At crossroads in 2016-17, Red Wings’ expectations lowest in 26 years

Sometimes, a firing of a coach in the world of sports is a mercy killing.

Sometimes, the coach knows that it’s time.

Dick Vitale practically heaved a sigh of relief when Pistons owner Bill Davidson rendered the ziggy in early-November, 1979, relieving Vitale of his coaching and de facto GM duties.

Vitale’s promise of Pistons Paradise and ReVitaleization, which he crowed about when he was hired in May 1978, had turned into a ghoulish joke after 18 months, 94 games, 34 wins and the stripping of the franchise’s future thanks to ill-advised trades of the team’s draft picks.

“Mr. Davidson probably saved my life. And I’m not exaggerating,” Vitale would later say about his stomach troubles and health while he tried to endure the losing.

It was a summer’s afternoon in 1990 when Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch paid a visit to his coach, Jacques Demers.

It was an emotional meeting. Both men openly wept.

Ilitch gave Demers—who won the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year two years in a row (1987-88)—the ziggy after a so-so 1989 season and missing the playoffs in 1990.

But Demers later credited Ilitch for being “a man about it” and for delivering the news in person. Demers also admitted that his time in Detroit had gone stale and the Red Wings needed a new voice.

The new coach was Bryan Murray. It’s a tent pole moment in Red Wings history because when Murray took over the Red Wings prior to the 1990-91 season, it marked the last time that so few experts and fans expected anything out of a Red Wings team.

Until now.

Only the most optimistic of fans can truly say, in their heart, that the 2016-17 Red Wings can make some real noise.

Only the delusional can look at this team and see serious advancement in the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring.

The timing of this crossroads in franchise history is potentially very unfortunate.

If the Red Wings sink into a several year rebuild/reload scenario, it will overlap with the team’s move into new Little Caesars Arena next fall.

The thought of missing out on the revenue from playoff games in their new ice palace for several seasons must rankle Ilitch and his family.

But it might be a necessary evil, for the Red Wings to be a mediocre, middling team until the youth kicks in.

They’ll drop the puck tonight in Tampa to launch another NHL season—the Red Wings’ 90th in Detroit, dating back to 1926-27 when they were known as the Cougars.

It’s fitting in a way that this potentially crossroads season starts in Tampa.

In the Lightning executive suite high above the ice, watching the action, will be GM Steve Yzerman.

Yzerman cut his teeth as a Hall of Fame player wearing the Winged Wheel and he was a front office apprentice in Detroit after he hung up his skates. Some would say that the student has lapped his mentor, Red Wings GM Ken Holland.

As the Red Wings enter a season of the unknown—they could squeeze into the playoffs or finish at least 10 points out—Yzerman has built a consistent Stanley Cup contender in Tampa.

Stevie Y has only been on the job for six years, and it’s not like the Lightning were a league powerhouse when he took over.

Ironically, the Red Wings could learn a thing or two from Yzerman, who is now entrenched as one of the NHL’s best and most admired front office men.

Yzerman’s Lightning have blasted Holland’s Red Wings out of the playoffs the past two seasons.

Image result for ken holland

After almost 20 years as Red Wings GM, maybe Holland’s time to move on has come.

In defense of Holland—who’s been the GM since 1997—and his lieutenants, the Red Wings have never been a mediocre team under Kenny’s watch. This whole rebuild/reload thing is new to him. I’m not sure that he’s wired for it, or up to the task. I also doubt whether he’s terribly interested in it.

Last spring, Holland tried to brace the fans in Hockeytown to expect some less-than-spectacular things from their hockey team.

In August, Holland went one step further.

“There are probably five or six teams that are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders” this season, Holland told NHL.com“After that five or six, there are 20 teams without much difference between them. We’re in that group of 20.

“Certainly there are lots of questions about our team.”

Despite its reality, it was also a stunning admission from a man who loathes to do anything other than show the utmost confidence in his team. Since he took over the GM duties 19 years ago, Holland has only known winning and Cup contention.

This can’t be easy for him—emotionally and functionally.

Ken Holland isn’t wired to transition a veteran, elite team into a young, mediocre squad trying to find its way.

The Red Wings, if things aren’t planned well, could become the NHL’s version of the Oakland Raiders—a proud team with iconic uniforms and logo whose mystique wore off long ago.

