The Salary Cap Isn’t The Only Reason Elite Talent Won’t Come To Detroit

I just took a really long vacation in Newfoundland, Canada. For a Red Wings fan who loves to talk hockey, it’s not a bad place to be. There are a lot of Wings fans there. Some of them are spillover from the Red Wings popularity through the late-90s and early-00s, but most are due to a sort of hometown pride from a local who was part of two Red Wings Stanley Cups.

Danny Cleary is from The Rock. His jersey hangs in local establishments. Twice now, in both years that I’ve attended the George Street Festival,I’ve run into Cleary on George Street and in its various establishments.

This year, after the festivities on George Street, my fiancée and I decided to take a week and travel the province. It was a beautiful trip. The most eastern province of Canada is overrun with greenery, rock, and water. The people, it seems, are few and far between. One third of the island’s 500,000 inhabitants live in St. John’s, the capital city, and it’s surrounding area. There are no Marriotts or Hiltons when you stop in small towns and villages across the province. Instead, you’re relying on good old fashioned bed and breakfasts.

In one of these establishments, in the very small town of Trinity, I struck up a conversation with one of Newfoundland’s many Red Wings fans. It was late-evening, maybe 9:30 P.M., and we were just returning from a late fish and chips dinner on the dock. The B&B we were staying in was in an old, two-story house. There were four bedrooms, each with their own private bathroom, on the second floor of the house. The main floor was a common area complete with couches around a television, like any modern day living room. When we walked in, the room was occupied by two families – two couples and their children. At first I was caught by surprise as the place was deadly silent when we checked in hours earlier. They greeted us warmly and invited us to join them for a beverage. We took our beers out of the fridge and sat with them. They were from Clarenville, a small city only an hour away. They had decided at the last minute to ride their boat across the bay and spend the night in Trinity. We made light conversation, but it didn’t take long for the talk to turn to hockey, as it does with most Newfoundlanders.

When they found out that I was from Windsor, and a Red Wings fan, one of the men got very excited. A smile pursed his lips and he said, “Oh yeah, b’y! I love the Red Wings!”

He then patted his daughter on the back and said, “You like the Wings too, don’t you?” She nodded in agreement.

“Why don’t you tell them what number you wear?”

“Eleven,” the young girl said, shyly. Danny Cleary.

That’s how they are in Newfoundland. They support and take pride in their own.

“That’s right,” her Dad said. “Cleary.” Then, without missing a beat, he looked at me and said, “They should take a run at Tavares, eh?”

I blinked a few times, letting that one sink in. I speculate a lot about the Red Wings and what kind of moves they should make – I am a blogger, after all – but I have to admit, the thought of them taking a run at John Tavares never crossed my mind. And for good reason: it was ludicrous! They don’t even have the money to sign a sophomore restricted free agent to a bridge deal!

But sure, they could clear the $8-$10 million in cap space needed through trades and buyouts. It wouldn’t be the first time that Holland worked some salary dump magic. Only last year, he managed to rid himself of Pavel Datsyuk’s $7.5 million cap hit, seemingly entering Detroit into the Steven Stamkos sweepstakes. We know now, of course, that Detroit was so far off of Stamkos’ radar that they couldn’t even get his agent on the phone. And that’s because he wanted to go to a contender. He wants a Stanley Cup.

These players not dumb. They can look at a team like Detroit and see that their roster is mediocre, though adding some star calibre could take them to another level. What’s scaring these free agents away, especially the elite talent, is not the on-ice product. It’s the puppet masters, pulling the strings from their offices and behind their cell phones. Players like Stamkos and Tavares likely look at what Ken Holland’s built and don’t have the faith that he or his staff have the gall to do what it takes to make their team a contender season after season.

Detroit’s problem is not with the salary cap, it’s a systematic and cultural problem bred by a bunch of old guys who maintain, “Back in my day, we hit hard, we played with heart, and we were loyal to one another and that’s why we won”.

Don’t get me wrong, those are all admirable and important qualities to a hockey team, especially for one to win the Stanley Cup, but there’s an additional layer of speed and skill required now. Gone are the days of skating lines and checking lines. The best teams just have skating lines. But Detroit’s got their checking lines locked up long-term and are showing no signs of shipping them out for more skilled options. And that’s why, even if Detroit cleared the space for him, John Tavares wouldn’t even pick up the phone if they called.

All of this ran through my mind as this nice man in rural Newfoundland looked at me, patiently waiting for my answer.

“I don’t think John Tavares is the answer to our problems,” I replied, letting him down easily.

He nodded thoughtfully and said, “Yeah, they have some work to do, but those young guys are pretty good. They’ll be fine once Athanasiou, Mantha, and Larkin get some experience.”

“Yeah,” I said, “They are exciting players,” But you could hear it in my voice and see it in my eyes that I wasn’t completely sold. Overall, there is still a lot of hope out there in Wings Nation and it’s commendable. When your team has been winning for as long as this team has, it’s hard not to be hopeful. And I saw that in this man. He had a certainty that this was a temporary rough patch and the team would be back to it’s winning ways any game now.

I think he could see that, for me, that hope was gone. This team has got a long and hard road ahead of it. Until I see some change to the culture and management style, I will continue to believe that. And so will elite talent around the league.

Who really sees John Tavares leaving Brooklyn anyways?