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Red Wings GM Ken Holland Already Selling Standing Pat at the Trade Deadline

Detroit Red Wings v Ottawa Senators

We’re finally into the stretch of the season where the press gets serious in talking about the NHL trade deadline coming up. We’re starting to get the first of the feelers out there about teams that are buyers and sellers and the discussion about what they’re going to be buying and selling. The Red Wings are in new territory for a huge portion of their fanbase in that most of the coverage is going to be about whether the Wings will be selling.

Just today, Nick Cotsonika penned a piece for that discussed the concept very well:

Cotsonika focuses on the idea that the Wings aren’t yet in a position where they have to sell rather than make a push towards the playoffs, getting quotes from Ken Holland and the players reaffirming that this is a team that would rather run to the playoffs than run draft lottery simulations for the second half of the season. However, Cotsonika’s tone is a realistic look at a team coming into a vital stretch which will push that decision one way or another.

To tell the truth, I feel like I’m one of the few Wings fans who isn’t extremely bothered by this outlook. The Wings aren’t so far out of the playoffs that they can’t make it now and there’s no need to hurry up and sell off assets as of January 18th. A lot of the discussion around the fanbase is about seeing the writing on the wall and a need to go ahead and pull the chute to see the Wings sell off assets and start aggressively grooming/testing their entire prospect pool trying to mine the next star or at least build up sufficient value that players can be lost for collected draft picks rather than for going waiver prices. I just don’t agree that’s the best plan right now.

Don’t get me wrong, I want the Wings to test their kids more and ride the results to that end, win or lose. I don’t see a path forward for the Wings with the current core and I don’t know that the next core is strong enough. I also know that I’d feel better about the future of the Wings going forward if they made a run into the playoffs off the backs of Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin, Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul. I personally don’t think a run to the playoffs would be the worst thing for the Red Wings going forward for the next five years. I think the chances of damaging your future for a lottery pick are higher by telling guys like Mantha, Athanasiou, and Larkin that management is quitting on them this early before the corpulent crooning has commenced.

Ask me again a month from now and my answer will probably be different. The good news is that the trade market’s advantage to the sellers will be too, as will the players’ outlooks on what a team selling off assets is communicating to them.

Sadly, I come not to praise Holland, but to bury him. The Cotsonika piece spins a reasonable take on the fact that the Wings might not have to sell, but shouldn’t be dismissing it. Meanwhile, Pete Wallner at MLive put up a piece today selling the package a bit differently.

All-or-Nothing Holland

Wallner starts off realistically enough, putting a not-entirely inaccurate voice to the fans’ concerns

They are the cries Ken Holland has heard more frequently in recent years as the Detroit Red Wings have slipped from perennially elite to simply playoff hopeful:

Get rid of the old guys! Play the young guys!

The whole start is essentially the Cotsonika piece with a bit more sugarcoating on it: Holland isn’t making that call yet, but remember that he has four cups and gets to make the decision!

The rest of the piece is filled with quotes Holland delivered in Grand Rapids, but is not terribly dissimilar from his end-of-season presser given last April. Holland seems to not only pause at the concept of selling assets, he actively pushes up against it.

Even if the Red Wings fall further behind, Holland won't just dump players, in part because it would leave a void. Young players, such as forwards Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, he said, should not be exposed to the pressures of carrying a club. Those expectations, he noted, didn't fall to Henrik Zetterberg or, defensively, to Niklas Kronwall until their mid-20s. For Zetterberg it was after the retirement of Steve Yzerman, while Kronwall's leadership grew after Nicklas Lidstrom retired after 2012.

Now, with Zetterberg and Kronwall age 36, the Red Wings must wait for their young players to emerge as talents, Holland said, and have the chance to grasp the mantle of leaders.

Heck, that’s not far off from my having said just above that signaling to the kids now you’re pulling the chute is a real bad idea. However, just like I said up there, doing so in January and doing so in late February sends different messages. It’s not like you can’t have somebody within the organization (say.. the coach) tell the kids that their job is to improve every day without worrying about having to carry the club.

Also “the mantle of leaders” sounds like some Thundercats thing.

"That's why it's so important to have a Henrik Zetterberg sitting beside an Anthony Mantha or a (Thomas) Vanek and Franz Nielsen playing on a line with Athanasiou, and a Jonathan Ericssen playing (defense) with Xavier Ouellet," Holland said. "... That's where the culture is that can make a difference.

He added:

"The culture won't make the difference if you're not good enough. The culture is not going to make the difference if you're just going to be a superstar. The culture can make a difference on those players that need a little time, a little guidance and a little more maturity. That's where the organization and Grand Rapids can make a difference for where we're trying to get to, and that's to be a Cup contender."

This is where Holland the salesman shines. He’s not wrong that it’s good to have veterans around to help the kids. You can get into some real bad situations with a vacuum where a veteran presence should be... but he’s again selling all-or-nothing.

Sure, Henrik Zetterberg can absolutely help. That, and a bunch of other factors makes selling him off at this point a questionable move. You literally can’t sell Frans Nielsen without his permission right now either. Thomas Vanek could indeed teach Anthony Mantha a thing or two about being a big-bodied forward in the NHL, but is Mantha going to be lost without Vanek? Do the Wings have such a fragile leadership group that some players couldn’t move on without the team benefiting more in the long-term for it?

The Reload Plan

At the start of this season, the Red Wings’ roster had one lineup slot for forward development (Dylan Larkin) and one extra roster slot (Athanasiou). They had one lineup slot for defenseman development (Ouellet), which was given by the injury to Niklas Kronwall. Ryan Sproul was occupying developmental roster slot #2.

Through injury, the forward lineup spots currently sit at three (Larkin, Mantha, Athanasiou); on the defensive side, they have two starting slots (Jensen & Ouellet) and one extra (Sproul). Detroit is also using a goalie slot for development due to Jimmy Howard’s injury.

Were the team fully healthy and had Darren Helm, Niklas Kronwall, and Brendan Smith ready to go, you could still reasonably argue that there would be four or five slots available for youngsters — less than one-third of a starting lineup.

This is the disingenuous argument that Holland forwards: while there are no doubt voices asking for a lineup of 15 or more kids, the more-realistic ear hears a call for more balance. Toronto is currently shooting for the title of model rebuild and they’re currently carrying 11 players with fewer than 100 NHL games played on a 23-man roster. Now I know that it’s not as if the Red Wings are hiding an Auston Matthews in juniors or Grand Rapids and it’s not as though they would do so if they had one, but Toronto isn’t hiding a 24-year old Tomas Nosek on the Marlies underneath a 34-year old Steve Ott either, nor are they lying about rebuilding taking ten years once you’ve actually committed to it.

The bottom line is that neither the Red Wings nor the fans want a decade of futility to get them back to competitive. There are compelling arguments against selling off assets in the middle of January, even with a team that looks like a longshot to make the playoffs, but there’s also sufficient evidence for fans to worry that even if we get into February and the time truly comes to sell, Ken Holland is planning on a series of decisions which would drive them closer to the ten-year rebuild than to a repeat of the successful reload he authored in the mid-00s.

It’s insulting to be told that the fan clamor is for a complete strip-down leading to an out-of-control prospects carousel; it’s doubly insulting to have that argument trotted out as a justification for being less-aggressive in asset management than the situation warrants.