What The Heck Happened To The Mighty Detroit Red Wings?

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Two seasons ago it was the Western Conference semifinals, last season it was the Western Conference semifinals again, and late last night, after only five games, the Detroit Red Wings were unceremoniously eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row, this time in the first round to the Nashville Predators, and they really did not put up much of a fight.

Nashville deserved to win, as they were the better team, just the latest in a suddenly expanding list of teams that can make that claim about the Detroit Red Wings. And that’s new for the Wings.

Yes, something very, very weird is going on in Detroit, and the time is long overdue to start asking questions, like what in the world has happened to the NHL’s former model-franchise.

You see, for three or four years now, I have been beyond perplexed watching as the Detroit Red Wings’ roster aged and declined, while their General Manager, Ken Holland, who has a reputation as the NHL’s best General Manager, did practically nothing.

Allow me to take you back to where this reign of apparent apathy appeared to start, the offseason following the 2008-2009 season.

Before then, the Red Wings were the Red Wings as we’ve always thought of them, both on the ice and off. After losing to an Anaheim Ducks squad that would go on to win another Cup in 2006-2007, Ken Holland went out and signed star defenseman Brian Rafalski to a six-year, 30-million-dollar contract.

This was perfectly in line with the vintage Red Wings logic that had led them to so much success in the past: if the team is not good enough, then spend the money and make the moves necessary to improve it, immediately. If the team needs a defenseman, don’t just get any defenseman, go and sign the best defenseman, because that’s what the Red Wings always used to aspired to be, the best.

That was how hockey fans had always watched the Red Wings operate. Waking up on July 1st every offseason to find the Red Wings had snatched up your favorite free agent had become an NHL custom. The Red Wings didn’t just want to be the best like everyone else, they did everything in their power to make sure of it.

Bringing in Brian Rafalski was just the latest example of this long-running phenomenon. The last thing you would accuse them of was disinterest, frugality, or inaction.

And wouldn’t you know, after signing Brian Rafalski in the offseason, the Red Wings went on to win the Cup that very season, finishing off Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games to clinch hockey’s holy grail.

The following offseason, Ken Holland continued working his magic on behalf of the Red Wings organization. Many hockey pundits already thought the roster was good enough to win another Cup, seeing as it had just won the last one, but did that stop the Wings from going out and getting the best talent money could buy? No way.

Ken Holland found out former-Penguins’ all-star forward Marian Hossa wanted to sign on for one year to try to win the Cup with Detroit, because back in those days Detroit was the team players always picked as having the best chance of getting them a Stanley Cup ring, and even though Hossa would prove expensive at 7.45-million-dollars (for the year) and push Detroit up against the salary cap ceiling, the Red Wings signed him anyway.

And why wouldn’t they, every hockey fan thought to themselves. It’s Detroit! Of course Hossa wanted to go there, and of course they were willing to spend the money to make it happen, because they’re the Detroit Red Wings, the kings of the NHL, the team you can always count on to spend more than anyone else (as far as the salary cap allows), spend smarter than everyone else, and in general just kick all our teams’ pedestrian asses.

The Red Wings would continue to reinforce those perceptions the next season as they made the Stanley Cup Finals for the second year in a row, succumbing to the Pittsburgh Penguins this time in seven games due only in my opinion to what looked like injuries and accumulated fatigue. But for my money, Detroit was still the best team in the NHL when healthy during the 2008-2009 season, for the second year in a row.

And while Hossa left in the offseason to sign with Chicago because Detroit did not feel they had the cap space to offer him a competitive contract, you felt the Red Wings would just retool like always, spend every last penny of the cap space they did have on the best talent available, and be back competing for the Stanley Cup in 2009-2010.

That’s when things started to get weird.

From July 1st, 2009, day one of the off-season, to this day, the biggest free agent Ken Holland has signed was Ville Leino out of the Finnish Elite League, who he later traded for a 6th round pick. Or was it Todd Bertuzzi, who scored 14 goals this season and disappears worse than any Red Wing every playoffs? Or maybe Ian White?

Three off-seasons have passed now without the Red Wings signing one single unrestricted free agent making 3-million-dollars per season or more.

