I try not to be an alarmist.
I’ve written this post three separate times. It started off impassioned and blame-ridden. It became resigned and demoralizing. And I decided that none of that was going to do any good right now. It’s important to note right off of the top that I love this team more than anything. And nothing will change that, ever. They provide us with endless entertainment, joy, frustration, and admiration. The very last thing I want is to come off like I’m not grateful for the countless seasons of gratifying hockey, and the opportunities that I’ve been afforded by a world-class sports organization. Four Stanley Cups (in my lifetime), six Finals appearances, twenty-one straight playoff appearances, and twenty-three consecutive home wins don’t happen by accident, and there’s no denying we’re as spoiled as any sporting community on the planet. And I used to live in New York. After a stop in Chicago.
That said, there’s an undeniable, unpleasant truth that needs to be aired today. It won’t feel nice to read. And I don’t expect to make any new friends with the assertion, and that’s okay. But if there are going to be two thousand posts written in the coming days about how the team “doesn’t need a major shake-up” or “only tweaks are needed to get to the top,” I’ll happily act as the foil to that argument. With one that makes sense.
This team was not built to compete for a championship. And, making matters worse, next year’s team won’t be either.
I know, for a fact, that Ken Holland and his team of masterminds will always seek to improve this team, regardless of their finish. It’s impossible not to admire the Red Wings’ ability to constantly churn out quality NHL players. There simply is not a better run organization in all of sports, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. And if you were to ditch Mike Babcock… who do you replace him with? He is one of the best minds that exists in this sport and he’s not going anywhere. Nor should he.
However, if I have a criticism of team management, it’s the stubbornness with which the roster and lineup are designed. We always know who will be on the roster before training camp even opens… which doesn’t allow for the kind of competition that forces players to bring their best every single shift. Not only that, it doesn’t provide for any sort of legitimate roster turnover. Turnover, by the way, is a good thing for a team that hasn’t gone deep into the playoffs for three years sporting the same roster.
Of the fifteen forwards currently on the roster, THIRTEEN are under contract for next season (or are restricted free agents that you know will be brought back at all costs). Though management will look to upgrade — chasing notable free agents like New Jersey’s Zach Parise for a new scoring punch — I’m left with two questions:
Is this current crop of forwards next season’s crop of forwards?
Is anyone alright with that?
In general, loyalty to your veterans and requiring prospects to pay their dues is an unbelievable mantra. It’s been proven to be beneficial to these very Red Wings for decades. It didn’t matter that Gustav Nyquist (and Chris Conner, for that matter) were overqualified for the Grand Rapids Griffins and may have been better suited for the Detroit Red Wings than some others who made the team: that’s not the Red Wings Way.
Trading players who have contributed in the past… or should be expected to be relied upon in the future is not the Red Wings Way.
Playing a rookie in a top six role, despite his clear ability to do so is not the Red Wings Way. He’ll be expected to contribute for three minutes a night on the fourth line, which — with his abilities and skill set — is not a fit. To any rule, there are exceptions. Some people don’t fit the mold you’ve made out of the Mattias Ritolas and Cory Emmertons and Mark Mowerses and Josh Langfelds.
I hate to be the one to say it, but: Is the Red Wings Way working at this moment? Is this stubborn philosophy so valuable that other philosophies aren’t valid? The Red Wings Way sure as hell isn’t getting bounced by the San Jose Sharks (twice) and Nashville Predators — two teams that didn’t even exist when the playoff streak began.
It’s been several years since the team underwent any sort of legitimate turnover. We’ve seen guys like Kris Draper and Chris Chelios and Kirk Maltby say goodbye… and players like Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull and Kyle Calder wear out their welcome before too long. But when was the last time there was a change of scenery that made a significant difference in the day-to-day goings-on of the Detroit Red Wings? Besides Marian Hossa, who everyone and their mother knew was going to be a one-year experiment except for the idiots who boo him at the Joe, the highest player on the depth chart to be moved off of this roster in the last five years was Mikael Samuelsson — arguably the sixth of the top six. For a modern-day comparison, the Jiri Hudler of his time (Hudler, by the way, was 7th on that team).
Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Todd Bertuzzi, Dan Cleary, Drew Miller, Cory Emmerton, Jan Mursak, Patrick Eaves, and Gustav Nyquist are all under contract for next season; and Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader are restricted free agents who will be brought back because that’s how RFAs work.
The only two forwards on the roster who are not signed for next season (and are unrestricted) are Tomas Holmstrom — who may consider retirement — and Jiri Hudler — who may search out a pay day from another team. If either of those guys are re-signed by the Wings… then what? We go into 2012-13 with the exact same roster as the one that failed to get the job done this year. And the one before. And the one before that.
Something’s gotta be done. And something big.
We’re going to read a lot about those aforementioned tweaks. It’s all bullshit. Tweaks are what the Canucks might have needed when they fell one game short last year. And maybe what the Wings needed in ’09 when they fell one bounce short. The 2012 Red Wings? They’re not even close. They need a hell of a lot more than tweaks. Not an explosion, mind you. But something.