If things really go to pot, the Red Wings could also become the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve been bumping into themselves for over 20 years.

Fans are growing weary of Holland, and I wonder if Holland is growing weary of the Red Wings.

He’ll always be a Red Wing at heart but maybe he’d be better served somewhere else.

Somewhere like Ottawa, where the Senators are on their seventh opening night coach in 10 years—an NHL record.

Coaches aren’t the only people who know when their time has come to move on.

Glendening extension doesn’t add up for blue line challenged Red Wings

Darren McCarty wasn’t the most elegant of hockey players.

He was the bull in the proverbial china shop. He was brawn over beauty.

McCarty didn’t skate his wing, he patrolled it. He punched first and asked questions later. On many a night, he was judge, jury and executioner. He especially liked to be the latter.

But for one shining moment in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, McCarty was a virtuoso.

McCarty was one-fourth of the Red Wings’ heralded Grind Line, and if you’re wondering how a hockey line could be chopped up into quarters, that’s because the Grind Line was actually populated by McCarty, Joey Kocur, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, who took turns filling up the three spots at various times.

McCarty wowed the Joe Louis Arena crowd on the night of June 7, 1997.

It was Game 4 of the Cup Finals, with the Red Wings going for the sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Red Wings led, 1-0 in the second period, when McCarty took a pass from Tomas Sandstrom at center ice.

McCarty was known for his stickhandling ability the same way Donald Trump is known for his couth.

Yet McCarty suddenly turned into a maestro with the puck, turning Flyers defenseman Janne Niinimaa completely inside out with a left to right move, slipping the disc between Niinimaa’s legs, leaving McCarty 1-on-1 with goalie Ron Hextall.

McCarty didn’t stop with the Niinimaa move; he lured Hextall out of the crease with a deke to the left before dragging the puck to his right. The result was an open net, into which McCarty neatly deposited the puck to give the Red Wings a 2-0 lead.

The goal turned out to be the Cup-clincher, as the Red Wings held on for a 2-1 win and their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

A year later, Grind Linemate Draper scored another iconic Red Wings goal in the Cup Finals.

It was Game 2 against the Washington Capitals—Detroit won Game 1—and the Red Wings twice fell behind by two goals in the third period at JLA.

But the Red Wings managed to get the game into overtime.

With about 15 minutes gone in overtime, the Red Wings were dangerous deep in the Capitals zone. Draper, his legs fresh, jumped onto the ice while Brendan Shanahan and Marty Lapointe, their legs not fresh, wreaked havoc. The puck went into the corner and so did Shanny and Lapointe.

Draper floated into the slot area, and Lapointe found him with a perfect pass that Draper redirected past Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig.

Game over. Red Wings led the series, 2-0 on their way to yet another sweep to the Cup.

In Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, Kocur, who had been basically playing in a beer league earlier in the season, scored a goal in Philadelphia that got the Red Wings started.

Maltby, the other Grind Liner, scored 14 goals in the ’97-98 season and was no stranger to chipping in with some offense when needed.

Calling the Grind Line a so-called fourth line is really a disservice. They weren’t the Production Line, but nor were they a black hole on offense.

I’m flipping the “on” switch to the way back machine for you in light of the Red Wings’ odd summer of defection, free agency and contract extensions that in some cases are puzzling.

One such head scratcher was the extension of Luke Glendening to a four-year, $7.2 million contract, announced in mid-July.

I may be late to the party on this but it’s never too late to talk about what the Grind Line meant to the Red Wings of yesteryear, and how that can’t be replicated with today’s group of plugging forwards.

Besides, with training camp about a month away and the off-season rapidly draining, it’s time to take inventory of what the Red Wings did to improve themselves from last year’s team that sneaked into the playoffs in the season’s final hours, only to once again be ousted in the first round.

In the case of Glendening, one has to wonder, indeed.

Glendening had all of 21 points for Red Wings last season, and that marked a career high.

With the original Grind Line, you got not only toughness and tenacity, you got some offense as well.

McCarty could pop in 15 goals a season. Maltby did it a couple of times. Draper scored 10 or more goals in a season six times, including 24 in 2003-04. Kocur didn’t score a ton but the quality of his goals reverberated way more than the quantity. That, plus I never saw Joey Kocur lose a battle for the puck along the boards. Ever.