In fact, the Red Wings left over seven-million-dollars in salary cap space unspent this season (I calculated that number by adding the salaries of the Red Wings’ thirteen most expensive forwards, seven most expensive defensemen, and Jimmy Howard and Joey MacDonald).

If you had told Red Wings fans last summer that their team was not going to spend to the cap ceiling this season, or even come close, they would have laughed in your face. Detroit always spends to the cap!

Yet, even though it might have been the most unpredictable scenario given Detroit’s long history of spending as much money as possible on talent, in a way it was also the most predictable. I know I personally saw it coming at the time. Something has just been weird and wrong in the Detroit Red Wings organization the past few seasons, and spending less money on players seemed like the logical next step in the fall of this franchise. The only unexpected part of the Wings offseason to me was, of the money they did spend, spending it so wrong, with a redundant no-trade clause to boot for the un-tradeable Jonathan Ericsson (I exaggerate).

The sudden reluctance to spend to the cap raises the question, are the Red Wings having some sort secret financial problems? The New York Yankees would never just stop spending money all of a sudden for no reason; I don’t think the Red Wings would, either. So what’s the reason?

Afraid To Trade?

It’s not just the sudden decline in spending and ambition that stands out as odd to me, either. Consider this. Aside from giving away Ville Leino to the Philadelphia Flyers for a 6th round pick, Ken Holland had not made one single significant trade for player(s) since 2009 until this season’s trade deadline, where he traded his 1st round pick for Kyle Quincey, a defenseman originally drafted by Detroit who Holland had let go for nothing four seasons earlier. Holland still has not traded for anyone who is not a former-Red-Wing and who he did not previously give away.

It almost seems like one day, Ken Holland woke up and just decided it was time to let someone else win, or that the number one priority had shifted from winning to… not.

This lack of activity in the trade market is even more curious when you consider the current state of the free agent market. Every year there are less quality unrestricted free agents due in part to the increase in long-term contracts around the NHL, so the supply is down, and the salary cap is the highest it’s been since the 2005 lockout, which means prices are higher than ever, too! This often makes the trade market not just the best option, but the only option to acquire young, high-quality talent that is actually locked into favorable contracts for the team, instead of the king’s ransom you often have to pay in free agency.

Other GMs have certainly realized this trend, such as San Jose’s Doug Wilson, who primarily used the trade market to in fact surpass the Red Wings’ on the ice, as Ken Holland utilized neither market, for the most part. Wilson’s Sharks would eliminate the Red Wings two post-seasons in a row, from 2009-2010 through 2010-2011, largely through the efforts of players acquired by trade, such as Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, and Dany Heatley.

The question has to be asked, with the success other franchises have found in utilizing the trade market for at least part of their roster-building, why have the Detroit Red Wings shied away from it? For that matter, why have the Red Wings shied away from acquiring new impact players, period, by any means?

Is There A Disconnect Between Mike Babcock and Ken Holland?

Generally speaking, for any NHL franchise to run smoothly, the General Manager and the Head Coach need to be on the same page and have a good, working relationship, where the coach and GM have a dialogue and come up with some ideas of tools the coach could use to win more hockey games, and the GM goes about getting him those tools.

If we go by what we see in the media, Mike Babcock and Ken Holland seem to be the model example for a productive partnership, however all the real evidence recently suggests otherwise. That doesn’t mean they don’t like each other or don’t get along, because they seem to get along just fine. But there is so much more to a productive head-coach-GM partnership than amiability. It’s about results, and if Red Wings fans feel they are not getting results from their General Manager, it might surprise them to hear that Mike Babcock seems to have similar complaints.

Let me take you back to last offseason, in May, after the Sharks had eliminated the Red Wings for the second year in a row. Mike Babcock was asked in an interview with Bill Simonson of WBBL’s Huge Show’s what he thought the Red Wings needed to add to their team in the offseason. Here are the quotes excerpted from the interview.

Bill Simonson: Mike, what do the Wings need, the most important thing that you think’s missing from making this team a Stanley Cup champion again?

