Detroit Red Wings Free Agency 2014: Ken Holland's New Challenge

Harry How

As the sun rises on the third day of free agency, there's still a large dark cloud of uncertainty over the Red Wings' fanbase. The promise of a roster that needed to regain its health and its confidence, and which needed just a bit of minor bolstering for a marked improvement over an early first-round exit seems to have all but evaporated. Red Wings fans aren't really looking forward to the rest of free agency so much as they just want the summer to be over with by now. The lingering threat of a promise fulfilled to Danny Cleary hangs around uselessly like so many veterans who couldn't hold off the rising tide of youth (no matter how hard they tried).

It's not a great time to be a Wings fan, nor is it a great time to complain about it. Things could be and are much worse for a good number of fanbases. There's also a decent slate of them who think they're better off right now than they really are and will be trading the wide-eyed summer excitement for the naive kind of shock that only regression can bring.

But I don't care about them, and I don't particularly care how petulant it looks when a fan of a team with the longest active playoff streak in North American professional sports complains that his team (which got unlucky last season and still made the playoffs) didn't really improve their roster.

What does concern me, and what's been on everybody else's mind lately is the question of why the Red Wings are no longer a destination team for top-tier free agents. This isn't about defaming the sweetness of a bunch of grapes who went on to sign unwise contracts somewhere else; if reports are to be believed, the Wings were willing to go even crazier than other teams did as far as targeted contracts go and they still found themselves alone on the dance floor when it mattered.

The Windsor Star's Bob Duff described the team as "dumbounded by the rejections." Helene St. James explored and quickly dismissed a number of factors before settling for the very softest way to add Mike Babcock to the salary cap in the blame game:

Is it head coach Mike Babcock? Babcock is demanding, but that's considered a positive quality in a professional coach - the ones that let things slide don't win, and players care about winning. Holland downplayed any chatter Babcock is a reason, saying, "I've never heard those rumors. I think that we've got one of the best coaches in the NHL and he's been a reason why some people have come here."

Meanwhile, Ansar Khan has been coolly driving the "This is everybody else's fault but mine" bus for the Wings, consistently tweeting out details about how the Wings missed the opportunity to pay many guys more money without delving much into an exploration as to why the Red Wings' money doesn't have the same power as it has in other cities. Perhaps we'll get an Ask Ansar segment later which will explore Khan's innermost feelings, but for now, it's pretty much just mouthpiecing for him.

Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski adds an outsider's take on the loss of luster, using an appropriately New Jersey-themed analogy:

Atlantic City believed it always had the advantage. It had nostalgia on the boardwalk. It had tradition on the beach. It was, in many ways, the only game in town.

"The game has changed. Players can go wherever they want."

Wysh continues by trailing into dual discussions about how parity turns every team into a potential contender and how the only real differences anymore are in relationships and geography.

So let's recap the list of reasons people have explored so far as to why the Red Wings are no longer the team that players want to join, adding a few which have been thrown around elsewhere:

  • Mike Babcock is not a well-liked coach. He doesn't coddle players. Uncertainty about Babcock's future with the club makes this even worse.
  • The Wings simply aren't a strong contender anymore; they're a mid-tier water-treader of a team who can't offer enough promise to overcome the allure of different cities.
  • Ken Holland has grown a reputation in all his years as a GM who consistently underpays players and this reputation works against him in negotiations.
  • Despite some great suburbs in the surrounding area, the city of Detroit itself scares people off.
  • Thanks to things like 24/7, it just doesn't seem like the culture in the Wings' room is all that much fun.
  • The Joe Louis Arena and facilities are not exactly state-of-the-art.
  • The fans are all whiny, entitled assholes who won't appreciate them anyway.

That about covers it, no? Any combination of those factors is either an instant non-starter for people or something that's a big enough drag on the pros/cons list that the Wings can't overcome it when it comes time to present a finalized contract. Well, almost. I do think there's one more factor that I haven't really seen discussed:

I think the Wings' history is now working against them.

