There has been a running joke around Detroit that Ken Holland would retire the day after Nicklas Lidstrom did. It's a safe bet that there are a lot of Wing fans wishing that Holland had done just that 2 years ago when Lidstrom decided to call it a career.
The Red Wings entered this offseason with a plan, targeted players, roster spaces due to attrition, and money to spend. After an expected-yet-still disappointing early playoff exit, the team looked to free agency to bolster a lineup that contained more youth than anyone had seen in a decade in the hopes that they could make the team better in a very winnable Eastern Conference.
We were fed the usual lines: the Wings had their sights set on a few players, but term length or money or fit or whatever excuse you want to insert here could mean that the Wings would go to Plan B and look to the kids to take spots, particularly on the defense. The day opened and the first target, Christian Ehrhoff, was gone, signed for 1 year with Pittsburgh. As the day progressed, several other potential options disappeared, one by one: Tom Gilbert to Montreal, Mark Fayne to Edmonton. Dan Boyle went to the Rangers for 2 years and $9M. Then Anton Stralman signed with Tampa for 5 years and $22.5M, and we got word that the Wings weren't in on Matt Niskanen, the prize of this year's UFA crop.
It was at that point that fans were restless, but the pitchforks were still in the shed. Outside of Ehrhoff, there wasn't a single signing that I was desperate for the Wings to make. Fayne and Gilbert would have been nice, but they were depth guys that wouldn't fill the need the Wings had. Ditto for Stralman. Niskanen's 7 year contract length was scary, because that means committing almost a decade to a player who had over 21 points exactly once in his career.
Then news started to trickle out that made us wonder what was going on. First, we learned that Dan Boyle took less money to sign with the Rangers. Then we heard that Stralman wasn't interested in Detroit at all. Niskanen got a 7 year/$38.5M offer from the Wings but he wasn't considering Detroit. Finally, we heard that Ehrhoff told the Wings he wanted a 5 year deal, then signed a 1-year contract with Pittsburgh without giving the Wings a chance to counter.
Holland's response to when asked why players don't want to come to Detroit?
"We made pitches to a number of defensemen," general manager Ken Holland said. "For a variety of reasons, they opted to go elsewhere. I don't know why they're not coming here."
Maybe it's just me, but when you strike out on literally every single free agent defenseman you are trying to sign, when asked what happened it's better to offer up anything besides "I don't know" because it's his job to know. He needs to find out why players don't want to play in Detroit when money isn't the issue. Is it the coach? Is it the other players? Is it the arena? Is it the city? Is it a weird thing where guys don't want to play in a city that starts with the letter D? Whatever the reason, Ken Holland needs to know what it is so that he can address it.
The worst part is that if they had simply swung and missed at the UFAs that were out there and called it a day, that would have been ok. Not great, but not the end of the world. But instead, as Holland is prone to do, he panicked and re-upped Kyle Quincey for 2 years and $8.5M.
So at the end of the day, the team that wasn't good enough to finish ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets re-signed one of their RFAs, extended the contract of their AHL goaltender, and brought back a defenseman who was so terrible in the first half of the season that when he was merely mediocre in the second half we all said "wow he's really improved this year".
And the questions have started about "Is Detroit a viable destination for free agents?" and "will the Wings have to turn to trades to acquire the player they need?" To sum up shortly, the answers are "sort of depending on the player" and "yes if they're willing to actually make a trade".
If today had been a one-year aberration, that would be one thing. But since the 2009 season ended, the Wings have failed to land any player of any magnitude. Granted, a lot of that has had to do with the salary cap and the fact the Wings had several players who needed raises. But in 2012, after the retirement of Lidstrom, the Wings have not only failed to land the best free agent who clearly fit their needs, they were unable to even get the second or even third best players after that top guy.
The fact is that we are now entering a period of time where Ken Holland the rest of his management group are not only failing to make the Wings better, they're not coming up with a cohesive plan for the future. When you say that the fallback position on missing out on the UFAs is the kids, why re-sign Kyle Quincey to a 2 year deal and give him a raise? There's always the chance another signing could happen or a trade could materialize, but as the roster stands right now there's not a single person who can say the Wings are better than they were when they lost to the Bruins, and other teams in their division (Montreal, Tampa) are only getting stronger.
To top it all off, we sit there and watch former Holland disciples Jim Nill and Steve Yzerman make bold moves both through trade and free agency to make the Stars and Lightning, respectively, better. Over the past 2 offseason Nill has been able to obtain Tyler Seguin from the Bruins and Jason Spezza from the Senators, while Yzerman offloaded Martin St. Louis to the only team he would be willing to go to for a decent return and then nabbed an underrated free agent in Stralman for a very reasonable price.
There's no other way to state it: today was an absolute failure on the part of the Red Wings. They couldn't get any of the players they targeted, re-signed the one defenseman they didn't want back in the first place, and look to go into next season with the same lineup that was barely good enough to make the playoffs.
The problem is that there's no plan. If you're going to go with kids, then why re-sign Quincey? All he does is take up a roster spot that could have been had by Ryan Sproul or Xavier Ouellet. Oh, maybe they'll be able to trade Jakub Kindl and/or Brian Lashoff, 2 players who were given baffling extensions by Holland after last year and were unable to crack the lineup at times this year.
The Wings need to ultimately decide what it is they're going to do, because the current approach might be good enough to get them in the playoffs and that's it. And they need to decide soon since Pavel Datsyuk will be 36 and Henrik Zetterberg will be 34 next season, and they don't have a lot of seasons left. Are the Wings going to make trades and try to build around them for one or two last kicks at the can or are they going to go with a full-on youth movement? Because if it's the former, then what is the point of holding on to all of the youth?
Reports are that the Wings could be looking at players like Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Keith Yandle, Cody Franson or even Jeff Petry in a trade, but the return (Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Jurco, Anthony Mantha, a 1st) would be too much. That's fine until the Wings start the season with Jurco and Mantha in Grand Rapids while Dan Cleary and Daniel Alfredsson are playing 16 minutes a night.
If the Wings continue on this path that they are on, do you know who they will become? The Calgary Flames or the Philadelphia Flyers. Too good to tank and enter a true rebuild, but not good enough to contend for a Cup. The Wings will spend the next few years wallowing in mediocrity, maybe extending a pointless playoff streak while flaming out in the first round (or second, if we're lucky and they get a good draw) and wasting the last few years of Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
Maybe this is all too reactionary and there's something in the works. Maybe Ken Holland will "kick the tires" on a few other players even though "he likes his team" and they "got the guys they wanted last year". Maybe somehow the Wings will get lucky and the old broken-down veterans they keep insisting on bringing back will get injured and we'll get to see more of the youth that the team is working so hard to hoard and keep away from other teams. Or maybe this is a sign that it's time to start considering whether a change at the top of the Red Wings' organization is needed. A fresh start, new blood, whatever you want to call it. Maybe it's time that someone other than Ken Holland made the important decisions regarding this team.
Update: As I was writing this, Bob Duff posted the following article. It's a good read and I highly recommend it.