Mike Babcock: We need, uh…a top-two “D,” to replace Rafalski; we need a top-six forward to give our guys opportunity, and that’s all we need. The rest, the rest we can work out through, with what we have, but we could use a top-six forward and we could use a top, a high-end “D.”

A top-two defenseman, and a top-six forward.

About three weeks later, on June 24th, 2011, a top-two defenseman was moved. He was the only top-two defenseman moved or signed by anyone the entire season.

But it wasn’t the Red Wings who acquired Mr. Brent Burns. In fact you could say it was quite the opposite. The San Jose Sharks, a team who didn’t even have a key defenseman in need of replacing like the Red Wings did with Rafalski retiring, a team that didn’t even need another top-two defenseman at all, at least they obviously didn’t need one to beat the Red Wings, acquired the juggernaut defenseman for an overrated and one-dimensional top-nine ‘tweener forward in Devin Setoguchi, a promising center prospect Charlie Coyle, and a late 1st round pick.

When Mike Babcock found out about this trade, his reaction was not one of a head coach on board with the plan of his General Manager, where instead of his Red Wings getting the only top-two defenseman available at the time (and ultimately all season), that defenseman went to the worst alternative team imaginable, the Wings’ very arch-rival that had eliminated them two years running.

“They just hit a home run,” Babock said of the Sharks. “That’s a gold medal pick. I’m pissed off.”

When a coach is asked about draft day and his response is “pissed off” as opposed to “happy,” I don’t think that means he’s pleased with his General Manager.

As a result of the Red Wings’ losing out on Burns, and later many of their first-choice unrestricted free agents such as James Wisniewski, the Red Wings would endup settling for a consolation prize in Ian White, ironically the defenseman who the Sharks were willing to cast off for nothing just to make room for Burns.

Ian White is a good complimentary defenseman, but Mike Babcock said he wanted a “top,” “high-end,” “top-two” defenseman, not a complimentary puck-mover type, and there was a reason. While White would go on to fill in adequately next to Nicklas Lidstrom during the regular season, he’s not a top-two defenseman or even a top-three, where Rafalski was when healthy, which means the Wings got worse in the tradeoff from a healthy Rafalski to White, not better.

Babcock realized this would happen if Holland only added a top-five puck-mover type of guy, which is probably why he explicitly wanted a top-two. That might explain why he was so “pissed” when he heard about the Burns trade; Ken Holland did not deliver.

Babcock’s other offseason need was a top-six forward, a need he mentioned a few more times as the offseason dragged on without Holland acquiring one, as if to remind his GM. If memory serves, Babcock also mentioned that adding one with size would be ideal.

Truth is, the Red Wings have actually needed a top-six forward since Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson left three years ago and neither was replaced, which makes it all the more strange that Ken Holland still has not made much effort to fill that hole.

Ultimately, the only UFA whispers coming out of Detroit last offseason to remind us they even have a contending hockey team were reports they were interested in signing Jaromir Jagr, and had made a non-negotiable, lowball offer of around two-million-dollars. But Holland would give up on signing Jagr after being outbid by the Philadelphia Flyers mega-offer of 3.3-million-dollars for one year. That’s Jonathan Ericsson type money!

Add that to the growing list of un-”Red-Wing”-like actions, as defined in the vintage “Red Wings” sense, being taken by Ken Holland.

I mean outbidding the Red Wings used to be, if not a near impossibility, certainly a lot harder than offering a one-year contract worth less than four million dollars.

Babcock had gone on record saying he wanted another top-six forward, and as one of the smallest teams in the NHL it was obvious they needed size, but then when one who brings both elements comes along at an affordable price and a low-risk term, they let him go without fight?

And were the Red Wings so stingy with their contract offer, not wanting to raise it by possibly up to 1.5 million-dollars, because they wanted to save every dime of cap space for the trade deadline? Because they ended the season with over seven million unused dollars in cap space, and that’s not even pro-rated.

It just doesn’t make any sense. The Red Wing’s inability to replace Hossa and or Samuelsson the last three off-seasons and trade deadlines, and really what seems like some reluctance to even give it a serious try–the Jagr situation just being the latest episode of that, has to truly make you question what is happening behind the scenes in the Red Wing’s front office, that they have lost their “mojo” so badly and so suddenly.