Glendening is a nice hockey player. He brings you some defense, some face off ability and a nose that is hard. He’ll kill some penalties.

He won’t give you any offense.

That’s not his game, of course, but the Red Wings are starved for goal scoring. They’re not going to penalty kill their way to winning hockey games.

The late-1990s Grind Line could intimidate. The Grind Line could frustrate.

But, more importantly, the Grind Line could score the occasional goal—and sometimes more than occasionally.

Red Wings GM Kenny Holland seems intent on locking up players that don’t need to be locked up, especially when there are players in Grand Rapids—ironically, that’s Glendening’s hometown—who could probably do the same thing that Glendening does for a much cheaper price.

The Red Wings, once again, showed their “we’re loyal to a fault” ways by inking Glendening, 27, through the 2020-21 season.

Why?

Here’s Holland.

“There are things a player brings to a team that maybe aren’t just in goals and assists, and that’s what Luke is,” Holland mused after the Glendening extension was announced.

“He’s a really good defensive player, has the ability to play 16-18 minutes against other team’s best players. He’s fearless. He’s a tremendous penalty killer. He brings intangibles.”

Fine. But two things make this a flawed argument for the extension.

One, see above. The Red Wings need goal scoring, not what “a player brings to team that maybe aren’t just in goals and assists.” The Red Wings are in desperate need of goals and assists.

Two, the Red Wings’ success in keeping the puck out of their own net—which runs neck-and-neck with goal scoring among the team’s most pressing needs—is far more attached to the quality of their defensemen than it is to that of their puck hounding forwards.

You could have four lines of Luke Glendenings, all Selke Trophy candidates, and it won’t mean a hill of beans if the guys on the blue line can’t play.

And the Red Wings, as of right now, plan to go to Traverse City next month with essentially the same defense corps as what played most of last season. Except—bonus!—everyone is a year older.

Doesn’t that make you warm and fuzzy inside?

There could be some infusion of youth on the blue line, however.

Xavier Ouellet and Alexey Marchenko are two defensemen—age 23 and 24 respectively—who might see more ice with the Red Wings in 2016-17. But with the extension of Danny DeKeyser, the over-reliance on ancient Niklas Kronwall, the odd loyalty to 32 year-old Jonathan Ericsson and with soon-to-be 31 year-old Mike Green just one year removed from signing a big free agent deal in Detroit, where will Ouellet and Marchenko find that time?

Don’t forget Brendan Smith, who figures to be in the mix as well. Kyle Quincey wasn’t offered a contract and is still out there, unsigned.

The days of keeping third and fourth line guys together for years have passed. Except in Detroit, where management loves to unnecessarily reward the “intangible” guys like Glendening, Drew Miller, et al.

The Red Wings seem to bid against themselves a lot. If we all woke up one morning and found out that Luke Glendening had signed with Montreal, for example, would we lose sleep the subsequent night?

But Holland loves to make sure that guys like Glendening will never, ever play for another NHL team for as long as they lace up skates.

I’m not anti-Luke Glendening. I don’t come to bury him.

But you don’t need to lock guys like that, up. You let them walk if they don’t fit into your budget, and you go find younger, cheaper alternatives.

The Red Wings’ problems go way, way deeper than Luke Glendening and players of his ilk.

Holland paid too little attention to the Red Wings’ blue line this off season. However, he can save some face if Ouellet and/or Marchenko become prime contributors this season. But at whose expense?

The Red Wings have too much money sunk into their goalies, they got rooked financially in the Pavel Datsyuk debacle, they’re paying for too many bad contracts and all the while, too many players are stewing in their own juices in Grand Rapids.

But Luke Glendening will be a Red Wing for the next four years.

Glendening himself said it best.

“If you’d have told me two or three years ago that I’d be sitting here talking about a four-year extension, I probably would have laughed.”

But this is no laughing matter if you’re a Red Wings fan.

Dylan Larkin: The Red Wings’ best player, by default (for now)

May 4, 2016

Just seven months ago, the question was, should Dylan Larkin be included in the Red Wings’ opening night roster, or should he be sent to Grand Rapids for some more seasoning?