Wyshynski starts down this path a bit in his Atlantic City discussion, but never quite gets there. What concerns me is the thought of what's in it for a player who joins the team going for their 24th consecutive playoff appearance and their fifth Stanley Cup in 20 years? There's prestige in winning a cup and there's prestige in being the centerpiece of a team that's working its way into contention, but the Red Wings aren't enough of a threat at the first level and aren't looking for somebody who fills the second.

What exactly is Christian Ehrhoff's place in the annals of team history if he joins Detroit and they win the Cup? He's "the Final Piece," right? That's nice. There have been worse things than being the Johnny-come-lately cog in a machine. It's a nice pat on the back and some true heartfelt thanks, but for the remainder of this generation, a UFA newcomer who sidles into Detroit is doing so in the shadows of giants to whom he will never live up in the hearts and minds of the fans.

Christian Ehrhoff joins the Wings, becomes the piece which puts them over the top, wins the Conn Smythe and finally lifts the Stanley Cup. How many people get it before he does? What's the summer-long narrative that we're chewing up? There's a decent chance that it's all about how Ehrhoff came in as the savior who carried the Wings back to the greatness for which they're destined, but much more likely, the story is about how the genius Red Wings got just the right player and how great they are to be back on top. He'd always be the guy who overcame not being Nicklas Lidstrom to win an award less-impressively than The Perfect Human did back in 2002.

Anywhere else is a chance to be part of something special; in Detroit, it's a chance to be part of something expected.

Obviously, replace Ehrhoff's name with any of the free agent targets who chose that some other location was preferable for whatever reason. Hell, that's probably not a strong reason. It's probably not even a conscious reason. Nobody is going to spend too much time thinking on that, let alone admitting that it's possible the Winged Wheel is a burdensome weight loaded down with expectations to live up to that which simply can't be matched.

But yeah, it's entirely possible that this is something which sticks in the back of the mind of a free agent who's spent all of his developmental life knowing that the Red Wings are an imposing powerhouse. Now that the foundation is starting to crumble, it's just not worth it to hold up their pillars while other organizations can promise to build a new house around you.

- - -

If that sounds a bit bleak, then I'm sorry. It's the challenge that Ken Holland has to face. It's his job as the GM to not only ice the best team he can, but to balance their present condition with their future potential and to sell this team to the ownership, to the players, and most-importantly to the fans.

Ken Holland can't afford to not know why players won't come here. He can't afford to fail in overcoming objections. No matter the litany of excuses which come, Ken Holland cannot make the Red Wings a team on an island in the NHL because Ken Holland is already trying to implement a strategy that has built-in disadvantages.

Dylan Larkin was the highest Red Wings draft pick in more than 20 years. The Red Wings' plan does not call for having draft picks higher than 15th. With this plan in place, it's that much more difficult to find the kind of cornerstone pieces which can buy a team years worth of competitiveness. Detroit is currently running against the clock in this regards, hoping that their current crop of youngsters will be able to step into larger roles as their aging core of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Niklas Kronwall slowly diminish in their ability to anchor the team.

If a team can't rely on having the pick of the best players in the draft, then they at least need to be able to rely on getting the best free agents available. It would be preferable to have both (without having to pay the price in losing that getting top draft picks entails), but it's absolutely suicide to have neither. Throw in either an unwillingness for the Wings to trade or the inability to get excellent value from GMs who can afford not to make deals more than they can afford to potentially get fleeced by the Wings, and the recipe turns from stale to downright poisonous.

Something needs to change in the way the Wings are perceived by free agents in the NHL. Mechanical devotion to kicking tires isn't getting it done. This calm confusion about being passed over and nearly-comatose attitude in regards to making moves makes for a safe way to do business, but it's little more than a good way to get busy dying.

If Detroit wants to continue to simply skate into the playoffs every year, treating the second season as a lottery ticket, then they can probably afford to do that for a few more years. If they truly want to effectively reload their roster and rejoin the top ranks of the league, they simply can't do that while playing it safe. Safe is death.

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