As for the final tally at the end of last offseason, Holland did not sign or trade for a single new forward, top-six or otherwise. Not even the forward-equivalent of an Ian White. Babcock had wanted a top-two defenseman and a top-six forward, and the prize he got was a top-four-top-five undersized puck-moving type defenseman. That’s it.

Then, despite, I suspect, more requests for improved forward depth by the coach as the trade deadline approached, Ken Holland traded for another defenseman instead, and still not one single forward.

The net result was one of the Detroit’s better depth defenseman, Jakub Kindl, sitting in the press box all postseason as an extra, unneeded piece, while the team needed some pieces at forward they didn’t have because Holland refused to acquire them for his coach.

As you can imagine, Mike Babcock was not happy after what he has diagnosed as the team’s lack of depth led to their third early playoff elimination in a row, and he took what appeared to be some shots at his General Manager, however veiled, in his press conference after last night’s series-ending 2-1 defeat to the Nashville Predators. You just don’t often see any dissension within the Red Wings organization, so these comments of Babcock’s are significant.

Mike Babcock Postgame Press Conference Analysis

Mike Babcock (on why the Red Wings lost the series): Their depth up front was better than our depth up front, especially their third and fourth lines. I really thought, I liked it better when they had them all on two lines, but when they put them on three lines, because they could do that, they had us in trouble big time there on the matchup … I thought Zetterberg was fantastic in this series, but when you go through and you look at our group, to me as a group of forwards, I like the depth on our backend … but I didn’t think we had enough up front, and I think it showed in our scoring … And that hurt us I thought for sure.

Translation: In other words, it’s a roster issue, on paper, ‘our forward depth is not good enough, and although I’ve tried to explain this to Ken Holland, he refuses to give me any help, and there’s nothing I can do. The forward depth is not good enough. Even “(Nashville’s) depth up front was better than our depth up front” (and Nashville, while a good offensive team, is no juggernaut at the forward position).’

More Mike Babcock (still answering same question on why they lost): “… When you lose 4-1 in a series, the series in the end, you can talk about the games all being a one goal game, to me that’s not close. 4-1′s not close.”

Translation: That just sounds a lot to me like he’s saying, ‘I know Ken Holland is going to try to spin this series like it was close because the individual games were close, just like they were the last two years San Jose eliminated us, so that he doesn’t have to change anything or make any big moves to the roster, but I want to set the record straight once and for all, it wasn’t close, the depth is not good enough, and it’s time for Kenny to wake up now and improve the roster for once.’

Also interesting is if you watch the press conference, notice how Babcock brings almost every question, whether it’s about the defense, a turnover, or what, notice how he brings every one back to the forwards at the end. He’s really trying to emphasize that point to everyone, his GM included it seems, that the forward group is not good enough and he needs more to work with there.

More Mike Babcock: “They probably have seven top-six forwards, so that gives them really good depth.”

Translation: ‘And we don’t, so we don’t.’

More Mike Babcock: “We’re not as deep as we used to be, and it’s very apparent.”

Clearly, Babcock is really trying to spell out the point and make it clear: this roster that the General Manager put together for this season is not good enough. He uses the word “deep” instead of “good,” but it amounts to the same thing in the end.

(If you want to watch Mike Babcock’s press conference for yourself in its entirety, check at the bottom of the blog.)

What’s Preventing GM From Giving Coach What He Wants, Then? What Is Ken Holland Really Thinking?

All in all, when you look at Babcock’s comments last offseason about what he thought needed to be added to the roster to make it a Cup contender, and then you look at Babcock’s comments tonight in the post-series interview, you can see that Babcock is making it very clear: he does not feel like he got what he asked for last summer, maybe even from before last summer.

Obviously, we don’t need Babcock to tell us that for us to know. We just need to look at the roster, look at the moves Holland made, or didn’t make, to see that Holland did not add anything coach Babcock asked for.

But what’s interesting is to hear Babcock actually say it in public. I wouldn’t say that means he’s “desperate,” but going public to the press is definitely that “next step” you take in this business when the internal asking is not working, when it’s not sending a strong enough message.