Today, we ask, when can he take over as being the team’s most elite player?

Let’s hope ASAP is among the choices.

It’s not a stretch to say that Larkin, the 19 year-old whirling dervish, is the team’s best player. Certainly he’s the most exciting.

It’s not a stretch because the ex-elite players on the Red Wings—Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk—are no longer that. Datsyuk, in fact, may no longer be a Red Wing at all, if he follows through on his threat to move back to Russia to play hockey next fall.

Zetterberg is still a good player, but he’s not elite. He has morphed into a second or third line guy—something usually not befitting a team captain, though I doubt he’d be demoted.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Larkin is no. 1 because the other forwards haven’t taken that next step from good to very good, let alone from very good to elite.

Justin Abdelkader, likely your next Red Wings captain, isn’t elite, though right now he might be the team’s most complete player—which isn’t the same as being elite.

It’s not hard to imagine the Red Wings as being Larkin’s team in the near future, even without the “C” on his sweater.

Larkin will soon be the kind of player that will be worth the price of admission. Right now, he’s at the price of a couple of beers, and trending upward. He had a shaky second half, but that wasn’t shocking. He still finished with 23 goals and 22 assists and led the team in plus/minus with a plus-11. Only one other Red Wing scored as many as 20 goals (Tomas Tatar, 21).

When the Red Wings move into shiny new Little Caesars Arena (I know, I know) in October of 2017, it would be nice to have a centerpiece on the roster. It would be even better to have a team capable of making a deep playoff run, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Because of a myriad of reasons, Larkin is now being asked, at least indirectly and not yet publicly, to be the Red Wings’ best player every night. He has no choice, because there’s no one else capable.

It’s so, so reminiscent of no. 19.

Stevie Yzerman, at age 19, was entering his second season with the Red Wings, and it wasn’t much longer after that, that Yzerman was anointed as being the team’s best player. At first it was by default, but then it became a no-brainer.

Right now, Larkin is the Red Wings’ best player, by default. Soon there won’t be anything defaulting about it.

This will be Larkin’s team, and the fortunes of it will turn as he turns. That’s not opinion.

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 17: Dylan Larkin #71of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on October 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Larkin’s first half was better than his second, but both halves were better than just about everyone else’s.

 

The task now for GM Ken Holland and his scouting staff—both amateur and pro—is to surround Larkin with the supporting cast the kid needs to lessen his burden.

The Red Wings’ core should be reduced to Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Abdelkader, Zetterberg (for now), Anthony Mantha, goalie Petr Mrazek and defensemen Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser.

Everyone else should be quite touchable, in trades and in cuts, if need be.

That’s a small core, granted, but I don’t see any other way to go about returning the Red Wings to their glory days.

In the meanwhile, Holland should try trades, an occasional low-profile free agent signing when money allows (no more big contracts for awhile) and continue to go to the draft well, which has served the team fairly decently in recent years.

It’s time now to stop waiting on the likes of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan et al to break through as top end players. Trade ’em all, if you can.

Keep the aforementioned core and work from there.

As for Larkin, this plan clearly broadens the young man’s shoulders by proxy, but all Stanley Cup-worthy teams have superstars. The Red Wings are not going to claw their way to the chalice with second tier forwards and grinders and a mediocre blue line corps. The league’s playoffs may sometimes be quirky and unpredictable, but they’re not set up to allow a superstar-less team to win it all.

Again, that’s not opinion.

It can’t all be Larkin, of course. The defensemen badly need a marquee guy as well. Niklas Kronwall has frayed so much that his nickname ought to be The Shadow. His minus-21 is like a starting pitcher with an ERA of 5.43. Mike Green is OK but hardly elite.

Trading for or developing a true no. 1 defenseman is a necessary part of the rebuild. And yes, I used the r-word. Sue me.

Holland and his fellow front office suits won’t use the r-word, unless that r-word is “reboot” or “reload.”

It’s a rebuild because in a true reboot or reload, you’re keeping a majority of the roster and doing some tweaks, perhaps to replace stars who’ve left via free agency or who have retired.

In a reboot/reload, you have money to burn to go get another elite player.

This is a rebuild because the Red Wings only have a handful of players worth keeping. The others could be trade chips, if packaged the right way. So they still have some value, especially if packaged with prospects.

