It's hard to believe that the Red Wings' season ended just over 100 days ago. Detroit's 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators ended a roller-coaster of a season that saw them lead the NHL standings in December, set the NHL record for consecutive home wins, and win 1 lowly playoff game against a hungry and determined rival.
The disappointing end to the season put the fanbase on edge, but there was reason for optimism as some very skilled free agents were rumored to be coming to Motown. Topping that list was Ryan Suter, the former Predators defenseman who was entering unrestricted free agency for the first time and sure to attract a lot of interest. Wing fans wanted Suter in red, and the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom only increased the urgency that the Wings didn't just want him, they needed him to bolster a defense that also saw Brad Stuart depart to San Jose.
Then the Minnesota Wild and their hypocritical owner swooped in with a mega-deal that lured Suter and his fishing buddy Zach Parise (also on the Wings' radar, although to a lesser extent) to the Twin Cities to join a franchise that jumped out of the gate last year before injuries and statistical regression caught up to them.
Fast forward a few weeks and news came out of Philadelphia that the Flyers had signed restricted free agent Shea Weber to a monster 14-year, $110 million offer sheet. The Predators, refusing to become the NHL's newest farm team, wisely matched the offer, ensuring that another key player who could have desperately helped the Wings was suddenly off the market, and the cries from the fanbase were all the same:
Why hasn't Ken Holland done anything?
Let me start this by saying one very clear and important thing: Ken Holland is one of the biggest reasons why the Red Wings have remained at or near the top of the NHL for the last 20 years. He has made moves that have brought 4 Stanley Cups to Detroit, and he has always sought to do what is best for the team while maintaining the on-ice quality that Wing fans have come to expect. I have always believed that he is the best GM in the game.
It's time for him to prove it again.
The Red Wings will enter 2012-13 in a very unfamiliar position: no longer the class of the division, the losses of Lidstrom and Stuart will likely lead many pundits to consider their "run" to be at an end, predicting that this is finally the year that the Red Wings will come back down to Earth and their 21-year playoff streak ends. While those may be extreme opinions designed to rile up what many know to be a sensitive fanbase, there's no question that the Wings as currently constituted will not be mentioned as a Cup contender until after 5-8 teams have already been discussed.
This is no doubt very new and unfamiliar territory to Wing fans who are used to having their team always in the mix when discussing the elite in the NHL. However, circumstances both within and beyond the Wings' control have resulted in a perceived "return to Earth" for the team and anxiety regarding the upcoming season.
As last season progressed, it was pretty well known that Brad Stuart wanted to be closer to his family in California and, entering unrestricted free agency, likely was going to sign with one of the Kings, Sharks or Ducks. Holland, either because he had conversations with Stuart directly or because he reads the papers and blogs, sought defensive help at the trade deadline by re-acquiring former Wing draft pick Kyle Quincey. Quincey was seen to be Stuart's "replacement" (although the mere thought that one player can completely fill a void left by another player, particularly one with a role like Stuart's, makes me cringe), and when Stuart's rights were traded to San Jose (the team he promptly signed a contract with), Wing fans wished Stuart well and focused on Quincey and his potential for next year.
Then Nicklas Lidstrom retired, and suddenly there was a gigantic hole on the blueline that no combination of players could fill. The Wings went hard after Ryan Suter and, from all accounts, seriously inquired about Shea Weber, but Suter decided that the opportunity to play with Zach Parise in Minnesota was too much to pass up, and Philadelphia went financially psycho and threw an enormous offer sheet at Weber. With very few quality options still available, fans started to panic.
While I understand and believe that Holland did everything he could to lure Suter to Detroit short of offering him the only set of keys to Mike Ilitch's private bathroom, what concerns me is not that they couldn't land Suter but that they "needed" to in the first place. I can't be the only one who saw that the Wings had to do something to replace Lidstrom once he retired (which is physically impossible, like replacing Steve Yzerman or carrying on an intelligent conversation while pictures of Kate Upton are flashed before your eyes), but the lack of internal options is what bothers me the most.
