Are the Red Wings Still the Gold Standard in the NHL?
While I usually see the cup half-empty, I am faced with quite the conundrum when I consider the Red Wings’ situation. As a long time fan of the Motor City team, I have enjoyed many “fat” years, with the prospects of “lean” years so far removed I barely remember the Pre-Fedorov Era. I have bragged, boasted and jawed my way through countless hockey debates, citing games won, Stanley Cups, and all star after all star. And just for good measure, usually as a final parting shot, I remind people of how the Wings’ scouting department and upper level management is so far beyond any other NHL team. The problem is that I am not sure I believe that anymore.
Are the Red Wings, and specifically Kenny Holland, still heads and tails above all others?
It is unquestionable the Red Wings have been the most successful organization in hockey for the better part of two decades, if we base that on wins and Stanley Cups. There have been a few important catalysts for their successs; an unrivaled scouting department, and excellent leadership.
With solid leadership beginning with owner Mike Ilitch and the respected management of Kenny Holland, Detroit has not had much to worry about from an administrative POV for decades. Even their coaching, with Scotty Bowman for a great run in the 90′s, to Mike Babcock for much of the last 10 years, has been of exceptional quality. But for the first time, cracks are appearing in the red and white’s armour, and critics, who have been waiting eagerly to write them off, are ready to swarm.
The issue fans are dealing with in Detroit this off-season is one they haven’t had to consider in a while – who is their on-ice leader? The team has enjoyed the presence of two of the greatest captains in the history of the game in both Steve Yzerman (you have to consider Stevie Y amongst the top few) and Nicklas Lidstrom, who both had a similar approach to leadership. It’s interesting to consider that both were very well disciplined, soft-spoken and mild-mannered, yet very fierce competitors.
The two most likely candidates are their offensive leaders, Henrik Zetterberg, who will be Detroit’s captain this season, and Pavel Datsyuk. I love watching both play. I think Datsyuk is arguably the game’s greatest two-way player, and Zetterberg plays with a great combination of grit and skill. But those skills are not the only ingredients that go into making a good leader. Do they have command of the locker room? Do they rise in the face of adversity, lead by example and win at all costs? This is what I fear – I knew Yzerman and Lidstrom did all that and more, but I am not 100% certain Pavel and Hank will. It’s not because I don’t think they can, it’s just that they have never been in the position to have to.
So with question marks surrounding on-ice leadership, what about the team’s management? With hockey being a much more global game than it was, say, 10 years ago, does Kenny Holland and co. have any advantage over other teams? Are the years of drafting players like Zetterberg and Fedorov (believe me, there are many, many more examples) in very late rounds of the draft over?
Even though Kenny Holland is considered an elite GM, I wonder if most of that is residual from the Stanley Cup years. Instinct tells me that it is. The Red Wings have long-been considered an “old” team – I’ve been hearing that for many, many years. But until I saw them last year versus Nashville, I never really saw that as relevant. Times have changed. So what has Holland done to re-group?
During the 90s and early 2000s the Red Wings were able to exploit the fact that they scouted Europe more than any other team in the NHL. They were able to find late round steals like Lidstrom, Fedorov, Konstantinov, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and others who other NHL teams passed over. However other teams have caught up, and the Wings are no longer alone in spending significant scouting resources in Europe. They must find another way to continue to replenish the talent pipeline.
The Wings have lost Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart on their defense this off-season. This comes on the heels of losing Brian Rafalski last year. These are pieces that have not been replaced (and really could they even hope to replace Lidstrom?). Sure, Ian White was a nice add last year, and Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are solid players, however the loss on defence is enormous. The Wings reportedly made offers to UFA Ryan Suter, and were trying to trade for Shea Weber, however they struck out on both those fronts. Brendan Smith is a promising young prospect, but he’s spent several years growing in the Detroit system, but I’m also not convinced he’ll be a number-1 defenceman either. A good prospect, but I don’t know that we can call him a great one with any level of assuredness.
So where does that leave the Wings? The UFA Defence market is picked-over and there is not much left there. Scott Hannan, Michael Rozsival and Pavel Kubina are not the answers to the holes on the Wings blue line. There are some other young RFA defencemen available, but will Montreal give up Subban? or the Rangers, Del Zotto? Can Washington afford to deal Carlson? I highly doubt that they can lure these players away even with an offer sheet.
If the Wings want to remain an elite NHL team next season it’s time for Holland to pull some trade magic. Could he lure Keith Yandle out of Phoenix or Jay Bouwmeester out of Calgary? Or perhaps some surprise player who is not rumorred to be on the market? As a Wings fan, I sure hope so… but as I said, my cup is half-empty.
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