The reality that the Red Wings are no longer eligible to win the Stanley Cup this year (despite my many letters of protest) has finally sunk in, and we must now prepare for the longest off-season since 2006.
Unlike previous years, the defeat at the hands of the Nashville Predators was not due to some upstart team finding itself with insanely hot yet unexpected goaltending like Dwayne Roloson or J.S. Giguere and it's not due to some out-of-nowhere scrub scoring a goal that breaks the hearts of Wing fans everywhere (I'm looking at you, Jamie Baker, you jerk).
No, this year was about running into a team that was designed to beat the Wings (or if not Detroit specifically, then at least a team that plays a similar style) and succeeded. Nashville went "all-in" by landing some big pieces at the trade deadline while trying to capitalize on the return of Alex Radulov and the fact that Ryan Suter and Shea Weber are still Predators. There's no shame in losing to Nashville, because that's a good team they've got over there, and the Wings just didn't quite measure up in the end.
So with the season over, we're left with a ton of questions about where this team is headed. There are some who think it's time to fire Mike Babcock, trade every player not named Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and burn Joe Louis Arena to the ground and start over as the Tulsa Oil Kings in some weird witness protection program move.
While I'm not on the "tear it down" bandwagon, I do believe that change is necessary for this team to reclaim its position as the best team in the Western Conference, and there's one man that I'm looking to to make this happen. Ken Holland, you're on notice.
We've long maintained that Ken Holland is the best GM in hockey. We point to his drafting success and his ability to find players, either via trade or free agency, that fit in to the Wings' system as evidence of his overall genius. When the lockout ended and the NHL resumed play, he managed to still cobble together a roster with the right amount of veterans and young stars that won a Stanley Cup, even after the retirement of the greatest Captain in NHL history and the loss of one of the greatest power forwards ever.
However, for the first time since I can remember, people aren't immediately genuflecting at his feet and kissing his ass. The loss to the Predators exposed a lot of weaknesses on this team, most notably their lack of depth at forward beyond the top 6.
It's not like he's unaware of this. Consider what he said to Khan(!) after the series was over:
We definitely were not as deep as we have been in the past,’’ Holland said on Saturday. "We’ve got to figure out a way to get some of our depth back. We’ll explore the free-agent market, we’ll move in two or three kids, we’ll explore trades at the draft, like we always do. But at the end of the day, this (salary-cap) system is about methodically doing your work.
Now we all know what we want to see: Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter wearing the Winged Wheel come September. I have no doubt that should either of those players hit the market on July 1st, the Wings will look to make an offer to at least one of them to try and bring them to Detroit.
But that's not going to magically solve the Wings' problems. Yes, the Wings played a very good goalie in Pekka Rinne, but the Wings scored 9 goals in 5 games, getting absolutely dominated 5-on-5 after ending the year as the best team at even strength. There were defensive miscues throughout the series, and when the handshakes were happening I know I was left thinking "they just weren't good enough". I went over the roster again and wondered who can be moved out and who could be brought in. After all, Holland has always knows what to do in order to make the Wings better, right?
But here's the thing: when was the last time that Holland made a move that made us all say "wow"? Think back to the moves he has made since the Wings lost Game 7 of the Finals in 2009. These are the players brought in via free agency since that time:
The other players he brought in were Drew Miller (claimed off waivers in 2009) and Kyle Quincey (brought in via trade for a 1st round pick).
Digest those names for a second and think about how many of those players are true contributors to this team. Bertuzzi has carved out a niche as a shootout specialist while scoring in streaks, Eaves is the second best bottom-6 forward on the team behind Darren Helm, Miller has been given 100% effort and chipped in with offense, White helped to offset the loss of Brian Rafalksi, and Conklin took care of that pesky plumbing problem in the men's room at Joe Louis Arena.
On the flip side, he did manage to get someone to voluntarily take the hot garbage that was Ville Leino for more than a piece of string, and he allowed Commodore to check out all the malls in Tampa by trading him to Steve Yzerman's team.
But since Marian Hossa left, Holland has not made a dynamic move that has drastically improved this team. I can't be the only one thinking that the Red Wings have slipped every year since 2009 while the rest of the league has caught up. Be it parity or a changing of the guard or whatever you want to call it, the Wings are no longer the dominant force that they once were, and as much as we hate to admit it, this team is getting older and we are no closer to knowing who is going to be the next generation of offensive stars on this team than I am to discovering what Tomas Holmstrom's first language is.
And it's the fact that the Wings are getting older that is concerning. Their best players are their oldest ones, and in a conference with young teams like the Predators, Blues, Blackhawks and Kings, Detroit has to find the speed and hunger they lacked against Nashville.
That's why the stubbornness to move away from the "Red Wings Way" in over-developing prospects in Grand Rapids while relying on older veterans to be the depth is not going to work for much longer. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are not going to continue to perform at the level the team needs in order to remain a contender for the next 5 years, and if you look at the teams that are moving on in the playoffs, they all contain young players that have been given a chance and are making an impact. Gabriel Bourque scored 2 big goals in Game 1 for Nashville, Mikael Boedker had back-to-back OT GWG against Chicago, and others are kicking in with contributions. Gustav Nyquist was one of the better Wing forwards in this series, but only playing 4 minutes a night and doing so with Cory Emmerton and Tomas Holmstrom isn't going to showcase his talent in the right way.
This is not meant to be an indictment of Ken Holland or the moves he has made. He has worked under the constraints of the salary cap system while trying to keep the team that he has built intact. He has shown loyalty to players like Holmstrom, Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby when other teams might have let them go. But he can't continue to live on what he has done in the past and expect that to be good enough. For the first time in a long time, he's got cap space and a little bit of roster maneuverability to make this team better. If that means going out and landing a big-time free agent like Parise or Suter, do it. If that means trading away a player on the current roster in order to get someone better in return, even if that player is well-liked in the dressing room and by the fans, do it.
This is the summer that Ken Holland proves that he's the best in the business. He better, because if he does not make this team better, then next year's off-season could be even longer than this one.