For the Red Wings to Win, it might make sense to lose

USATSI_9235876
Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SPORTS

So it’s come to this. One game left for the Red Wings, one game left for the Bruins, and two games left for the Flyers to decide which two of the three teams is going to stick around to compete for another shot at the promised land. This might be the most talented of the nail-biter conclusions we’ve seen in years, and certainly the most threatening to the Red Wings that it’s been in years, if not decades.

There’s still lots of reason to be hopeful. But maybe we’re all hoping for the wrong thing?

For those who watch basketball, perhaps the most shocking news we’ve seen this month has been the resignation of Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie. Hinkie was famous for taking the “tanking” philosophy to a whole new level, shedding all of immediate assets for draft picks and prospects in an attempt to build through the draft. It was a noble, percentage playing effort that was attached to a realization – that you can’t reasonably expect to beat the powerhouses with a middling team, developing middling prospects, with little geographical, financial, or historical incentive for free agents to join the team.

From Hinkie’s 13 page, manifest-like resignation letter to Philadelphia’s ownership group:

A league with 30 intense competitors requires a culture of finding new, better ways to solve
repeating problems. In the short term, investing in that sort of innovation often doesn’t look like much progress, if any. Abraham Lincoln said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” 

Now, I’m not going to walk in here and suggest that the Red Wings need to blow it all up and replicate  “The Process”. The Process, even if it seems like it could work in theory and has worked by accident in many sports, hasn’t truly been realized in an intentional environment. At least, not from front to back. 

The closest parallel in the stats-driven era is likely the present-day Buffalo Sabres, and while that team has improved by 25 points this year, they’re still not particularly hope-inducing just yet. Which, after years of failure is the last thing you want to say about a hockey league that exists to make profit off of entertaining its customers. Until it works, of which there are no guarantees.

But at the same time, you can’t help but wonder if Detroit are setting themselves up to become a middling team, built around consistency and a “history” but unable to break much further through. Before you jump on me for that thought, step away from everything you believe in and hop into the birds eye view.

Stagnancy

The Red Wings are, for the second consecutive year, on the cusp of having their famous playoff appearance streak snapped. A look at the underlying shows that this isn’t exactly a product of luck; Detroit’s possession numbers are equally middling, and their PDO sits awfully close to 1000 at 997. The peaks and valleys of Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek have led to an end result of spectacularly average goaltending. Within a margin of error, this is about the best that the current incarnation of the Detroit Red Wings can offer. 

That’s concerning. Especially when you look at the composition of the group. Pavel Datsyuk is still awesome, but he isn’t what he once was. To make matters worse, if he does go back home this offseason, he won’t be anything to the Wings other than a salary cap liability. Henrik Zetterberg still drives play, but he’s aging, declining, and carries a cap recapture risk. Niklas Kronwall’s knees have been less than kind to him, and who knows if Johan Franzen is ever going to play hockey again. That’s a lot of money to invest in a core of down swingers.

Perhaps just as bad, though, is the fact that the secondary cast isn’t exactly getting younger, either. Dylan Larkin is amazing and a “glitch in the system”, so to speak, but after him, you have Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tomas Jurco under the age of 24. The Red Wings have never been strangers to employing an older cast, but as the game gets faster and prime age trends younger, it seems like they’re racing the clock on prior traditions. Not to mention, the likes of Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson, Kyle Quincey, Brad Richards, and Jimmy Howard aren’t exactly the supporting casts of the past, even if they’ve received proportionately equal investments.

Investment is a key term to keep in mind here. The slow trickle growth of the Salary Cap has left the Red Wings in a bind. Going into next year, they have $16 million to spend in replacing Quincey and Richards, making a decision on Darren Helm. On top of that, they to extend the deals Riley Sheahan, Teemu Pulkkinen, Alexey Marchenko, Danny Dekeyser, and Petr Mrazek, and that’s not even taking into account the disaster of trying to find a new Datsyuk if the rumors are true. Even when taking into account the growth of younger talent, it’s hard to imagine a situation better than stagnancy for next season.

Looted Mines

Worse is the fact that while Detroit’s prospect pool as a few intriguing names in the pipeline, it’s not exactly the supply chain that it was a few years prior. The Red Wings spent years picking up “hidden gems” in the late rounds by going scouting places where others wouldn’t bother looking, grabbing players for upside rather than safety, and giving them all the time in the world to develop.

But the innovation gap has closed there too. Every team is in every rink. If they aren’t, they’re scrubbing some sort of data out of it that will encourage them to get there soon enough. Teams are swinging for the fences and using their minor league affiliates for development more than they ever have. What was once unique is now the standard, and rather than push forward, the team has stayed in place.

Which means, with consistent success and a habit of moving picks to make the team better ahead of the postseason, the Wings have been left with what might be their least encouraging prospect pool in decades. Outside of Evgeny Svechnkov, Joe Hicketts, and Villi Saarijarvi, there isn’t really a lot to phone home about even from a second-tier perspective. It’s a group which has it’s biggest value in the fact that they can be cost-controlled depth callups, but that doesn’t matter much unless your cap team is seriously competitive.

Moving On

The solution to the long-term problem likely doesn’t necessitate a long-term rebuild or a “tanking” effort. The Red Wings by no means have to bring back the “Dead Things” era. But in the chase for a 25th consecutive playoff appearance, it feels like the team has rid itself of its aspirations to be a serious contender and is content with the good enough. Seeing as this team has gone through decades-long droughts before the golden age, you could probably sell the market on that, but it’s far from the most rewarding.

Bringing the subject back to basketball, Kobe Bryant was asked two nights ago about finishing his career on the worst Lakers team in history. His answer was one that showed zero respect for complacency. “There aren’t different degrees of losing,” said the NBA legend. “You either win a championship, or you’re shit.” I think that’s a bit hyperbolic, and doesn’t apply as much to a sport like hockey where the playoffs have a little bit more any-given-Sundayism to them, but I do agree with the point that there is no joy to be taken in being “good enough”. The end game is always to get your name engraved on the Stanley Cup, and with the core of the last great rosters starting to fade away, I’m not sure that the Red Wings are still in that spot.

With that considered, I don’t think that there would be a much better outcome for the team than for the next two days to go terribly wrong. Losing in the first round of the playoffs will be shrugged off; a loss to the Rangers paired with a last-second push by the Bruins and Flyers, on the other hand, will be just what the doctor ordered. The “streak” would stop being a goal and become a memory, allowing everybody from the casual fan to the boardroom to take a more objective look at what the next step is.

Is the next step a fire sale? Probably not. But it might be signing short-term projects in August rather than grizzled veterans in July. It might be moving expiring contracts in March to add to the draft pool rather than giving up assets to make one more run. It might mean  taking more chances at the draft rather than believing that being the Red Wings will be enough. It might mean that the last year at the Joe isn’t as great as the best years at the Joe, but it’ll also mean that there’s no expectation of beginning-to-end excellence at the next building. Look at Rexall Place this week; the Oilers said farewell to a building with even more champions by icing a miserable team, but it was still every bit as great of an ending.

This staff has done some pretty amazing things over the years. It’s not crazy to believe that they could refocus the team’s efforts and create a new nucleus without completely bottoming out. But it won’t happen until they have a reason to move on. The next 48 hours could provide that reason, and if we’re being honest, it would probably be best for the team if they did.