Whether Holland and company see the roster this way is the question that many Red Wings fans fear doesn’t have the answer that they would prefer.

But what simply can’t be up for debate is the notion that Dylan Larkin, already, before his 20th birthday, is the Red Wings’ best player.

For now, it’s by default.

But it won’t be that way for much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken Wings: Hockeytown needs to brace itself

If the Red Wings were a prize fighter, they’d be Muhammad Ali—in 1980, after his bout with Larry Holmes.

Ali, 38 years old and with nothing left in the tank, was beaten badly by a reluctant Holmes, who didn’t even really want to fight The Greatest to begin with. Holmes knew that Ali was finished. But Ali insisted that he take on the fight, and Holmes used him as a punching bag for 11 rounds, before Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, threw in the towel.

The Red Wings are that boxer who everyone wants to retire, but who doesn’t know when to quit. You know the one—the guy who’s a shell of his past but he just can’t resist lacing on the gloves and giving it another shot.

On Thursday night, the 25th straight trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs ended the way the previous three of the last four did—with the Red Wings blasted out in the first round, having shown up to a gunfight with a penknife.

The forwards couldn’t score, the defensemen were a step slow and, in cruel irony, the one guy on whom you really couldn’t blame anything—goalie Petr Mrazek—channeled Chris Osgood ’94 and made a puck handling blunder late in the decisive Game 5 that cost the Red Wings with less than two minutes to play in the third period.

The fans are the corner men, wanting their team to throw in the towel and get out, while there’s still some dignity left.

This isn’t what the Red Wings have been all about. Their playoff appearances used to strike fear in opponents. Now all they do is elicit sympathy.

Kind of like Larry Holmes’ for Muhammad Ali.

The glory days of Red Wings hockey are over, for now, and the players who remain from the 2008 Cup team are finished, for all intents and purposes.

The so-called next wave of Red Wings after Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have proven to be either overvalued or have underperformed, or both. Regardless, there’s not a Z or a Pavs among the group of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, et al.

Former coach Mike Babcock openly asked the question shortly after the Red Wings were eliminated by Tampa Bay in 2015. He wondered where the next Datsyuk was coming from.

A few weeks later, Babs absconded to Toronto, where expectations are low and where the roster is being built, not held together with baling wire.

There’s a gem in young Dylan Larkin, and there may be another in big Anthony Mantha, who looks like a basketball swingman on skates.

But the defense, which misses Nick Lidstrom oh, so badly, is nowhere near Cup-worthy.

The goalie situation looks to be in flux, yet again. Or, at the very least, the Red Wings have a decision to make.

The coach just finished his rookie season and suffice it to say that he suffered through growing pains as well.

I’ve been critical of GM Kenny Holland in recent weeks. It hasn’t been subtle.

Just before the trading deadline, I beseeched Holland—who’s finishing his 20th season as Red Wings general manager—to make a bold move of some sort. Shuffle the deck. Literally, a trade for trade’s sake.

Didn’t happen, not that I expected that it would.

Then, as the season wound down and making the playoffs was again in peril, I again took Holland to task, bemoaning his lack of boldness and wondering if the Red Wings front office had turned from stable to stale.

Nothing that happened in the team’s five-game playoff “run” turned me into a liar.

I’m not boasting—I’m being factual.

So what to do?

The team will be moving into a new arena in 2017. The last time the Red Wings did that, in 1979, they were a horribly-run hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun.

But Joe Louis Arena was just that—an arena. The Red Wings’ new stomping grounds will be much more than a hockey barn. It’s designed to be a year-round attraction, filled with shops, restaurants and other amenities.

Make no mistake, though. The Red Wings will still be the crown jewel of the new campus. So the last thing team officials want is for the crown jewel to be an atrocity soiling the campus’ lapel.

Unfortunately, the Red Wings’ move into their new digs might coincide with the team being in the midst of a rebuild that could mean no spring hockey for a year or two.

The new arena could open in October of 2017 but host no playoff games until April, 2020.

If that thought doesn’t send chills down the spines of the team’s brass, then nothing will.

Despite the fans’ frustration and their calls for a return to Detroit of Stevie Yzerman, I don’t see Mike Ilitch pulling the plug on Ken Holland. Although, it wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world if that happened.

