Perhaps better and perhaps worse than the slumbering ambivalence of the Red Wings' fanbase creeping in this year is the aftershock of the team having exposed their previously-declared number one goaltender to this year's Expansion Draft. The fans are right back where they left off at the end of February debating not that the Red Wings need to drastically improve to get back to cup contention, but how the team should go about doing that.
The bombshells dropped about Mrazek recently in the no-man's land between the sides has carried fallout to each trench in its own way. Just like two people standing on opposite ends of an elephant and only able to see a small portion of the animal can come to different conclusions about what they're examining, so too can the evidence we're presented about the Mrazek case confirm what we already believe about the Red Wings.
- Petr Mrazek has an attitude problem and he doesn't fit the tried-and-true Red Wings Way™. He's not good enough to be worth this hassle, and he's got to go!
- Of course the team is trying to smear Mrazek on the way out of town; that's what NHL teams do. You remember how the Boston press excoriated Tyler Seguin as the team traded him away. Old tricks are the best tricks!
Of course, these are extremes among the fanbase, and focusing on those will ignore the vast majority who may lean more towards one side than the other, but aren't exactly fixing bayonets over the other side's take.
What I feel both sides can agree on in all of this is that Red Wings fans need to be able to build confidence that the organization understands the task in front of them and is able to evolve not only the financially strategic and skill-based tactical side of an evolving game, but the human element at play.
It's Too Late for the Old Way
Whether you feel the team has been greedily collecting playoff appearances without the serious aim of contending or you feel that they simply missed the boat for a rebuild that should have started several years ago, the Red Wings Way has been built on the backbone of veteran players still in their prime. From back in the time that Steve Yzerman won the team's first cup of the modern era after being made to "buy in" to the process all the way up to the rebirth into dominance that the coming-of-age stories surrounding Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit has not relied heavily on youth, nor have they developed youth in such a way.
Call it coddling or call it lack of need, the Wings' treatment of youngsters with promise has been to train them in the system, imbue them with "the culture" and then hand them the reins to steer the club's fortunes (while also becoming the next examples for the following batch of youngsters).
Unfortunately, this process caught a hitch and the Wings didn't find the truly exceptional players to take over from Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom. The end of Johan Franzen's career, Nik Kronwall's inability to be the true number one guy, and the reset of expecations for guys like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist have arrested the momentum of the reload-on-the-fly system; combine that with a new cap-era team model which makes trades for franchise-level players for nothing but cost-controlled futures almost impossible, the Red Wings are left with no choice but to home-grow a new nucleus around which to build a future contender.
The Culture Should Fit the Team
The issue with growing a new, younger nucleus is that you're handing more responsibility to less-mature players than you have in almost 30 years and if you're committed to building around them, the culture of your team has to reflect a less-rigid path for them. The benefit to the Wings with this plan is that still having Henrik Zetterberg, Nik Kronwall, and Justin Abdelkader around as the leaders for a few more years is they can truly be mentors to help the kids grow into those roles, and you might be able to help relieve some of the growing pains; however, there's also the pitfall of falling into old habits, creating that too-rigid structure which can insulate the important youngsters from the stresses of leadership, but can also do little to teach them how to actually deal with it.
Confidence is Not a Flaw
Among the hotter topics among Red Wings fans for the last season (and going forward) has been the fear that the current management team is so focused on making some of the more-creative kids "buy in" to the 200-foot game that they're going to either beat the creativity out of them or simply drive them out as a "bad fit." The Petr Mrazek exposure and follow-up articles about the attitude issue bring this issue starkly to bear. Prior to that, the treatment of Andreas Athanasiou was the touch-point for this debate.
What remains true in this is that confidence in players has to be both cultivated and managed, and that an imbalance in that management on either end of the spectrum can lead to problems. It's possible that a promising kid can end up off the right path through shattered confidence just as it's possible a kid can let overconfidence poison his drive to keep improving (and with it, his ability to be coached to improve).
The measure of a player shouldn't be in whether he can always show humility but whether he can always show growth.
When a player has shattered confidence, the trouble in showing growth is getting them to believe the work put in is worthwhile. When a player is overconfident, the trouble is in getting them to believe the work put in is necessary. It's a terrible balancing act made even harder by the younger age of these players, and each one is different. Henrik Zetterberg doesn't lack confidence, creativity or work ethic. Like all the greats of this game, the end product is a player who has that balance, it's just that there is no one right path to becoming that player.
It's Time to Hand Over the Team
All-in-all, what I believe the team needs to do not only for the evolution of the culture, but also for the benefit of fan confidence (not to mention excitement) is for the Red Wings to center their focus going next year onto Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Andreas Athanasiou, to make it clear that the team believes in them and wants them to show they can form the new nucleus around which the Red Wings will be rebuilt.
I'm not saying that any player who currently wears a letter should lose that designation, but each of those three youngsters should be given a much larger ownership stake in the team's fortunes going forward, to be allowed to make mistakes and to be held accountable. The veterans like Zetterberg, Abdelkader and Kronwall can and should be there for support/mentoring, but if we're going to have another discussion about "I believe we'll make the playoffs because of [X]", then Henrik Zetterberg's name can't be the only one listed.
The Wings are in a unique position right now with the pressure of a moribund streak finally off allowing more room for error and the last holdouts of the old culture still around to help, it's clear that the team doesn't necessarily have to be torn down to zero in order to rise up again, but they absolutely cannot afford to pretend like the old culture can drive the new model. To me, that would be an example of crippling overconfidence ignoring the work necessary to improve.