From one vantage point, the Red Wings look doomed. They don’t have stars in their prime or a stocked farm system, and they don’t have loads of salary-cap space. They also don’t have a proven history of rebuilding because, well, they haven’t done it in 25 years.
Ken Holland has heard the yelps and knows the odds, and he’s not giving in or giving up. He’s also not interested in defending his record of success or belaboring the rough reality of the Wings’ current circumstance. They’re stuck in a difficult spot partly because they’ve avoided it for so long, and Holland takes a lot of the heat. He gets it, agrees with some, vehemently disagrees with some.
The Wings’ longtime GM is digging in, and sticking to the plan for digging out. The Wings won’t make a big splash when free-agency opens Saturday. They won’t trade future picks or prime young assets. They will sign one or two stopgap veterans — possibly a defenseman such as the Penguins’ 33-year-old Trevor Daley — with the goal of reaching the playoffs in their first season at Little Caesars Arena.
That sounds stubborn to some, even though the touted alternative — the unseemly notion of “tanking” for better draft position — provides no clear timetable for success. The Wings are adjusting some elements but Holland isn’t altering his basic philosophy. He loves the size of 6-6 center Michael Rasmussen, taken ninth in the first round of the entry draft. The Wings added bulk and defense with their 11 picks, and when their draft class was ripped as underwhelming by many experts, Holland didn’t fire back.
“If you think we’re a million miles behind everyone else, I disagree,” Holland said Thursday. “It’s a league of parity. I’m not tanking; people pay a heavy price to go to the rink, and I’m trying to put a product on the ice. The plan is to compete for a playoff spot, while not spending any futures. I’m hunkering in and trying to build this thing, and oversee a group that at some point can compete for the Cup.”
It seems a long way off. The Wings have a terrific captain in Henrik Zetterberg, a three-man core of dynamic youngsters in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, and not a lot more.
That’s the basic definition of rebuilding, with one caveat. It indeed might take the Wings several years to be a legitimate contender again, but Holland isn’t begging for the time, and deep down, knows there’s no guarantee he’ll get it. This is a franchise that went to the playoffs 25 consecutive years, won four Stanley Cup championships and isn’t willing to slide quietly into oblivion — even if a significant slide is unavoidable.
New owner Chris Ilitch hasn’t publicly stated a shift in competitive expectations, although he surely is realistic. He also hasn’t extended Holland’s contract beyond this upcoming season. Holland is aware of the criticism from fans and media, and to a certain extent, has retreated into his work. There’s not much more to explain. If you admit to a complete rebuild when the franchise is moving into a fantastic new arena, you’re devaluing the product at the precise moment it’s gaining more attention.
If you suggest you’re still trying to win right now, you sound huckster-ish. So Holland and coach Jeff Blashill are required to do what many GMs and coaches around the NHL are forced to do — work with what they have and make your own players better.
I doubt Holland will even sniff at a high-priced free-agent this weekend; adding big contracts isn’t the ideal way to manage a roster with too many big contracts. I don’t think he’ll even make another run at Thomas Vanek, whom he signed a year ago and then traded away. There’s no sense in clogging the pathway for younger players unless the addition is a huge upgrade.
“There are no shortcuts,” Holland said. “If we’re going to head this thing up, realistically it’s gotta be done with young people. We had a number of players that didn’t play to their level last year and we’re expecting them to bounce back.”
No saviors on market
Improvement had better come from within, because there aren’t any stars riding into town. When the league’s biggest free-agent prize is Capitals’ defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, you know there aren’t many quick fixes.
Oh, big names are available — Alexander Radulov, Radim Vrbata, Patrick Sharp, Joe Thornton, Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Marleau — that would be fine signings if this were 2010 and the Wings were flush with cap space. They don’t have much, thanks partly to bad contracts.
Holland has made mistakes, certainly. He’s also been GM since 1997, during the greatest 20-year stretch in franchise history. You can pin much of the success on Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and others, but to overlook Holland’s role is petty.
That said, there’s a lot he still can prove, to quell the noise. When he exposed Petr Mrazek, 25, in the expansion draft instead of Jimmy Howard, 33, the complaints were silly. Howard had a tremendous season when healthy. Mrazek struggled mightily and wasn’t even selected by Las Vegas, and now the Wings theoretically have a more-motivated goalie, and perhaps a less-entitled one.
That’s how it is when a franchise wins one playoff round in six years — every decision is magnified and scrutinized. The Wings aren’t good enough, and Holland and his staff haven’t defied the odds and gotten better without high draft picks. Larkin rebounded nicely at center late last season and the 6-5 Mantha scored 17 goals. The selections of Rasmussen and second-rounder Gustav Lindstrom were panned by some observers, but showed the Wings recognize their weaknesses.
They were too small and tried to get bigger. They were too old and tried to get younger. Holland respectfully disagrees with those who plopped the Wings in the "losers" category after the draft.
"I think it’s easy for people to find reasons to not like players,” Holland said.
“I certainly understand, when dealing with 18-year-olds, you’re gonna miss more than you’re gonna hit. We like the picks. I think most players we took are good skaters in a league that’s fast.”
Everything moves faster now and the Wings are trying to keep up, even as dire assessments pile up. Holland hears them and understands them, and still believes in his plan to change them.