Ilitch has his Stanley Cups. What he doesn’t have, is his World Series ring. And you can’t tell me that it’s a coincidence that the Tigers seem to garner more of the owner’s attention than the Red Wings, when that’s the case.

Holland represents stability to the owner. He’s that old shoe—or skate. For now.

But with the new arena opening a year from October, losing the extra income from having no playoff dates isn’t going to go over well in the owner’s suite.

Kenny Holland and his lieutenants—notably chief of the pro scouts, Mark Howe—have painted the franchise into a corner, so to speak. They’re crippled by some bad salaries and Datsyuk’s uncertain future. They know their needs but may not be able to address them right away.

 

It’s the worst place to be if you’re a pro sports franchise—in the middle of the pack.

Ilitch likely won’t fire Holland and he won’t make a play for Yzerman to leave the year-round sunshine of Florida.

But what does it say when two of Holland’s disciples—Yzerman and Dallas GM Jim Nill—have lapped their mentor in a relatively short length of time?

 

The Red Wings need bold, new ideas and fresh faces, and not just on the ice. They need prime time scorers and a stud defenseman. They need to flush the toilet.

The problem isn’t necessarily what the Red Wings need. It’s, how do they go about getting it, if there isn’t a change in upper management’s button downed, loyal-to-a-fault style?

The fans are being asked to believe in a GM who hasn’t exactly had the Midas touch in recent years.

Frankly, the Red Wings need to strip things to a core of Larkin, Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Danny DeKeyser and/or Brendan Smith, Justin Abdelkader (your next captain) and Mrazek, and work from there.

I’m recalling what Babcock said at his opening presser in Toronto last summer, speaking to Maple Leafs fans through the media.

“There’s going to be pain.”

 

Is the Hockeytown fan base prepared for some pain?

Because it’s coming, one way or another.

Holland’s loyalty, conservative style holding Red Wings back

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.

Rinse. Repeat.

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.

Never.

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.

Ken Holland

Holland’s conservative, loyal style might not be what Red Wings need now.

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.

 

Red Wings’ lack of boldness again on display at trade deadline

There’s never been a lot of riverboat gambler in Ken Holland.

Holland, the Red Wings’ GM since 1997, has done a lot of things in his 19 years on the job, but making the bold, daring, blockbuster move hasn’t really been one of them.

Holland’s M.O., in the pre-salary cap years, was to open Mike Ilitch’s checkbook every July 1 and hold a press conference a few days later, showing off the newest star to slip on a Red Wings sweater.

Since the cap took effect in 2005, Holland has been the architect of a few signings, but mostly the work has consisted of deadline deals in which the Red Wings give up a prospect and get a veteran in return.

No Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre-type stunners. No multi-team deals involving six players.

Holland has never traded a star for a star. It’s not his style.

This isn’t a complaint, necessarily. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups since 1997.

It’s also not just a Ken Holland thing. Big trades in the NHL—those involving high profile players swapping jerseys—have gone the way of drive-in movie theaters and personal accountability.

But if there was ever a year in which Holland should have explored an outside-the-box way of thinking, it was this year.

But alas, as expected, the NHL trade deadline came and went yesterday with no activity from the bowels of Joe Louis Arena—not even a stinking minor deal.

The easiest thing to do, of course, is stand pat when you’re up against the cap, which the Red Wings mostly were. They shed a little more than $2 million by trading defenseman Jakub Kindl to Florida on Saturday, but that’s not a lot of dough if you want to do something significant to the roster.

Unless you consider something bold.

Last year, the Red Wings went up against the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, and everyone wondered how a rookie goalie would do against such an explosive lineup.

Petr Mrazek tossed two shutouts in the Lightning series, and the reason the Red Wings lost it in seven games had little to do with goaltending and their suspect defense.

De-TROY-it couldn’t put the puck in the net—plain and simple.

The Lightning didn’t score very much, either, but they managed just enough offense to escape.

The Red Wings this season, once again, are offensively challenged. They’re again prone to scoring droughts. A 19 year-old rookie is their leading goal scorer.

It doesn’t get easier to score in the playoffs, you know.

