You probably remember this quote from Mid-September. If you're like me, you probably remember it as fondly rose-colored and smelling like a fresh mountain breeze.
"Let's watch them," Babcock said. "I used to say every year, 'tie goes to the veteran; you've got to beat the guy out here in camp.' Now the best player is playing, period. So if you're 22 it doesn't make any difference. We're in that stage of our development."
Even now, it's still a bit refreshing. Last year's line about how the "tie goes to the veteran" has become about as popular in Detroit as Ville Leino. It's nice to hear that Mike Babcock has moved on from that bromide.
But when you get down and think about it, what exactly does that mean?
"Now the best player is playing, period." Well ok. That's exactly how it should be. It's always how it should have been. It's pretty clearly not always how it has been though. Great. There's nothing we can do about the past, but let's explore how exactly this changes things for the Red Wings this season.
What happens in a tie now though? Babcock doesn't actually say that.
The best player isn't tied with the more-experienced player. By pure definition of the word "best" precludes the concept of a tie. Logically speaking, what Babcock said is that there are no more ties. That's nice, but really all we're doing is a semantic game of Three Card Monte. There weren't ties last year either by the time push came to shove. Players who were left off the roster lost.
So now we have to explore what it means to be the "best player." Obviously, hockey skill should be the beginning and the end of that discussion. If we want to discuss specific roles which utilize different skillsets, we could find enough value in that. Pragmatically, we can't ignore the business decisions here though. Cap space, waiver eligibility, future considerations on entry-level contracts, and even the willingness of the fans to come watch your roster play hockey all sneak into the conversation of what makes up the "best player." Finally, we get into the entirely new meaning of "best player"... the one where it's the player who is best for the roster rather than who is simply superior in the part of the game which matters most: the game itself.
This has to be the saving grace of Babcock's statement: Gustav Nyquist was very clearly one of the Red Wings' "best players" coming out of camp last year and he found himself off the roster on opening day due to a "best fit" defense (which even the most-forgiving hindsight still can't be kind to). We should also stick firmly to the "best fit" view of what makes the best player because without it, the only other answer is that being 22 years old is a very bad thing while being a veteran is a very good thing. That's the kind of inflexible stupidity which should lead to immediate dismissal, and I don't think anybody in charge of the Red Wings' roster decisions is definitively that inflexibly stupid.
So what we're down to having to believe is that the thing which made being a veteran more important than being a youngster has truly changed for the Red Wings. Clearly, hockey skill alone isn't as important to the consideration as we'd like. Hey, they've told us all offseason that the lessons from last year have set in and that they're in a spot to get more use out of the youth. The logjam at defense especially should end the concept of "the tie goes to the veteran."
But have the Wings' priorities changed that much from last season? They still fancy themselves a mid-tier competitor in the process of a reload rather than a rebuild. This team wants to compete for the division title and they want to be considered a cup contender. They may be in a position where they're not going to be willing to mortgage the future to make a run, but the plan is to be the best hockey team they can be right now.
So, we'll go back to the question, who wins in a tie?
If we're being honest, it's the player who has proven to the existing head coach and general manager that he has previously earned the right to prove himself at the NHL level. While a younger player might have greater future potential, if the team is committed to winning right now, the benefit of the doubt is going to go to the guy with the track record rather than the guy with the "potential" right? After all, if he were really the "best player", the question wouldn't come down to his potential; it would be about his expectations.
In the world of hockey just like in the real world, with job openings up for grabs, it can often feel frustratingly like a person can't get a job without the experience and he can't get the experience without a job. We've been led to believe that things will be different, but looking at it, there's not a reason to believe that's going to be the case until we actually see it happen.
After all, would you consider Daniel Cleary to be tied with Mitch Callahan? Is Petr Mrazek tied with Jonas Gustavsson? I'm certain Nick Jensen and Xavier Ouellet are tied with Jakub Kindl and Brian Lashoff, right?