It has been nine seasons since the Detroit Red Wings last made it past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They managed to keep their precious postseason streak alive through eight of those nine campaigns, but years of trading draft picks, whiffing on selections and signing/trading for over-the-hill veterans finally caught up with the one-time juggernaut.
Gone are the days where a stateside Pavel Datsyuk, a prime Henrik Zetterberg and healthy Johan Franzen terrorized opposing teams during deep playoff runs. Nicklas Lidstrom has proven to be what we all thought he was — irreplaceable — while Brian Rafalski and his perfect outlet passes seem like a distant, misremembered dream.
These outstanding players have been slowly replaced by also-rans. An aging group of utility players, where forwards such as Justin Abdelkader, Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening log big minutes. There is a Chicxulub crater-sized gap between the team that made back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances nearly a decade ago and the group that is in place today.
Some may argue that it’s impossible to keep high-end teams together in the Salary Cap Era, but the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks have something to say about that. It’s not impossible to maintain excellence. It’s difficult to maintain excellence. General managers have to be smart and keep their wits about them during each and every moment of each and every season.
Despite hiding behind one of the oldest and most respected banners in the NHL, Red Wings GM Ken Holland has simply failed to live up to these expectations.
If “not maintaining a Stanley Cup-caliber club for 10 straight years” was a fireable offense, roughly 95 percent of the league’s managers would be in big trouble. Winning the game’s ultimate prize takes a lot of poise, and a bit of luck. Still, there’s a lot to be said about the progress towards hosting a parade and away from early tee times each summer.
For the last few seasons, the Red Wings have been trending in the wrong direction. Sure, they had 43 wins in 2014-15, but former head coach Mike Babcock had an awful lot to do with coaxing a decent season out of a declining group of players. That was the last hurrah for the Euro Twins, and Jeff Blashill hasn’t been able to replicate the water-into-wine miracle over the last two years.
Blashill may not be akin to Babcock, but Holland hasn’t done a good job of setting the bench boss up for much success. He’s traded away useful NHLers Brendan Smith and Calle Jarnkrok while trying to ride second-rate free-agent signings back to the top of the mountain.
That’s not how contenders are built these days, and mostly everyone besides Holland seems to be aware of that fact. He’s badly overpaid unimportant, unimpactful bottom-six forwards to outlandishly lengthy deals. He’s continuously tried to bring in stop gaps the likes of Steve (freakin’) Ott and Thomas Vanek via free agency, moves that bore little fruit besides trade deadline returns. He’s traded away young players and draft picks for veterans David Legwand, Marek Zidlicky and Erik Cole in hopes of taking an unlikely run at the Stanley Cup.
None of these tendencies bring to mind the qualities that championship-caliber general managers have. And the time has come to realize, and frankly admit, that Holland is no longer a championship-caliber GM.
And the longer he’s allowed to drive this car down the road, the more damage will be done. The Tomas Tatar negotiations ought to be the last straw, even though the list of transgressions is long.
Word out of Detroit is that the 26-year-old has rejected a five-year deal worth $25 million, and that he’s looking for something in the neighborhood of $6 million per across six or seven seasons. That may seem steep, but Tatar has established himself as a prominent NHL goal scorer. He’s a consistent player who has more goals than all but 30 players over the last three seasons.
He’s been Detroit’s best finisher over the last two campaigns, and it hasn’t been all that close. Yet, Holland is hesitant to give Tatar money and term, despite locking Abdelkader up for seven seasons at a way-too-high cap hit of $4.25 million. How can Glendening be more welcome for Holland than Tatar?
Backing up a drump truck full of money and security for bottom-line players while balking at the reasonable demands of Tatar is just another sign that Holland is incapable of building a winner in the Cap Era. That doesn’t take anything away from what he’s done for the Red Wings, but the time has come to get a fresh set of eyes on this roster.
Holland hasn’t demonstrated any mastery at the draft table in recent years. He clearly doesn’t know how to handle the restrictions of the salary cap, is unwilling to let young players play in the NHL, gives too much term and cash to players who aren’t worth it and repeatedly tries to shore up his sinking roster with patches that make no sense.
The longtime executive is out of leash with the Red Wings, and it’s time for the team to part ways with Holland.