It’s not the Red Wings’ style, but if ever there was a time to consider trading a top-six forward for a top-six forward, it was this year.

ken-holland

As expected, Holland was quiet on trade deadline day.

It’s going on eight years since the last Stanley Cup was hoisted in Detroit. With our other teams, eight years is like a blink of an eye. But with the Red Wings, who have a different standard, eight years is cause for restlessness.

I can hear some of you now.

Why make a trade for the sake of making a trade?

Hey, why not?

Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to take the snow globe, shake it up, and see what happens.

Look, when I say top-six forward, I’m really only talking about a few guys.

The Red Wings wouldn’t be expected to trade Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk or Justin Abdelkader. Brad Richards, while valuable, is too old to garner much of a return. And The Kid, Dylan Larkin, is as untouchable as they come.

So I’m looking at you, Gustav Nyquist. And you, Tomas Tatar. And you, Riley Sheahan. I might even cast a glance at Darren Helm.

Yes, I know that’s more than six forwards. But with the Red Wings, top-six is a misnomer, because coach Jeff Blashill juggles lines frequently.

One of the reasons he juggles is because the Red Wings are always sniffing for goals.

It would have been out of character for Holland, but it would have been nice to see a trade designed to do nothing other than shake things up.

What have you got to lose?

If you catch lightning in a bottle and you bring over a guy from another organ-eye-ZAY-shun who gets hot wearing the Winged Wheel and keeps it going in the playoffs, wouldn’t you take that?

Yes, that means giving up an everyday player but that’s why they call it bold and risky.

Again, not the Red Wings’ style.

The concerns on the blue line—the lack of a true stud being one of them—is something to be addressed this summer.

But in the playoffs, you shouldn’t worry about keeping the puck out of your own net as much as pumping them past the other team’s goalie.

The Red Wings have trouble scoring on too many nights, and the playoffs aren’t the time or the place to get relief in that area.

The Red Wings played it safe on deadline day. They’ll tell you that nothing came across Ken Holland’s desk that made sense. They’ll say that they didn’t want to disrupt their core guys.

Sigh.

It would have been fun to see the snow globe given a good shake.

Sometimes you have to be bold.

But the Red Wings haven’t done that in over 20 years, so why would they start now?

Where are hockey’s riverboat gamblers?

Blashill Sounds Like Babcock, But Will Talk Be Cheap?

Jeff Blashill isn’t Canadian. But he sure sounds like he is.

In fact, he sure sounds like his predecessor and mentor, Mike Babcock.

If you listened to Blashill, the new Red Wings coach, speak at Tuesday’s introductory presser—especially with your eyes closed—it was like you stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the summer of 2005.

That’s when the Red Wings hired Babcock.

Blashill, 41, is a year younger than Babcock was when the Red Wings brought Babs in to replace longtime, loyal employee Dave Lewis, the promoted assistant whose two years as head coach were checkered.

Blashill speaks with the same cadence as Babcock. He seems to have the same approach to the game as Babcock has.

When Babcock arrived in 2005, most Red Wings fans knew him only from that horrific playoff series in 2003, when Babcock’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks used a hot goalie and some puck luck to sweep Detroit in the first round—a year after the Red Wings capped Scotty Bowman’s brilliant career with another Stanley Cup.

By the time Babs left the Red Wings a decade later, to attempt to breathe life into the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was being hailed as the best coach in the NHL.

Enter Babcock’s Mini Me.

Blashill, born in Detroit and reared in Sault Ste. Marie, has been groomed by the Red Wings for this moment. He spent one year as Babcock’s apprentice in 2011-12 and then he guided the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins for three, bringing a Calder Cup home in 2013.

Blashill represents the new age hockey coach in the NHL: young and prepped in college and the minors.

It’s another confession here from an admitted old-timer.

It’s remembrances of when the NHL coach wore a fedora behind the bench and he had a first name like Toe or Punch or Sid. His ruddy face was etched with crevices. He wasn’t younger than 50. There were only six of them.

And they were never, ever, anything other than Canadian.

Today, five times that many are coaching in the league, and more teams are opting for youth behind the bench.

Not only is Blashill on the young side, but he’s young and a coaching veteran. That’s how these kid coaches roll nowadays.

Blashill is barely older than the players, yet he’s been behind hockey benches for well over a decade. Which means he started coaching in his 20s.

