Ken Holland and His Role in the Red Wings' Reload
We've talked a lot this week about where the Red Wings stand in terms of being able to successfully complete a second team reload of the modern era since a team core comprised of now Hall-of-Famers turned the reins of the team over to Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Niklas Kronwall. So far we've focused on whether Mike Babcock could focus his skills on giving young players the opportunity to develop into team-leading roles to make up for the effects of aging on their current stars, even if it might mean fewer wins and even potentially missing the playoffs.
Today, we'll look at the other half of the coin: Can Ken Holland evolve his strategy to keep the Red Wings contending?
If it Rolls, it Rolls Downhill
No matter where you stand on the idea of the coach's abilities versus the roster he's given, both of those considerations derive from a single point of control: The GM is the one responsible for putting the roster together, for putting the personnel in place to develop that roster, and for hiring the coach responsible for making that roster win.
If Mike Babcock is the right coach for steering the Wings through the necessary adjustments to improve or not, that decision is Ken Holland's and he's the one who will take his share of credit or blame for what happens as a result of his coaching and roster decisions. The stake of the Wing's future rests more in Holland's hands than anybody else because Holland is the extension of ownership who decides everything.
The GM's Crossroad is More of a Roundabout
We've chewed up and spit out the Babcock quote about how it's his job and his motivation to win right now and it's the GM's job to balance that against future considerations. The assumption built into this juncture (aside from win now/be able to win later being set up as mutually exclusive motivations) is that the GM's sole motivation is actually winning the Stanley Cup.
Now I'm not accusing Ken Holland of not trying to earn another ring. I think that would be irresponsible and indefensible. However, I do think the idea of "long-term" success has become a selling point for the Red Wings with their fans. The thought of taking a shot to arguably increase the odds of a cup run in the short-term at the risk of trading your way into a need to rebuild isn't something that's currently on the table for Holland.
The general manager works for the owner and, while it's nice to have an owner that wants to win, we've had two lockouts in Ken Holland's tenure as the team's GM to remind us that owners aren't all motivated by a chase for the chalice. Mike/Chris Ilitch? Who knows? but we do know they're not running a charity in the Red Wings. it's hard to argue that winning a cup isn't the single most-lucrative thing a team could do, but we also have no idea what kind of opportunity cost comes with having to rebuild if you miss. The GM knows this stuff and has to balance the risks to keep his owner happy.
How Badly Does Kenny Want Babcock Back?
"Money isn't going to be an object" for Ken Holland in bringing Mike Babcock back. Man, what a fun twist of phrase that is, huh? At face value it means Detroit won't be outbid for Babcock, but it's just as easy to say that term could be an object, or that authority would be an object; hell, you play it right and lowball a guy until he signs elsewhere before telling the press that you'd have happily matched that number and money still won't have been an object.
But, since we've got face value to deal with, there's no point in calling Holland a liar before anything actually goes down. Whether Holland is motivated by winning the services of one of the NHL's best coaches back or just losing him gracefully, we've got a fork in the assumptions that play forward from there.
Assumption 1: The Team is On the Cusp and Needs Babcock's Experience
So Holland looks at the roster and he believes that Babcock's challenge to the youngsters is going to be met. The experience of Datsyuk & Zetterberg combine with the energy and exuberance of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, Mrazek, and Squishy to create an unbeatable Frankenstein team made up of the head of a veteran, the heart of a champion, the legs of Atalanta, and the hungry-like-the-wolf of Duran Duran.
Under this assumption, Holland needs Babcock to get the best out of the best team. The rest of the league doesn't know it's the best team yet, but that's only because they don't know what Kenny knows.
Assumption 2: The Team is Rebuilding and Needs Babcock's Bankability
They're good enough to make the playoffs. The youngsters are coming along nicely, but they're not there, but the team can't afford to admit to needing to tank just yet; it's worth more to pray Squishy becomes a Norris candidate and you know Babcock is going to drive this team into the playoffs if it is at all possible. The fans have to believe and you've already ordered all the promotional material for the "25th consecutive playoff appearances" marketing strategy; you can't afford to take a bath on that stuff having to go back.
