This might not be what fans of the Detroit Red Wings want to hear at the moment, but if you’re looking the franchise to strip things down to the wood and rebuild from the bottom, you’re going to be disappointed. Because the same thing that made the Red Wings a modern-day dynasty and fuelled them to 25 straight playoff appearances is what is going to continue to drive them.
And that is that it’s simply not in GM Ken Holland’s DNA to strive to be bad. So don’t expect the Red Wings to unload veterans en masse, fire their coach, clean house and start over. Rather than rebuild, Holland thinks the Red Wings need to retool.
“If you look at the Eastern Conference, there are five teams that were out of the playoffs last year that are in this year,” Holland said. “We’ve got to do what those other teams did last year that missed and are back in. We have to retool a little bit and try to get a little better. And over the long haul keep drafting and developing. That’s how the Red Wings were built.”
The notion of tearing things down completely and being bad for a few years and rebuilding into a powerhouse sounds really sexy to a lot of fans and fantasy hockey players, but Holland has a really good point here. Think about it. If the recipe for building a Stanley Cup contender were simply a matter of being bad for an extended period of time and accumulating high draft picks, why are the Arizona Coyotes still one of the worst teams in the NHL? Why did it take the Columbus Blue Jackets 15 years to build a contending team? Why are the Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes still perennially missing the playoffs? The Washington Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, but haven’t been out of the first round of the playoffs.
The Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs once in 11 years prior to this season and are on the right track largely because they got a generational player in Auston Matthews. The Edmonton Oilers had high pick after high pick, but would probably still be a non-playoff team if not for Connor McDavid, a player they got because they won the draft lottery and were among the worst teams in the league for a decade. It makes no sense to Holland to purposely be a bad team, particularly when so many things have to fall into place to stumble onto those kinds of players.
“Why would you want to be bad with no guarantees on the other side?” Holland said. “Why would anybody do that?”
Instead of slapping their palms against their heads, Red Wing fans should be encouraged to hear those kinds of words. There is more than one way to build a contender. The losing method is one. But there’s another way. By building a team with solid drafting and development of players, the way the Red Wings did it the first time. It’s a method they know and are good at, and the last thing you want to do when you’re moving into a new arena is tell your fans the first couple of years there are going to be miserable. “Maybe if we miss the playoffs five straight years, maybe that’s an appropriate conversation to have.”
The way Holland sees it, a lot went wrong with the Red Wings this season. They had some players, namely Dylan Larkin and Gustav Nyquist, who weren’t as good this season as they were in the past. They went almost three months without scoring a power-play goal on the road. In November and December, they won three of 15 home games. And they were devastated by injuries to key players. When the Capitals were in Detroit in late February, Holland said he read a stat that said at that point in the season, the Capitals had lost 20 man-games to injury and the Red Wings had lost 343.
Nobody said this was going to be easy. The Red Wings are in a cap crunch, with seven players aged 30 or older who have two or more years left on their deals (eight if you include Johan Franzen, who is on the long-term injury list). The Red Wings will be dinged to the tune of $2.6 million next season for the Stephen Weiss buyout. And lest you think the Red Wings would even entertain the thought of moving Henrik Zetterberg, perish the thought immediately. “Zetterberg’s jersey is going in the rafters,” Holland said.
The Red Wings will be in the front row of the draft for the first time since they took Keith Primeau third overall in 1990. If they stay where they are in the standings, they’ll pick seventh in the first round and 38th in the second and will have four third-round picks. Its farm team is near the top of the Western Conference in the American League and has some players who are close to being ready for the NHL in Evgeny Svechnikov, Tyler Bertuzzi and Tomas Nosek. Larkin has taken a step backward in terms of offensive production, but he’s continually learning to play a complete game and adjusting to being more heavily scrutinized. Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha have surprised with their contributions. They have a good young coach who is getting better.
That doesn’t mean Holland will not be looking to make improvements from outside the organization. But again, making earth-shaking deals is much easier in fantasy hockey than it is in real hockey. “Am I going to work the phones?” Holland said. “Yeah, we’ve had a lousy year. I’m not going to step up and make this bold announcement, ‘I’m going to make massive, sweeping changes.’ I don’t know if I’m going to make massive, sweeping changes. Maybe nobody likes our players or their contracts.”