They used to be judged in May. Their season didn’t truly begin until the Tigers were a month into theirs.
It’s not that way with the Red Wings anymore.
It’s no longer about spring hockey—that special time of year when the players (and the fans) hunkered down and prepped themselves for a six-week battle of attrition that often culminated in hoisting a silver chalice in the first week of June.
Now, it’s more about the annual frantic race in February and March for the eighth and final playoff spot.
You know, to keep that damn streak alive.
It’s 24 years and counting, the number of consecutive years that the Red Wings have qualified for the post-season.
The streak used to be a source of pride, but I wonder if it’s now becoming an albatross that’s hanging (figuratively) around the necks of everyone in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun, as they say it in hockey.
Brendan Shanahan, one of those whose very name and face symbolizes Red Wings championship hockey, talked to me six years ago about how playoff hockey consumed him.
“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”
Ah, the days of the long playoff runs!
The halcyon days of Red Wings hockey are getting further and further in the rear view mirror. The team hasn’t advanced past the second round in seven years.
But no one who’s involved with the Red Wings wants to have the playoff streak end on their watch.
Here’s what it’s been about with the Red Wings in what is becoming a disturbing trend.
Play 82 games. Get 100 points. Play like mad in the last five weeks of the season to make the playoffs. Get drummed out in the first round.
The Red Wings, 2015-16 version, are not bad enough to consider a rebuild, yet aren’t good enough to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup. Frankly, that description could fit them for the past five years.
They have to work like hell to score more than two goals on any given night, largely because the power play lacks the first word. They have three elite forwards—two of them are ancient and one of them is a stinking teenager—and a bunch of decent but not great supporting players.
They don’t have an elite defenseman. The one who used to be elite is old and his body is breaking down.
They have a decent starting goalie but even he is just getting past an ill-timed slump at the moment.
So what to do?
GM Ken Holland is a terrific guy. I’ve talked to him several times and if there’s one thing you can say about Holland, it’s that he doesn’t duck the press—which is more than you can say about a lot of executives in other sports who’ve passed through town.
But Holland’s legacy as GM, which does indeed include three Cups, could be legitimately argued as being artificially propped up by two things.
In the pre-salary cap years, Holland didn’t have to make trades and be a shrewd drafter in the high rounds. He needed to just whip out his owner’s wallet and wave a check in a free agent’s face.
Then there’d be a press conference in July announcing the latest star acquisition.
After the hard cap was installed in 2005, the scouts have saved Holland’s bacon.
Hakkan Andersson, the Red Wings’ Chief European Scout—who ought to be in the Hall of Fame someday—doesn’t get nearly enough credit for finding so many diamonds in the rough.
Money and scouting have propped up Holland’s GM legacy in Detroit.
It certainly hasn’t been the big, bold, blockbuster trade, because Ken Holland hasn’t made one in his life.
He’s never traded a star for a star. No Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre-type courage.
To be fair, this isn’t unique to Holland.
The days of the blockbuster NHL trade have vaporized.
I’ll never forget when the Bruins and the Rangers—two longtime, bitter NHL rivals—engineered a huge trade in November 1975 that shook the league to its core.
Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to Boston. Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais to New York.
For perspective, this was like if the Yankees traded Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson to Boston for Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk.
It was that big.
At the trade deadline a couple weeks ago, I beseeched Holland to do something bold.
Literally a trade for trade’s sake.
I argued that it was time to take the Red Wings’ snow globe and give it a good shake and see what happens.
I didn’t argue for the dealing of 19 year-old Dylan Larkin, or of goalie Petr Mrazek.
I may be stupid but I’m not a fool.
But in order to get off this treadmill that has become Red Wings hockey in recent years, I suggested a top-six forward be traded for another top-six forward.
But that’s not Ken Holland’s style.
The problem with the Red Wings—and it’s not just Holland—is that they tend to be loyal to a fault.
Holland and company can easily fall in love with players and they become Red Wings for life. Then they all get front office jobs when they retire. Even the fourth line guys.
Remember the odd bromance Holland had with Dan Cleary?
The Red Wings are not going to hell in a hand basket, but they’re in a rut.
The good news is that the drafting in the upper rounds has been getting better, and the Grand Rapids Griffins are still a good source of NHL-caliber players.
Anthony Mantha, the Red Wings’ top pick of 2013, is set to make his NHL debut Tuesday in Philadelphia.
He must have drastically improved, because last May, senior VP Jimmy Devellano blistered Mantha in a scathing interview with the Hockey News.
“Very disappointing,” is how Jimmy D characterized Mantha’s play last season.
There’s a fine line—and one letter—separating stable and stale.
When the Red Wings were strong Cup contenders, the Red Wings’ front office was stable. Everyone had been together for 20-plus years.
Now, I fear the execs are becoming stale. Funny how losing in the playoffs every year can change things.
Two of Holland’s proteges, Jim Nill (Dallas) and Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay), have lapped their mentor. Both the Stars and the Lightning are better teams than the Red Wings.
That’s not soothing to a fan base that’s starting to get a little antsy in Detroit.
Let’s face it: it’s not about May anymore. It’s about making the playoffs, period.
Three years ago, the Red Wings had the mighty Chicago Blackhawks by the throats, with a 3-1 series lead in the second round. But Chicago won three straight, including Game 7 in overtime.
Last April, the Red Wings won a “big” Game 5 in Tampa to take a 3-2 series lead, but again couldn’t close the deal.
In both of those playoff disappointments, the lack of goal scoring was the culprit.
It’s time now for guys like Gus Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Justin Abdelkader—to name three—to be the best player in a seven-game series. It can’t always be Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
And it can’t be the teenager, Larkin. Not yet.
If you’d prefer to see Mrazek steal a series, fine, but the young Czech goalie tossed two shutouts at the high-scoring Lightning last spring and the Red Wings still lost.
So it’s not all about Holland and his conservative, loyal style.
And I won’t get into the litany of questionable free agent signings, because Holland isn’t alone in the NHL in that regard.
Holland is what he is. He’s not a gambler. He’s not bold. And it’s not that his approach to building the Red Wings back into a Cup contender is necessarily a bad one.
But it could be accelerated if he’d get out of his comfort zone and call some other GMs this summer, looking to trade a high profile player for another high profile player.
When Mike Babcock was in Detroit, folks wondered whether the players were tired of his voice. And Babcock was blamed for why certain desirable free agents weren’t coming to Detroit anymore.
If a coach’s voice can get tired, why can’t a GM’s?
Harry Sinden, the great GM of the Boston Bruins for almost 30 years, was cut from a different cloth.
Sinden’s teams went to Stanley Cup Finals in each of the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Yes, they lost almost every time, but Sinden built Cup-worthy teams in various ways.
But he also wasn’t afraid to make a big trade.
Sinden was half of the architect of the big, aforementioned Park/Ratelle/Esposito/Vadnais trade.
Sinden was from a different era, however—when NHL teams weren’t afraid to trade stars. Of course, there wasn’t a salary cap back then, either.
I don’t come to bury Ken Holland. But I’m not here to praise him, either.
There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that’s missing from the Red Wings, and it comes from the top.
The Red Wings are not a team in disarray. This isn’t Darkness with Harkness, Part II.
But it feels like things are turning from stable to stale upstairs.
Of course, winning a damn playoff series can change everyone’s perspective.
So do it, already.