 draft. In fairness to the Wings, it’s tough to get the best player when you’re picking late in the draft year after year.
4. Yan Golubovsky
Yan Golubovsky just couldn’t stick. The Red Wings drafted him 23rd overall during the 1994 draft with expectations the 6-foot-4, 209-pounder would utilize his size to develop into a top-4 defenseman.
It never happened.
As many chances as he received to impress the Red Wings brass, Golubovsky’s longest NHL stint was 21 games during the 1999-00 season. Golubovsky earned three promotions to the Red Wings, covering 50 games, and he registered just one goal among six points.
Midway through the 2000 season, the Red Wings traded the former first rounder to the Florida Panthers. He received a six-game tryout with the Panthers, but again, couldn’t stick.
Some players that were drafted after Golubovsky include Patrik Elias, Sheldon Souray, Fredrik Modin and Daniel Alfredsson. Alfredsson eventually did play a season with the Wings, but it was on the last legs of his career. Alfredsson undoubtedly would have made the Wings the Supreme Swedes by teaming up with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
3. Kory Kocur
The bloodlines were there. As a cousin to former NHLers Wendel Clark, Joey Kocur and Barry Melrose, Kory Kocur utilized skill and toughness as a junior player and was drafted 17th overall in 1988.
Projected to eventually add versatility to the Red Wings’ roster, Kory Kocur was unable to expand the family’s NHL lineage. Clark was the no. 1 overall pick in 1985 who went on to score 330 goals in 793 career games. Joey Kocur was credited with 350 fighting majors in 821 career outings. Melrose, at the time, served as coach of the Adirondack Flames in the AHL and went on to coach the Los Angeles Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals.
In his final junior season, Kocur compiled 45 goals among 102 points and 111 penalty minutes. His overall game did not fully translate to the professional ranks, however.
Kocur did not dress for an NHL game and was out of pro hockey after four seasons.
2. Dick Axelsson
When scouting Axelsson in his native Sweden, the Red Wings saw size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), grit and scoring ability. So they used a 2006 second-round pick on Axelsson, who was expected to extend the franchise’s Swedish pipeline.
The Red Wings had six players — Daniel Alfredsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Johan Franzen, Jonas Gustavsson, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg – compete for Team Sweden during the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Axelsson opened the 2009-10 season with Grand Rapids of the AHL, but dressed for only 17 games before deciding to move back to Sweden. In his brief stay with the Griffins, Axelsson collected two goals among five points, but he failed to fully buy into the team concept.
Red Wings brass questioned his attitude and maturity and he never again returned to North America.
The 2006 draft wasn’t especially deep, as the only noteworthy picks after Axelsson were goaltender Steve Mason and Leo Komarov.
1. Max Nicastro
Few third-round selections get an opportunity to play professionally after being dismissed from their college teams on sexual assault charges. But the charges against Nicastro were dismissed for a lack of evidence and the former Boston University defenseman received a second chance.
He didn’t do much with it.
Cleared from charges, Nicastro signed with the Red Wings and appeared in 25 unimpressive games with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. Without the coaching staff’s on-ice trust, he did not appear in the 2013 playoffs as the Griffins captured the Calder Cup.
Nicastro spent the next two seasons with Toledo of the ECHL and during his final go-around with the Red Wings organization he registered a minus-18 rating.
Following a brief stint overseas, Nicastro spent the past two seasons with Orlando and Rapid City of the ECHL.
Braden Holtby would be drafted by the Washington Capitals just two picks later.
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