The Red Wings are a team dangling from a precipice with nothing but their vast and jealousy-inducing history in hockey's modern era to hang on to. The only thing separating the Wings from being a loser team like Vancouver, or Buffalo is having won Stanley Cups. What separates them from also-ran chumps like Colorado is never having to have dropped out of the playoffs on their run. Heck, even as the playoffs wind down to fewer and fewer remaining teams, there's only one club left with a Cup Championship more-recent than Detroit's.
But that's all in the past. What lies ahead for the Wings is uncertain, but there's a really good chance it could be ugly.
It already feels like a real kick in the no-no zone to talk about which recent first-round bounce is the most-disappointing, but this season is by far the most-pungent shit sandwich the fans have had to down. A first-round matchup against the team they "almost had" the prior year coming in with two of their best players missing and Detroit could barely land a slap to the team that drove a pillow down on their face and suffocated them right out of the playoffs.
Jeff Blashill took over a team that was already decently depleted, but still had a chance to gel. It's not terribly likely the team identity would have emerged as "powerhouse," but they could have been left with a lot more to build on than "Dylan Larkin has a real bright future and Andreas Athanasiou should get more ice time." Sadly, we got more questions than answers in every single facet of the Red Wings' game that has us scratching our heads about what strengths the team has to build around at this point.
Blashill's Get Out of Jail Free card was probably only going to be good for the first year anyway, so it's perhaps lucky for him that he cashed it. I don't think the fans are going to give him another year of being at the helm of a team struggling through an identity crisis with not much to build off of (although we know it's not fans who make that decision).
So after what we'll write off as a "transition year", next season is going to be Jeff Blashill's team one way or another. Whether it's true or not, Jeff Blashill's roster decisions are going to be to his fault or his credit. One particular decision stands out as most-important.
The Riggy Elephant in the Room
While we talk about potentially trading away one of the team's best scorers or the ways to get more youth into the lineup to discover what kind of talent the Wings have in their system, there's the big Swedish issue on the blue line which has to be solved. Jonathan Ericsson and his $4.25M contract are not good for the Red Wings right now. Sadly, it's not looking like the 32-year old D-Man is going to be good for them in the future either.
Granted, Ericsson isn't the lone problem on the team and dumping him isn't going to magically fix things. Any more, Ericsson has become the effigy for their defensive woes; he's bad, but he's not pulling them to mediocre single-handed (even if single-handedness may very well be one of his problems). But still, what Ericsson represents is a decently-sized mistake on a roster with more small-and-medium sized goofs than a contender can afford.
Whether Ericsson is capable of playing well again is a debate for another time. Honestly, I thought he had some real good spurts of play this season when he was moved around the lineup and given lighter responsibilities, but for whatever reason, Ericsson found himself playing against competition he couldn't handle on a pairing that couldn't cut it.
If Jeff Blashill is going to make it his team, it means there won't be excuses left for questionable roster decisions. We'd like if Ericsson could be traded, but the reality is that our best hope is likely for an expansion draft in 2017. If that's the case, then Ericsson will certainly be on the roster for the next season and could very well use the kind of deployment that could make him an attractive pick-up for the Las Vegas [Insert Team Name Here]s. This will also need to be balanced with the need to manage the young defensemen currently in Grand Rapids who need a chance to show what they have.
It will be a tricky act to juggle, but that's the kind of challenge NHL head coaches sign on for.
When We Say 'No Excuses' We Mean No Excuses
One thing that saved Blashill from total fan revolution was the thought that Ken Holland's roster meddling might have something to do with who played and when. Obviously the GM is going to have a say in the roster and very well could prevent Blashill from having a guy who otherwise should be playing, but I feel that Holland's end-of-season presser dropped that responsibility right in Blashill's lap.
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"If I've signed somebody and it hasn't worked out, don't worry about it; win."
That's damn good advice for a coach whose team needs to establish its identity. Ken has given Blashill permission to sit anybody, regardless of their contract. If Blashill can't solve the Ericsson issue, it will represent a failure on a level the Wings can't afford. Either fix the problem that Ericsson represents or the Wings will need to find somebody who can.