“We have to figure out which of the players are a part of the solution and where we need to upgrade” - Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings General Manager David Guralnick, The Detroit News
Detroit — The Stanley Cup playoffs will begin tonight, and they will begin without the Red Wings for the first time since 1990, back when Russia was still the Soviet Union and the World Wide Web didn’t exist.
So this was hardly business as usual Tuesday, as the players gathered at Joe Louis Arena to pack their belongings and pose for the annual team photo.
“We’ve known for some time now it wasn’t gonna happen,” veteran defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “But it’s a weird feeling. It’s a lot of emotions at once.”
None of them particularly pleasant, either. Kronwall used the term “brutal” to describe it. Henrik Zetterberg, the team captain, called it “a big disappointment.” Even rookie Anthony Mantha, who was born after the streak began and inexplicably wasn’t allowed to participate in it last spring, understood what a “terrible feeling” this was, to sit and watch.
“It’s always better when you come here to play hockey, that’s for sure,” he said.
It is, for sure. But just as certainly, we can say this, even if none of the players or coaches — or particularly the general manager calling the shots, the one who heard the fans calling for his job the other night as they serenaded Steve Yzerman after the final game at The Joe — seemed willing to Tuesday.
They can’t use The Streak as a crutch — and an excuse — anymore. Or at least they better not try.
“These fans want to watch playoff hockey,” Holland said Tuesday, barely an hour after he Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, told beat writers ownership has “100 percent confidence” in the GM. “Nobody wants to see a rebuild. They want to see you make the playoffs. They want to see you be competitive. They want to think they’ve got a chance to make the Stanley Cup.”
Maybe so, but thinking and doing are two very different things in today’s NHL, and if this franchise really wants to do as Ilitch says — “Make no mistake, our goal is very clear: It is to build to another Stanley Cup champion,” he insisted — they should embrace this disappointment for what it is: An opportunity.
“The streak is over, that’s a fact,” said Jeff Blashill, who also will be back for another season as head coach. “Certainly there’s something to be said for a fresh start.”
And as the Red Wings move into a new building — one that promises to be the envy of the league — they need to move away from some of thinking that has them so encumbered at the moment.
Short-sighted decisions from management and long-term commitments to overvalued veterans the past few offseasons have left the franchise grappling with salary-cap limitations. But starting with last month’s sell-off at the trade deadline, there’s a chance this summer to start making amends.
Making a Vegas play
That’ll require Holland change his tune, though, or perhaps Ilitch to demand it. And it’ll start in June with the expansion draft, where the Red Wings must try to shed one of those salaries (Darren Helm? Justin Abdelkader?) even if it requires bribing Las Vegas with one of their stockpiled draft picks. It’ll continue in July with free agency, where the Red Wings need to stand pat rather than doing what they’ve done lately, diving headfirst again and again into increasingly shallow pools.
This isn’t about subtly “tanking,” really. That’s a straw-man argument Holland and others keep making. (“What if you tank and it doesn’t work?” he asked rhetorically Tuesday.) No, it’s about thinking smarter, and acknowledging where things really stand.
The Red Wings finished 17 points out of a playoff spot this season, with the fifth-worst goal differential in the league. Man-games lost to injury don’t explain that away, and a simple move or two won’t close that gap, the league’s parity notwithstanding.
Maybe there’s a bigger deal to be made this summer, or more likely next season, when they’ll have more rentals (Mike Green?) to offer at the deadline. Everyone knows the Wings desperately need a workhorse, top-pair defenseman, and there shouldn’t be many, if any, untouchables on this roster.
“Would I like to shuffle the deck? Would I like to make some changes?” Holland said Sunday. “Yeah, I would.”
But assuming he can’t, or won’t — blockbuster trades aren't easy to come by — the improvement on the ice will have to come from within. And it probably won’t be enough to get the Red Wings back into the playoffs a year from now.
Yet that’s OK, too. The new building will keep the fans’ attention for awhile, and the young talent should as well, provided it is given a chance. Instead of signing another Steve Ott or bringing back a Drew Miller, why not give Evgeny Svechnikov a chance next fall?
Holland reiterated his entrenched views on that subject again Tuesday — “I don’t believe in entitlement, I don’t believe in handing people jobs,” he said — and Blashill likewise will be feeling the heat next season, no doubt.
“But I don't have any concerns about my ability to get the most out of our players,” Blashill said, “or my message not being heard.”
To be fair, Blashill did do a better job of asserting himself this season, and installing his own system, even if all the line juggling and message-sending led to some peculiar decisions and confused roles. Some things defied explanation — Riley Sheahan on the power play, for example — still others seemed gratuitous, like sending Mantha to Grand Rapids to start the season or routinely calling out Andreas Athanasiou, while veterans ahead of them floundered.
“I don’t want to say I’m happy with my production because I always want to do better,” said Athanasiou, who was among the NHL leaders in even-strength goals per 60 minutes (1.27) this season — ahead of young stars like Calder Trophy candidate Patrik Laine. “But I think I did well with what I was given.”
But there’s something to be said for holding everybody to a higher standard when it comes to effort and intensity and accountability, on and off the ice. As Frans Nielsen, the veteran, two-way centerman put it Tuesday, “You can’t skill your way through this league today. It’s too hard.”
No, it’s not. And it won’t be easy for the Red Wings to work their way back to where they think they belong. But now that they’re on the outside looking in at the playoffs, they can no longer pretend to be something they’re not.