Mike Babcock started in his 20s as well.

I don’t think the coaches in the Original Six days were ever in their 20s. I swear they came to life one day, pacing behind the bench at the Forum or Olympia, 53 years old.

Blashill was a goalie when he played, and you can make cracks if you’d like, that former goalies rarely make good head coaches. You’d be right. It’s kind of like how former pitchers rarely make good managers in baseball.

It’s another former goalie, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who kept Blashill hostage in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun last summer. When Blashill was being approached by other NHL teams, Holland hit Blashill with a hefty raise and made the kid coach promise to stay with the Red Wings. If that sounds like how the Mafia does things, well there you have it.

The reality is that if Holland is anything, it’s that he’s always prepared with a Plan B.

In this case, B, as in Babcock/Blashill.

One of the two Bs was going to be the Red Wings coach in 2015-16. That was for sure.

If Babcock played the field after his contract expired on June 30, 2015, and found that the ice isn’t always smoother elsewhere, then Babs would be the coach in Detroit.

If Babcock left, then Blashill was going to be the man.

There was no Plan C, because it wasn’t going to be needed.

The Red Wings have their first American-born head coach, and the first to be born in the 1970s. It’s like being the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital.

Blashill’s birth in December, 1973—in Detroit—presents a delicious tidbit for the old-timers, like yours truly.

Blashill was born when the Red Wings were a league laughing stock. Just a few months after Blashill entered the world, Red Wings GM Ned Harkness resigned.

Harkness left the Red Wings a mess, four years after he swept into town. It took the franchise a good 15 years to return to relevance.

More irony here.

Harkness was the Red Wings’ attempt to be forward thinking. He was hired from the campus of Cornell University, where he was wildly successful as a college hockey coach.

The NHL barely had any college-prepped players, let alone coaches, in 1970.

Now here comes Blashill, with some college coaching experience at Western Michigan University and those three years in the AHL.

Where Ned Harkness was an “out of the box” hire, Jeff Blashill is merely another young hockey coach who is getting his big chance in the NHL.

Harkness was hired out of the blue; Blashill was waiting in the, um, wings.

Harkness was hired against the wishes of GM Sid Abel; Blashill was hand-picked by GM Ken Holland.

OK, so it’s not necessary to belabor how this Red Wings organization is so very different from the the one that stumbled through the league in the 1970s, but with Blashill being born in 1973 and growing up a Red Wings fan when the team was doo-doo, the old time hockey fan can’t help but smirk.

Blashill wanted this Red Wings job very badly. So did a host of other coaches, but the reality is that they never had a shot at it.

Coaching the Detroit Red Wings is like managing the New York Yankees. The line of interested parties in the job would be longer than that at a deli counter on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s a plum job and Blashill has been eyeing it ever since he served his one year as an assistant in Detroit.

Of course, it’s one thing to be standing next to the head coach and quite another to actually be him—especially with the Red Wings.

You don’t coach hockey in Detroit in anonymity.

Come next spring, Jeff Blashill is likely to find himself in a playoff series. It will be his crash course. The shelter that being an assistant coach provides will be gone. The kid coach will have to grow up in a hurry.

Contrary to some people’s belief, the Red Wings don’t gun to simply make the playoffs every year to keep their post-season streak alive.

The goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup.

Wait—isn’t that every team’s goal?

Sure, but in Detroit it’s more than just talk. The Red Wings haven’t raised hockey’s chalice in seven years and that’s bordering on being unacceptable.

Two years ago, the Red Wings took the favored Chicago Blackhawks to a seventh game in the conference semi-finals. In April, the Red Wings scared the bejeebers out of the current Cup finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, extending that first round series to seven games.

Was Mike Babcock the reason that those underdog Red Wings teams didn’t go quietly?

Not sure.

But instead of basking in the glory of twice taking a favored opponent to the brink of elimination (the Red Wings blew a 3-1 series lead against Chicago and a 3-2 lead against Tampa), the focus ought to be on why the Red Wings couldn’t close the deal.

Maybe that’s a question better asked of Holland, but Blashill is the one that’s going to be at the podium, answering reporters’ questions during the playoffs.

And we’ll see how much he still sounds like his predecessor.