If the Wings are able to wrangle a big-time name like Parise (but, to be clear, would he want to leave the Devils for a Red Wings team that lost in the first round?), I’m certain they’ll make room for him. But at who’s expense? Lower tier guys are often the ones who exit this system (Mattias Ritola, Ville Leino, Jason Williams, Tomas Kopecky)… but that doesn’t help when you refuse to shake up your top lines anyway.
Moving out Cory Emmerton and Jan Mursak (who’s never gotten a chance) to make room for Zach Parise doesn’t make sense. But the fix isn’t all that easy:
1. Pavel Datsyuk — legitimately one of the best players in the world, he’s not going anywhere.
2. Henrik Zetterberg — all heart and a natural born leader who has been groomed to be the captain of this team since the Yzerman days.
3. Johan Franzen — an invisible object that’s being paid until the year that V for Vendetta takes place, making him immovable.
4. Todd Bertuzzi — just signed on for two additional years of no-trade, 35+ hockey.
5. Valtteri Filppula — finally had the offensive breakthrough everyone’s been waiting for and a quietly dominant piece of this puzzle.
6. Dan Cleary — all grit and determination when he’s healthy, and the Wings won’t ditch a player returning from injury.
7. Patrick Eaves — see above. In fact, the NHLPA won’t ALLOW the Wings to ditch a player who ended the season on IR.
8. Drew Miller — has more than earned his place on the bottom six of this team.
9. Darren Helm — the living embodiment of the city of Detroit, it’s blue-collar work ethic, and the two-way hockey the Wings are famous for.
10. Justin Abdelkader — a homegrown hero whose contributions can’t be ignored.
11. Cory Emmerton — the fourth line center who was firmly entrenched in his position and centers are hard to find/keep.
12. Jan Mursak — legitimately one of the fastest skaters in the game.
13. Gustav Nyquist — arguably the most exciting prospect to come through this organization in a decade.
And all of a sudden, we’re in the same boat as Ken Holland’s in each summer.
So now what?
Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Bertuzzi, and Cleary aren’t going anywhere. Franzen probably isn’t going anywhere. Helm and Abdelkader aren’t going anywhere without a fight. Eaves and Miller can’t BOTH be moved, but may make one another redundant. Nyquist is (still) too good for the AHL.
Bouncing Cory Emmerton an Jan Mursak seem like the easiest fix… but what does it fix? The other 85% of the forward ranks remain intact. Arguably the 85% that matters and that play the games.
Things can’t stay the same if you expect a different outcome. Losing early for a third straight year won’t sit well with ownership or management. All of those gentlemen expect even more than we do, as fans.
The blueline, it would seem, is headed toward a major change. Nicklas Lidstrom has been non-committal (at best) about his future and may think that 42 is when he’d like to hang them up, particularly following the only major injury he’s ever faced. Brad Stuart’s probably already redecorating his California home. Kyle Quincey is a restricted free agent whom many fans are already hoping finds a new place to play.
Ian White, who has looked human without the aid of playing with Lidstrom, is signed for another year. Kronwall has re-signed for another seven. Kindl and Ericsson have a year and two, respectively. Brendan Smith is probably ready for the big leagues.
So there’s going to be some movement there. But losing Lidstrom and Stuart aren’t positive improvements. There’s no replacing one of those gentlemen… and probably not the other given this upcoming crap-fest of a free agent class. And no, Ryan Suter doesn’t want to play for the team that he beat in the first round.
A fourth year with the same roster won’t be the charm. For the first time in a long while, we’re going to have to be prepared to say goodbye… to abandon the “Red Wings Way” for a better way: one that works in the modern-day NHL. One that the other 29 teams aren’t up on, having adopted for themselves, and learned to exploit time and time again. Someone’s feelings are going to get hurt, and we’re all going to be better off for it.
Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to hear in September that the 23 best players in camp will make the Detroit Red Wings
Maybe we’ll find that they actually mean it this time and no one will feel entitled to their spot.
Maybe we’ll have a player bypass the “usual” ways to make this team and prove he’s an exception to the rule.
Maybe we’ll have to deal with life after Lidstrom.
Maybe we’ll find that free agents don’t necessarily want to play in Detroit like they used to.
Maybe we’ll be forced into making a trade or two to improve this team.
A lot of maybes. Which is scary. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to acknowledge some of the facts above… and we’ve never had to acknowledge all of them at the same time. There may be some question marks heading into this off-season, but there are a few guarantees, as well.
This team will be good again. Mr. Ilitch won’t accept anything less than the crown jewel of the National Hockey League.
This team will continue to be run by the very best in the business and they’re not unaware of any of the above. They’ve been thinking it longer than we have.
This team will be beloved by the most passionate and community-driven fan base in the league. And we’ll continue to inspire and influence the fan bases of the league.
This team will right the wrongs, fix what’s broken, and mend what’s torn.
This team will do what it has to do.
This team will rise again. We’re all hoping it’s sooner rather than later.
Is 2012-13 going to be the year that we celebrate with a parade down Woodward? I certainly hope so. But if things don’t change, it won’t be. There’s gotta be some changes made for the first time in several years.
And not tweaks.