The past few years I've been watching the Red Wings and thinking about the Foundation series written by Isaac Asimov. As the summer has come and gone, and the season approaches, I see more and more similarities between the Red Wings and the fictional Empire that Asimov describes.
The series tells the story of a once great Empire that begins to decay and the actions that must be taken to minimize the time between the fall of that institution and the rise of the next great Empire.
For the last 25 seasons, the Red Wings have been a model institution for the NHL. 25 consecutive trips to the playoffs, 4 Stanley Cups, legendary players both drafted and acquired, and institutional consistency have made them what many franchises aspire to be. However, both fans and casual observers have seen signs of institutional decay and the signs of an imminent fall for years. Yet, somehow the Wings have stuck to the path that they carved and have remained relevant, at least to the playoff picture.
As has been reported and argued many times on this site, the Wings are due for a fall. At some point, the music will stop and management's adherence to their old principles will leave them without a spot in the playoffs and we will be left wondering how the team will return to prominence.
Over-reliance on aging veterans, lack of top draft picks, and the inability to properly utilize and develop what talent we have recently drafted will bring the fall. All of these are factors of a once-great institution that has begun to decay. Thus is the fate of many great institutions.
So, what's happening and how can management minimize the time between the fall and the rise of the Winged Wheel?
The premise of the series is that in the distant future there is a massive Galactic Empire and a mathematician named Hari Seldon who helps develop a method to predict the future of society, but only on a very large scale. The method is mathematical sociology that will predict the movements of a very large society over many years but with uncertainty about individual actions. To parallel, on a mass scale you can predict roughly what a large amount of a gas is going to do. However, you have no way of predicting what individual molecules will do.
Thus, you can roughly predict (using this methodology thousands of years in the future) what society will do - but you need to leave some room for very influential individuals to do unpredictable things in times that exhibit factors which can lead to large changes in the model.
Spoilers (but nothing huge)
Using his methodology, he realizes that the Galactic Empire's institutions are rotting away and a collapse is imminent. The collapse will happen, and if left to its own devices there will be a period of 30,000 years of barbarism until another Empire can arise. Much of the progress in science, philosophy, institutions, etc. will be lost.
However, there is another option. If he creates a planet called the Foundation that consists of engineers, builders, artists, and scientists at the far end of the galaxy to preserve and advance knowledge - the period of barbarism can be greatly reduced. This isn't guaranteed, however. While the foundation increases the chance that the galaxy can reduce this chaotic period, there will always be uncertainty and critical points in the future can be swayed by the actions of individuals and the movements they create.
Now, we look at the Empire during this time. Seldon needs to tread lightly creating this foundation because you can't just tell the Galactic Emperor that their whole civilization is about to collapse. They want to preserve the status quo because they will be motivated by self-preservation and the preservation of their institution.
I see a lot of the Red Wings in this story. Not as extreme as 30,000 years of barbarism (maybe a few years of Steve Ott), but there will be a longer than necessary period of pain if management continues along this path. With an eye to their decaying institutions (veterans and veteran log-jams like Ericsson and Miller) and their own survival the fall will come swiftly and the path forward will be opaque as management clings to the status quo.
Now, it's just a question of how painful that will be (years out of the playoffs, yard sale of prospects/veterans), and how long that will last. We can minimize it, and look toward the future humbly and logically. But will Holland do that?
What does the Foundation look like for the Red Wings?
The Path Moving Forward
What does this have to do with the Red Wings? What does management have to learn from this?
The path forward must be consistent and logical. The Red Wings cannot expect to stay the current course and have sustained success. I believe that we are now out of a possible 'win now' season plan, many could argue that we have been for a few years but we did take a few legitimate contenders to the wire the past few years. Our veterans now, and our veteran acquisitions will not get the franchise to the promised land. The current course is no answer.
So, do they tank and hope for a McDavid or a Matthews? While a player like that can turn a franchise around, Edmonton has been wallowing in Asimov's period of barbarism for far too long. We shall see if McDavid manages to drag them back to prominence. He can be an x-factor any time he is on the ice, but he can't single-handily change the entire Oilers' institution and make them have sustainable success in all facets of the game. Tanking is risky, and you may not always come out the other side in an acceptable amount of time.
Look inward before seeking redemption from outside
With an eye toward the future, Detroit's management must focus on drafting and developing players to the best of their ability. These players must then have a spot on the team, and veterans can no longer be dead-weight. For this to work, the team must be a meritocracy. Ties cannot go to the veteran. Talent must be fostered, and deployed correctly.
We must trust our own Foundation in Grand Rapids and our other development methods to prepare players for the Winged Wheel, and then utilize them appropriately. Management must rip off bandaids when needed, and do their job to ice the best team now and in the future.
There will be pain with this, and I'm not sure Holland wants to deal with that pain as his tenure as GM comes to a close. The Wings may miss the playoffs. The team may fall from grace, and there will be our own time of barbarism. But only by accepting that the current philosophy will best not serve the team's interests can management forge a path forward.
Unfortunately, this past summer has been more of the same from Ken Holland. Where change was needed, the status quo was brought in. Following team USA's lead in the World Cup, Holland has jettisoned some promising youth and given those roster spots to known, and underwhelming players.
Ultimately, management needs to realize that the path to the Stanley cup does not lie with our current crop of veterans and the root of the problem is management's adherence to the status quo. Alternatively, tanking is also an unnecessary risk that does little to build a new strong institution. The best way to structure the team now, and for the future is to play our current hand correctly by icing the most talented team possible, take calculated risks with our draft picks, and give talented prospects a proper chance to thrive.
Do away with the old thinking that the tie goes to the veteran, and that old grinders will be a smart, safe bet that will keep the team in the playoff conversation for years to come. Destroy that old decaying institutional thought and build a new, solid foundation based on drafting, development, proper deployment with a focus on speed and talent.
Also, read the Foundation series. It's great.
*edit - Hari Seldon's name was originally mis-spelled