Ken Holland’s entering his 20th season as Detroit Red Wings General Manager, and though he’s come under more criticism the past few years because of the Red Wings’ lack of playoff success (just one playoff round victory in the past five years and a 5-15 W/L playoff record in their past 20 games), this past weekend made me remember why he’s probably been in the office as long as he has, he isn’t afraid to swiftly take an eraser to his own mistakes.
Start with the premise that it’s been a tougher half-decade for him than the previous three were and we’re on the same page. Now, the non-objective defenders of “all things Holland”, many of whom cover him on the actual beat, and several of whom are part of the old boys’ network on both sides of the border, will always point to the fact the Red Wings never do draft in a good position to get future stars, and it’s very, very true. Dylan Larkin was the franchise’s FIRST Top 15 pick since 1991, which was the team’s most recent Top 10 pick (Martin Lapointe), and the year before in 1990, the Wings had their most recent Top 5 pick taking Keith Primeau at #3 overall.
So, just the one Top 15 Draft pick since 1991 — in contrast, Chicago’s had 12 Top 15 picks (including 5 Top 5 picks), Boston has had 13 (4 in the last 2 seasons), and Pittsburgh, surprisingly, maybe, only 6 (but having Crosby, Malkin, Fleury in that stretch may make people assume they’ve had more). So, yes, the Draft and it’s lack of positioning for a team that’s made the postseason 25 seasons has impacted Detroit, but, note this — Holland has traded his first-round pick to chase either the playoffs or a Stanley Cup championship in ten of those 25 years. Sometimes the first-rounders go for Chris Chelios, and sometimes Kyle Quincey. Again, no GM is perfect.
But in covering the Red Wings for so long and watching how they operate, I know this about Ken Holland: As much as he doesn’t like to admit mistakes via free agency or trades, he is often quick to resolve them. I mean, is a contractual buyout anything other than an admission of a “mistake” amidst changing circumstances, and especially for a “Cap team” to continue to be such, looking to maximize how that money is spent?
The Red Wings bought Stephen Weiss out after a miserable 78 games over 2 seasons. They bought out Jordin Tootoo with a year remaining on his inexplicable three-year deal, and Carlo Colaiacovo after one year of a two-year contract, and though too slowly for many fans, turned the page on the second go-rounds for veterans like Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson, who were simply shells of their prior selves. And let’s waste little time on discussing Uwe Krupp, one of the worst free-agent signings, bar none, in the history of Detroit sports. If not for Scotty Bowman’s insistence and blind spot regarding Krupp, he’d have never been allowed back to play those eight regular season games and two playoff games in the Cup-winning 2001-02 season. I’ve told the story before that many Red Wings players after Game 2 of the first-round series against Vancouver, including Nicklas Lidstrom, basically had to beg the assistant coaches and management to convince Bowman not to play Krupp the rest of the series, or playoffs — and Lidstrom benefited by getting Freddie Olausson as a new partner the rest of the postseason.
But Holland deserves considerable praise for the weekend’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes. While in France at Euro 2016, my phone was buzzing with word that Holland was being “considerably aggressive” (as one source put it) in attempting to deal the dead money on the Datsyuk contract. I’m not sure “desperate” quite covers how Holland was feeling about this. Desperate to have more cap room in an intriguing free agency year, and equally desperate not to be hearing all season that the $7.5M cap hit Datsyuk ungraciously left behind was hindering the Red Wings from reaching their planned accomplishments.
While many had pegged Carolina as a proper landing spot for this deal, Holland targeted a team with experience in this department — the Arizona Coyotes and new general manager John Chayka, who was born the same year as Gustav Nyquist, for a little perspective. Arizona began taking over paying Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Pronger’s Philadelphia Flyers contract last fall, and Pronger’s $4.9M cap hit now has company with Datsyuk’s $7.5M tag. But many neutral observers are feeling Chayka didn’t have to acquiesce as much as he did in this particular deal. It looks like a favor-for-favor deal when it’s all laid out, and I’m not sure why the Coyotes needed a favor of this nature from the Red Wings. Sure, maybe they didn’t want to pay Joe Vitale the $1.3M not to play, but does the deal truly fall apart without including the second-round pick that Detroit received? Given Holland’s desperation to put Datsyuk and his three-year deal, and how he left, and when he KNEW he’d leave, I find it hard to believe the deal wasn’t sweet enough already, just to let the Coyotes move up four spots and take the player they wanted (Sarnia’s best defenceman Jakob Chychrun – who slipped down the Central Scouting rankings from a projected Top 8 pick at midseason).
Given Vitale will simply join Johan Franzen (with four years left of a cap hit of $3.9 million) on the Red Wings’ LTIR list, and not see the ice this year, there’s still an urgent need for more forwards on this Red Wings roster — they currently have ten who played in the NHL last season (and current RFA Teemu Pulkkinen, who had a solid World Championships for Finland, makes eleven).
Of course, much is made of the cap room being cleared for Steven Stamkos, and it does seem like the only three teams being readily discussed as potential destination points for the 26-year old coveted free-agent-as-of-Friday-morning, are Detroit, Buffalo, and of course, his hometown of Toronto. I’ll write later in the week on the pros and cons of each scenario for Stamkos, but my feeling is the Red Wings aren’t as in the hunt as many want to believe, but they’re slightly more in it than I, myself, believed as of two months ago (which was basically not at all). The Cap issues on this team are still plentiful, and without buying out either Jonathan Ericsson or Jimmy Howard, which the team doesn’t seem interested at all in doing, the concern has to be Holland spending the Datsyuk money on an older Top 6 forward (with declining numbers and abilities) and being stuck with that contract in the first few years of the Red Wings’ new building, where everything’s going to cost a little more for fans, and to be honest, the demand for a better product than seen at the Joe Louis Arena the past few seasons will be greater.
There is no more coasting on prior reputations. For Holland or his players. It will be about results. Laugh if you will, but each of Toronto, Buffalo, and, now Boston we can say assuredly, have recognized what they are as a franchise, and what they are not. Some of the darts the Bruins have thrown at the Draft the past two seasons are going to pay off. Toronto and Buffalo have added multiple potential transcendent star players, and though, yes, the Red Wings really look like they found gold with the Dylan Larkin draft pick, he’ll have to play with better players (and younger players) over the next few seasons to fully reach his potential to produce.
But that said, there’s a ton of warning signs about long-term deals to, say, a 31-year old Loui Eriksson, or a 32-year old David Backes. Or even Milan Lucic, who’s only 28 and showing signs of diminishing returns already. Then there are players like Kyle Okposo and David Perron who might be great value (especially for the first few years) of a potential 5-6 year contract. Either way, Holland earned his applause on the weekend with the Datsyuk deal, and while he merited criticism for letting Datsyuk bake the cake (the front-loaded three-year extension) and eat it too (taking and cashing the $17M-plus and then bolting), his weekend trade gets the Wings into a UFA bidding position that was impossible. I still feel the Red Wings aren’t fully recognizing the potential decline that may be coming that every franchise has to reckon with, but a productive and smart July 1st will keep the wolves at bay and make for a much more interesting beginning to the 2016-17 season in what I think could be a startlingly more competitive Atlantic Division.