The question is why. Why cant Mike Babcock seem to get through to Ken Holland? Doesn’t Holland want to win just as much as Mike Babcock? Because if the ambition is the same, Ken Holland has never had trouble filling roster holes and putting together an elite roster before, so why now? Why have three years passed since Mikael Samuelsson and Marian Hossa left without Holland coming even close to replacing them?

It would be one thing if we were talking about a historically incompetent General Manager, but this is different, it’s almost like some sort of immediate onset of incompetence that happened after the 2008-2009 season ended in heart-breaking game-seven defeat.

That’s what makes me wonder if there isn’t something else to this. I just have a hard time believing the best-run organization in hockey can turn into one of the worst at filling its roster holes just like that, overnight. It seems more likely to me that there is some sort of intent at the heart of this to maybe save money.

In other words, I have to think, with the management team the Red Wings have, that if they actually wanted to fix the forward depth and re-stack their roster the way they did in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, they would have found a way to do it already.

I keep going back to, I know they’re the Red Wings, but they’re still located in Detroit, and you have to wonder if the economy has hurt the team more than they let on financially. I really don’t know enough about their ownership situation and Mike Ilitch’s Little Caesars pizza company to say, other than I just don’t think the competence level of Ken Holland and the Red Wings’ management team dropped from 100 to 0 overnight. I think it’s usually not competence that drops quickly, it’s ambition and cash.

But I’m not sure of that theory, either. All I know is what’s happened in Detroit the last three years is really weird and unusual. You just don’t see huge model-franchises, like the Yankees, all of a sudden just stop. Stop spending, stop acquiring new players, stop making moves. You don’t see it. The model teams can lose, yes, everybody loses at some point, but they always lose trying.

Like the Red Sox last season. Things didn’t work out for them, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. They made the biggest free agent signing off the-season in Adrian Gonzalez, who had a great year for them; the team simply didn’t perform well as a whole. But the brass behind the team never stopped spending on talent and trying to propel the team to greatness.

And that’s what’s so strange and so different about what we’ve seen from the Red Wings the last three years. They went from one of the more active and ambitious teams in the NHL, always in the conversation about the big free agents, to being a complete ghost. They just fell off the grid completely, Again, their biggest name signings since 2008 have been Ville Leino out of Finland and Todd Bertuzzi. It’s been a complete reversal, and it’s just very strange.

One thing’s for sure, Babcock seems to be running out of patience with whatever it is that’s going on, and if Wings fans have something to be positive about, it’s that Babcock seems to be sending the right message to Ken Holland and Red Wings ownership, and he’s sending it loud and clear: your experiment of resting on your laurels, penny pinching, and leaving roster holes unfilled has failed, and it’s time for this franchise to return to the tried and true Red-Wing-way of aggressive spending and roster additions.

And I think this first round exit might finally be enough to wake Holland up from his slumber. Sometimes that’s exactly what a franchise needs, a wake-up call, and this is definitely one of those times for Holland and company. Wings fans just have to hope losing to Nashville in five games was enough to do the trick, otherwise the Wings will be in the situation at this time next season.

And whether Holland wakes in time to fix his team for next season or not, I still think it’s important to ask why he’s been asleep for so long as the helm of such a respected franchise in the first place.

(*** Update April 23, 2012, in response to some commenters: I do understand Holland faced various obstacles each of the last three seasons–not a lot of cap space in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, and not a lot of great free agents when he finally had cap space this season, but there are always ways to make your team better, and many other GMs found ways to do just that despite facing the same obstacles Holland faced, where Holland has not. Some GMs even faced worse obstacles and flourished; just look at the Phoenix Coyotes and their internal budget.)

What do you think? Share your theories and thoughts in the comments or tweet and follow me on twitter.

That’s my analysis on the Red Winged riddle. Just a reminder, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email in the box to the right and clicking the subscribe button. Also if you want to watch Mike Babcock’s press conference in its entirety, click the link below. Thanks for reading!

Mike Babcock Game 5 Postgame Press Conference

Written by Shark Circle

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