Niyo: Red Wings end skid, still need course correction
Detroit — If pride comes before disgrace, and humility comes before wisdom, well, somewhere along the way you figure the Red Wings will come to the same conclusion that many of us reached long ago.
Then again, you also figured the Red Wings would show up Tuesday night to begin a five-game home stand at Little Caesars Arena determined to produce a better result than they did in their last two disastrous outings.
And they did that, all right, grabbing a quick two-goal lead on the Western Conference-leading Winnipeg Jets and finishing off an impressive 5-1 victory to snap a seven-game skid and avoid the franchise’s longest winless streak since 1991.
The stench of that 10-1 loss in Montreal over the weekend was a powerful repellant, as you’d expect following a performance that left captain Henrik Zetterberg saying “we basically embarrassed everyone that played with the Winged Wheel tonight, and we’ve got to live with that.”
Yet the end result Tuesday doesn’t change the reality of where this team stands, nor should it alter the direction the Red Wings must go from here. How much longer they’ll live with this charade — that they’re a playoff team, not a rebuilding one — is still the more pertinent question for this organization.
This isn’t about lineup juggling or even a coaching change. The Red Wings haven’t fired a coach in midseason since the 1985-86 season, when they replaced Harry Neale with Brad Park. And doing so now with Jeff Blashill probably would have a similar effect, which is to say none at all.
Blashill, whose contract runs through next season, was asked Tuesday morning if he thought his message wasn’t getting through to the players, and his answer was pretty clear. So was his team’s response against the Jets, for what it’s worth.
“I think they’re bought-in as much as ever since I’ve been here, to be honest with you,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’ve played great. That doesn’t mean the results have been there. But from a message standpoint, I think they understand.”
Understand this, too: It’s not as if his immediate boss disagrees. Up until those last two games against Montreal, general manager Ken Holland had few, if any, complaints with the job Blashill was doing this season. The structure looked better, the special-teams units were excelling, and Blashill was giving more ice time to young players like Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha and getting rewarded for it.
But that’s where all this gets a bit harder to read, because Holland’s future in Detroit seems just as uncertain, if not more so, with an expiring contract and no apparent talks of an extension for a GM who has been in place for more than two decades.
So at this point, it’s really about ownership taking stock of a cupboard that’s been laid bare here, with too few high-end prospects in Detroit and too many bad contracts cluttering the shelves. And it’s about Chris Ilitch admitting that what’s right for one team doesn’t have to be wrong for the other.
“Nobody wants to see a rebuild,” Holland insisted last spring, after the Wings’ magical 25-year playoff run finally hit a wall.
But nobody is all that eager to see this, either, whatever they’re calling it. Entering Tuesday’s game, this current roster was on pace for 76 points this season. That’s less than a point per game, but it’s also less than a point per million dollars spent in player salaries, which may be why Holland has reached a point of no return in Ilitch’s eyes, if he has, in fact.
Losing doesn’t have to be pointless, though. Ownership finally acknowledged that with the Tigers this summer, selling off big names and bigger contracts while openly committing to a lengthy — and painful — reconstruction project.
And while that can’t be done quite the same way here — no one’s taking some of these contracts weighing down the Wings’ payroll, while a draft lottery offers no sure things — there are moves waiting to be made.
Holland admitted as much in an interview with Fox Sports Detroit earlier Tuesday, giving his team about a month to give him a reason not to be a seller again at the trade deadline, as it did a year ago when he finally auctioned off a few spare parts.
“I look at the next 10 or 15 games for this team as being critical in determining what direction we’re gonna go,” he said, right before his team went and handed the Jets just their fourth regulation loss since mid-October.
That direction should already be decided, though, with a long list of players — Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Mike Green, Trevor Daley, and even Jimmy Howard — squarely on the block. If Dave Dombrowski could do it on his way out the door with the Tigers in 2015, Holland certainly can, too.
But it's up to ownership to make that call. Now is no time to let pride — or the past — get in the way of the future.