Why did the Wings "have to have" Suter instead of just wanting him to make an already very good defense corps that much better? Once Suter signed with the Wild, why did it feel like Weber was the new "Plan A", where a long-term contract with anyone else would be devastating? How did it come to pass that the Wings had to look outside the organization to fill such a massive need, rather than addressing it internally with a player that was ready to take the next step?
For all the talk of the Wings' drafting prowess and ability to discover gems in late rounds, the number of defensemen currently within the system that seem to have a real chance at developing into NHL players is noticeably small, especially when compared to the forward depth the Wings appear to have. The last few Stanley Cup champions have all been very good teams, but one thing they all had in common was a very strong set of defensemen, including one guy who was a de facto star. I think the Wings' defense corps is not as bad as some people are making it out to be, but I do not believe it's good enough to carry the Wings to a Cup.
Consider what the needs are for this team: a top-2 defenseman and a top-3 forward. Granted, every team in the league would love to have more players like this on the roster, but all of the good teams are very confident in their best 5-man unit. Look at the Wings' roster and tell me that you're comfortable with Kronwall and a combination of Ian White, Jonathan Ericsson, Kyle Quincey, Jakub Kindl or Brendan Smith going against the best forwards in the NHL night in and night out.
How does a team that is clearly getting older not address these issues? How did Holland and the rest of his management team allow this to happen? Certainly finishing high in the standings year after year means that the Wings don't get the benefit of drafting a star junior defenseman early, and some bad luck in the past has resulted in the Wings not enjoying the careers of 2 guys who would have been fixtures for years in Vladimir Konstantinov and Jiri Fischer. However, one could see that the Wings' defense was getting older, and other than Smith no one within the system seems close to making the jump to the NHL.
In the past, the Wings had 2 things they could rely on to attract top talent to Detroit: the promise that the player would have a legitimate chance to win the Cup, and he would be paid a lot of money. Then the salary cap happened, so point #2 was eliminated as everyone could spend the same amount, and the introduction of the cap led to increased parity throughout the league, meaning point #1 was tougher to make.
Gone are the days when the Wings could put forth a roster of Lidstroms, Yzermans, Shanahans, Fedorovs and others as proof of a dominant team. Gone are the days when Mike Ilitch could give Holland a blank check and say "go get this guy, cuppy cuppy cuppy".
Does all this mean that Ken Holland is suddenly bad at his job? Of course not. But no one gets to ride on their past accomplishments forever. In every business, it's all about forward progress and "what have you done for me lately?". This team has serious flaws in the roster, and while I believe Holland has done what he could to address them, the fact remains that the only moves that have been made were to shore up depth at the forward position.
So, rather than put my head in the sand and say that everything's going to be fine like an apologist or start lighting torches while heading up an angry mob, I am simply issuing a challenge to the Red Wings' front office staff and Ken Holland in particular: this is the year that you need to prove that you are the best in the league. The roster is decent, but I think most of us in the deepest recesses of our brains understand that this team needs more than just tinkering if they have any chance of competing for a Cup.
We're watching you, Mr. Holland. You have a very anxious fanbase on your hands, one not used to watching a mediocre team that may not be good enough to win on most nights. As the general manager, the buck stops with you, and if you really are as good as everyone thinks, then you will do something that will knock our socks off and remind us just how lucky we are to have you running our franchise. If you don't, then we may start to see actual criticism of you, something I am pretty sure you're not used to.
Prepare to be scrutinized like never before. We will be reading your quotes, analyzing your moves, and questioning your inactivity. You will be under an intense magnifying glass for possibly the first time in years, and it may be very uncomfortable if the season doesn't start out well for the Red Wings. However, despite everything that has happened this summer so far, there is one positive that I have discovered.
At least you are not Scott Howson.