If there’s a Swedish Mafia, they’re not doing a good job

If you were thumbing through your Twitter timelines yesterday afternoon, there’s no doubt that you stumbled upon Jeff Moss’ “scoop” regarding the dysfunction in the Detroit Red Wings organization. Specifically, his claim that Henrik Zetterberg is a cruel and evil dictator, who has been overruling Jeff Blashill on player personnel decisions and running the team in a way that he sees most fit.

Speculation along the lines of Zetterberg having some sort of greater-than-captain influence in the Red Wings room has been whispered for quite some time now, and was recently rehashed by our very own Greg Brady:

Brady also went as far to call out Blashill as potentially going “too far” in listening to the two veteran Swedes about who to play, which is certainly damning. In any event, Moss took his similarly worded tweet a step further and wrote a full post yesterday, declaring that the Red Wings have a “Swedish Mafia Problem”.

I’m not going to copy and paste the whole piece here, but for those who don’t want to give a page view to the highly controversial author, here’s a basic summary of the accusations. (For those who don’t mind visiting Moss’ site, the link is here)

  • Zetterberg and Kronwall were responsible for the Red Wings calling up Joakim Andersson in time for the playoffs, pressuring Blashill into requesting the move and giving him ice time while Tomas Jurco, Teemu Pulkkinen, and Anthony Mantha watched from the press box or Grand Rapids.
  • Blashill spent considerable time attempting to scratch Jonathan Ericsson, only to be vetoed by the Swedish duo. The two also convinced the powers that be to pick Ericsson over Brendan Smith for playoff duty.
  • Zetterberg would frequently follow up team talks by Blashill by overruling him and giving his own strategies and approaches immediately after the coach would leave the room.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything is nice and pretty in Detroit. Far from it. I have concerns that the team is so worried about the playoff streak that they’re putting off a much-needed rebuild in favor of mediocrity. I have concerns that Ken Holland is so concerned about player loyalty that he won’t be willing to shed depreciating assets before it’s far too late. I have concerns that this team is in a rougher cap position than most are willing to admit going into July. I have concerns that the prospect pool isn’t terribly deep, I have concerns that the “late round steal” and “over-ripen” model are dying in effectiveness as the playing field levels, and I have concerns that the Red Wings might have one of the bleakest long-term outlooks in the game right now.

But a Swedish Mafia? I’m not sure if I buy it.

Let’s start by looking at the Andersson situation as an example of the team being in a personnel-picking crisis. That concept seems a little far-fetched to me. Andersson played just 34 regular season and playoff games with the Wings this year; his fewest since joining the team and fewer than half as many as he played last year. If Zetterberg and Kronwall had the influence to put him into the lineup, they did a pretty awful job of it. If they had that influence, that means they had a bigger one under Mike Babcock, which many would scoff off as an impossibility.

More likely, the Red Wings incorrectly believed that Andersson would provide the team a defensive boost. They used him as a secondary penalty killer. They used him more when the team was leading than when they were trailing. They also didn’t play him all that much; Andersson averaged just 6:35 of ice time per game, the least on the team. I probably wouldn’t have had Andersson in my lineup, but I’m not willing to buy the idea of him being Zetterberg dragging him onto the ice if it barely ever happened.

Similar can be said for Ericsson. He’s a tire fire in his own end, both statistically and visually, and he doesn’t put up points. Jonathan Ericsson is the fan’s scapegoat for this team, and it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve it. But this isn’t new information; he’s been like this for years. Years where he’s been played, by whichever coach had him, so long as he was healthy enough to complete the task. Brendan Smith is a fancy stats darling who is visually dependable on both sides of the ice, and should absolutely be playing, but history implies that his snubbing has more to do with general incompetence than politics.

You also have to wonder about the whole over-ruling on strategy part of this accusation. Common sense implies that Blashill would be able to see a repeated history of players ignoring his orders and doing something else. Common sense implies that players who haven’t built a loyalty up to Zetterberg yet would have mentioned that this was happening. Common sense implies that Blashill could punish players through ice time or lineup decisions for repeatedly playing against the order.

One could argue that Blashill wouldn’t shake up the antics of the “mafia” for the sake of his own job security. But there’s one problem, here – nearly everything that Zetterberg and Kronwall have been accused of doing has resulted in this team being objectively worse on the ice, and if true, would have been responsible for the Red Wings only just barely making the playoffs and getting embarrassed by half a Lightning roster once they got in. Snapping the streak might be beneficial to the team in the long run, but if it happens because of terrible player personnel decisions, the coach is going to be the first person to get his head chopped off.

If Jeff Blashill is letting Henrik Zetterberg do his job in fear of being fired for rocking the boat, he’s setting himself up to be fired for being a bad coach. Because, if any of this is true, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall are awful coaches. Awful coaches, who are both 35-years-old on a bubble team that desperately needs to find a new identity if they want to continue their reign of success.

Do I believe that the two might be in denial of the process and want the Wings to continue to push forward? Absolutely, they’ve only been here their entire careers and know nothing other than success. Do I believe that they have certain players that they’d like to play with and, as the bridge between the bosses and the players, they’ve communicated similar feelings? Probably, especially from the other mainstays.

Do I believe that there’s a Swedish Mafia that’s calling the shots regarding who plays and who doesn’t? No. No matter how loyal this organization is to their players, I highly doubt that such a disruption of culture would be allowed just because of the names delivering it. I’m more willing to believe in incompetence than total disorder in this situation.