The Detroit Red Wings are again showing why it pays to be patient with developing players.
It’s difficult to expect a young player to excel with the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. They are often set up to fail.
After struggling to find a home with Chicago, Edmonton or Phoenix, winger Dan Cleary came to Detroit on a training camp invitation for the 2005-06 season in hopes of resurrecting his once-promising career.
Formerly the 13th overall selection of the 1997 draft by the Blackhawks, Cleary played just 41 games in Chicago before being dealt to the Edmonton Oilers.
His fortunes didn’t turn around while playing parts of four seasons with Edmonton. In Cleary’s best offensive season, he tallied just 14 goals and 35 points in 81 games. Edmonton bought out Cleary’s contract in 2003. He then signed with the Phoenix Coyotes where he again struggled. After one season in the desert, Cleary played the 2004-05 season in Sweden during the NHL lockout.
When the NHL resumed play the following year, Cleary was invited to the Red Wings’ training camp. He made the club and inked a one-year deal. After a mediocre first year in Detroit, Cleary buried 20 goals in consecutive seasons while earning a five-year, $14 million contract.
Since then, Cleary has become a very important and reliable player for Detroit. He was on a torrid scoring pace this season before fracturing his ankle Dec. 26 against the Minnesota Wild. Despite the injury, Cleary will be counted on heavily during the Red Wings’ postseason run.
While Cleary continues to show his merit, two current Red Wings’ reclamation projects hope their careers follow the same path.
Patrick Eaves was once a first-round pick, just like Cleary. He was chosen as the 29th overall selection of the 2003 draft by the Ottawa Senators.
After netting 20 goals in his rookie campaign followed by a solid 32-point sophomore season, Eaves battled injuries in 2007-08. He was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes where he eventually signed a three-year contract.
Eaves’ production dropped dramatically the next season, and he was traded to the Boston Bruins. The club wanted no part of Eaves and, similar to Cleary, the team bought out his contract.
He signed a one-year deal with Detroit before the 2009-10 season. He fit right in while becoming a crucial member of the penalty-killing unit. With all of the injuries this season, Eaves has gotten some power-play opportunities and has taken advantage of an increase in ice time.
Eaves scored his first-career hat trick on Dec. 29 against the Dallas Stars, showing the scoring touch that made the former Boston College forward a first-round pick.
“At the start of last year we were sending him to the minors, and just with attitude and work ethic he found a way to scratch and claw and be on the team and became a real good penalty killer,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said while addressing the media last week. “That line’s been better and better for us, and Patty’s found a way to shoot it in the net this year, which is real important. He’s a guy who can finish checks and be gritty and shoot the puck.”
In fact, Eaves has 12 goals this season and is on pace to register the most since his rookie campaign in Ottawa.
“You can just feel the confidence from the management and the coaches and everyone here,” Eaves said. “I felt that right when I got here. I knew I’d have to work my way into the lineup. From there, you just get absorbed into the community goal of winning.”
Eaves isn’t the only one showing an increase in confidence. Drew Miller, a sixth-round selection of the Anaheim Ducks in 2003, had his first three-point game in a 6-5 overtime victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.
Miller spent two seasons in Anaheim to start his career while compiling just 15 points in 53 games. He was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning before last season. After just 14 games, Miller was waived by Tampa Bay and subsequently claimed by the injury-plagued Red Wings.
In 66 games with Detroit, Miller buried 10 goals and finished with 19 points. He played on a scoring line for many games while scorers Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula missed significant time. But more importantly, he established himself as one of the club’s top penalty killers.
He was off to a slow offensive start this season but has collected seven points in his last nine games. Miller had no points in the 13 previous contests.
“Millsie didn’t start the year great,” Babcock said. “He was a minus. He wasn’t scoring. Suddenly, he has his confidence and he’s rolling. He’s been an important guy for us for two years, and we expect good things from him.”
Eaves and Miller signed one-year deals last summer, making each an unrestricted free agent after this season. And if they continue to contribute regularly, Detroit will certainly consider resigning both players to longer-term deals.
With injuries continuing to pile up this season, the Red Wings will need Eaves and Miller to continue their career ascensions.
“You just keep playing and fighting and trying to get two points every night,” Miller said.