Kenny Holland has done a lot of things since becoming Red Wings manager—the hockey people don’t put “general” in front of it—in 1997.
He’s made trades. He’s signed free agents. He’s hired scouts. He’s given jobs to former Red Wings left and right—including to fourth line players.
He’s hired three coaches.
But there’s one thing that Holland hasn’t done.
He hasn’t fired a coach.
I don’t count Dave Lewis, by the way.
Lewis, who was elevated from assistant to head coach after the retirement of Scotty Bowman in 2002, coached the Red Wings for two seasons. Then the NHL had its lockout, wiping out the 2004-05 season.
During that time period, Holland quietly ate Lewis’ contract and brought in Mike Babcock to coach, starting in 2005-06.
That’s not a true firing.
The Red Wings haven’t given a coach the ziggy since December 30, 1985, when Harry Neale was relieved of his duties—and relieved is the right word—and replaced by Brad Park.
Jimmy Devellano was the GM in those days. Holland was in his first season as a western scout for the Red Wings, having hung up his goalie pads the previous spring.
Holland has never fired a coach. You wonder if he knows how.
I’m not being facetious here.
To some front office folks, knowing when to can a coach has a certain feel to it. You can’t really explain it. You just know that it’s time to make a change.
Does Holland have that knack? We don’t know, because he’s never had to do it before.
The Red Wings are off on a lengthy road trip. They play 10 of their next 11 games away from Joe Louis Arena, which used to be a house of horrors for the visiting team but is now horrifying to the guys wearing the Winged Wheel.
Jeff Blashill is likely to return from the next 11 games as coach of the Red Wings, just as he began the sojourn, despite the team’s woes over the past month.
But if there is a team that could use a new man behind the bench, it’s the Red Wings.
In full disclosure, I was on board with the Blashill hiring in the summer of 2015. I felt he was the best choice to replace the departed Babcock, given Blashill’s ties to the organization as coach of Grand Rapids of the AHL. He knew many of the current Red Wings (Blashill served one year on Babcock’s staff), so what the heck, why not?
It was another example of the Red Wings’ unfailing loyalty, which has turned into a double edged sword for the franchise in recent years.
But 114 games into the Blashill Era, the same bugaboos are there as existed when he took over.
The lack of shooting and driving to the net. The lack of desire in scoring dirty, ugly goals. Starting games, as Babcock used to say, not on time.
The blowing of third period leads, which has been mind-numbing.
In professional sports, of course, it often matters little if the players are deficient in talent or ability. The coach bites it anyway.
Players such as Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar (Saturday’s hat trick notwithstanding), Gus Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Jonathan Ericsson are either stagnant or are regressing. Or—and don’t say this too loud or Kenny might hear—they were never very good to begin with.
None of that will likely change if Holland decides to give Blashill the ziggy.
A new coach isn’t going to cure the deficiencies in talent. Casey Stengel was a great skipper when he managed the Yankees but not so good when he piloted the Mets. See how that works?
But whatever Blashill says he is preaching to his guys, it doesn’t seem to be getting through.
The coach complains of lack of shooting, yet the team continues not to shoot.
The coach says the power play needs to improve, yet it doesn’t.
The coach says the team needs to bear down more in the third period and not let leads slip away, yet they continue to vanish.
The lines get juggled constantly. Because there’s only so much a coach can do, you know.
The players don’t seem to be responding to whatever method Blashill is using to motivate them.
The fact of the matter is that the Red Wings simply aren’t very good. But you don’t need me to tell you that.
But you don’t fire a coach because the team is lagging behind in talent. You fire a coach if effort, urgency and mental strength appear lacking.
The Red Wings finally got the message—or so we hope—in Saturday’s 6-4 win over Anaheim.
Most of the goals were scored within five feet of the crease. The Red Wings pounded home rebounds. They scored ugly, playoff-type goals.
Can somebody please tell these guys that they’re not capable of scoring the same pretty, precision goals that Red Wings teams of yore used to score?
The game last Tuesday against Arizona was an indictment. The Coyotes were coming off a 7-0 shellacking in Pittsburgh the night before. The Red Wings were at home, rested.
The Coyotes buried the Wings, 4-1.
OK, so let’s see how they react two nights later against Los Angeles, folks said. That will be more telling than the Arizona game, because anyone can have a bad, uninterested night.
About 30 seconds into Thursday’s tilt against the Kings, the Red Wings trailed, 1-0. They lost, 4-1, and the fans got surly again, as they did on Tuesday.
The same old thing: abysmal power play, lack of shooting, yadda yadda.
Video surfaced recently of captain Henrik Zetterberg, miked up, talking to his teammates in the locker room after the Arizona game. The message was designed to be a scolding, but it wasn’t exactly Knute Rockne stuff.
The Red Wings organization used to hang its hat on its stability.
There was a time when the Red Wings were considered a model franchise.
But today, that same stability has morphed into a staleness that is keeping the franchise, I believe, from making some tough yet necessary decisions.
Firing the coach isn’t the panacea, of course. But it should be done. That’s not all that should happen, though.
The Red Wings need an enema. And I wonder if Holland: a) realizes that; or b) is interested in performing it.
That damn playoff streak.
Holland is tone deaf, and it’s hurting everyone—the organization and the fans alike.
The manager of the hockey team in Detroit is so wrapped up in the Red Wings’ playoff streak—every year since 1991—that he thinks everyone else is wrapped up in it, too.
If he’d only listen—or read—the fans in Hockeytown would be amenable to a flat out rebuild. They’d understand. In fact, they’ve been ready for a couple of years for such an exercise.
I believe that Kenny Holland’s pride is leading the Red Wings down a slippery slope.
He doesn’t want the playoff streak to end on his watch. The fans are ready, but he’s not.
As a result, hard decisions aren’t being made about the franchise’s direction.
Now, it’s one thing to declare that a rebuild is necessary, and quite another to actually pull it off.
The Red Wings are in a financial box with their contracts and the salary cap. Their inflexibility with the roster is an albatross.
Holland doesn’t have much to trade. Just about any player he moves, with the exception of Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, will be a case of selling low. Holland would be taking a bath.
Plus, in today’s NHL, midseason trades just aren’t very common anymore. Gone are the days of a December or February blockbuster that shakes the league to its core.
Holland can’t trade his way out of this and come away with anything more than draft picks or low level prospects. He alone is responsible for the financial mess the Red Wings are in.
But he has to do something, and what he has to do is not comfortable for an organization that is loathe to upset the apple cart.
Holland needs to, in no particular order: fire the coach; cut some veterans; give NHL jobs to current AHL players; and put a padlock on his boss’ checkbook and give someone else the key.
No more spending. Use the draft.
Am I talking about the team bottoming out? You betcha.
Babcock, when he arrived in Toronto to take over the Leafs behind the bench, didn’t mince words with the media and the fans who were clamoring for his hiring.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Babcock warned. “There’s going to be pain.”
Babs saw a sinking ship in Detroit. And that was before Pavel Datsyuk’s return to the motherland.
Yet he was willing to go to Toronto, because at least Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and company weren’t in denial. The Maple Leafs brass knew that a tear down and a rebuild were in order.
Holland seems unwilling to totally buy into the R-word and its need in Detroit.
“We have to find a way to score goals,” Holland said last week. “We’re not scoring goals the way we expected to be.”
See, that’s the problem. The Red Wings didn’t possess very many forwards on their roster that realistically could be expected to score a lot of goals to begin with. The ones that had, were regressing.
The line between loyalty and denial can be very fine in pro sports.
Hard decisions face the Red Wings right now.
Trouble is, the one man who can make them, refuses to acknowledge their need.