I don't like this assumption. This is cynical as hell.
Assumption 3: The Youth is Rising and the Veterans Need a Fresh Voice
You're still gambling on the team getting better, but Holland is also a bit more ready to gamble on the new coach effect. The veterans want to try something new and the youth needs to be given its day to shine. The team is willing to part ways with Babcock, but doesn't want to readily admit that. The reload train is chugging at full speed to the end of the tracks and if that damn bridge doesn't show up then we're all going to crash and burn.
Kenny's a lying liar in this scenario, but he's not REALLY lying.
Assumption 4: The End is Nigh and Babs Should Fly
Doomsday. The only way I feel this assumption works is if there's a plan to gut the team about to start.
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If I had to guess, I think Scenario 1 is the likeliest. It's looking more doubtful the full reload is working, but things aren't so dark as to be willing to pull the chute and start the traditional tank rebuild.
The Coach is the Conductor, but the GM is the Composer
So let's work off the assumption that Holland really truly does want Babcock to return and really truly does want to return the team to cup competitiveness instead of spinning the tires in first round exit Hell. Let's also assume that if Babcock returns, it's because he's buying in on the team committing to improving. So what does that mean for Holland?
We've already discussed in the Babcock piece that the team isn't good enough right now and that things have to change this summer. So far, the only prescribed fix suggested was when Babcock challenged the young players to hit the gym hard and be ready to step into greater roles, adding that the core of the team is getting older and the team isn't in adequate position to replace them right now.
But Babcock only has as much control over the roster as he's given the 23 component parts. Babcock can conduct those 23 parts to get the best performance, but there's a limit to how much a perfect performance can move you when the person committing the notes to paper insists on putting a 17-minute tambourine solo in the third movement.
For the Xs and Os to Work, You Have to Give the Guy the XO he Asks for
I've spent my fair share of time questioning whether Babcock is the kind of coach who can work with developing youth to get the most out of them. I've mainly focused on how defensemen Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith have failed to flourish, despite hints that they'd be able to take on more of a challenge than they've been given in Detroit. Also, despite the promise and performance of guys like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, they've merely been "pretty good" under Babcock.
However, it's easy to overlook that when this season started, it wasn't Mike Babcock's decision to have Xavier Ouellet in Grand Rapids. In fact, by most accounts, Babcock was pretty pissed about that. Babcock also wasn't the person deciding that Brian Lashoff should be with the team until late January so that the team could avoid the risk of losing a merely serviceable NHL defenseman to waivers (Lashoff cleared and is playing well for Grand Rapids in their playoff run right now, BTW).
The tie may go to the veteran in Babcock's world, but in Kenny's world it doesn't seem like a waiver-exempt player is capable of tying with a vet.
The Philosophy Has to Evolve
No matter where the truth lies between Babcock not having grown a top-pairing defenseman or a budding top-tier center and Ken Holland not providing the right ingredients or opportunity to do so, both of those things need to change for the Red Wings, and they need to change soon. Holland likes to say there is no "hockey store" to go and magically fix your problems, but there sure as shit is a marketplace.
There are a lot of parallels between hockey GMs and professional gamblers. They have to take calculated risks trying to win long-haul benefit against a system designed to work against them. The salary cap has cut the advantage away from the endlessly-funded card-counters to better redistribute the wealth. The NHL is no longer a poker game where the deepest pockets can afford to soak up mistakes that would bankrupt their smaller-stacked competitors; it's now a blackjack tournament where you'd better know something the house doesn't know if you're going to go against the prescribed strategy trying to win over the long haul.
Both games involve the chance that you can make all the right moves and still lose, but in the new world of the NHL, you have to move your chips in on any advantage you can find, especially if you're not drawing aces; otherwise you might just find yourself standing on 11.