January 26, 2017
Red Wings are not alone among
once-great teams hitting bottom
By KEITH GAVE
The subject line on the email that arrived in my box this morning was foreboding – “Explanation needed” – especially because it came from a very good friend.
And when I opened it, I could tell he was serious. He’s one of the most passionate and knowledgeable Red Wings fans I know, but since he lives in mid-Michigan and spends a lot more time seeing the Griffins play in Grand Rapids I’ve come to value his opinion and analysis of Detroit’s top minor-league affiliate.
Here follows the full text of his digital letter:
“For the past several years I have been sending you good young players, a tremendous goalie and a coach who has won two national championships, all from Grand Rapids. “Then when you get them in the big city, they go in the tank. What in the world are you doing to them?”
A perfectly reasonable question, no? One that, if I could come close to answering I’d be an ideal candidate to replace the guy who’s getting a lot of blame for ruining the immensely successful franchise he helped to build. But it’s not all Ken Holland’s fault.
His team thought it hit rock bottom three weeks or so ago, during that awful streak of 10 games that included nine on the road, including seven straight away from Joe Louis Arena. They sank to 28th overall among the 30 NHL teams. Then they reeled off three straight wins, followed by three more in which they earned a point but lost in overtime.
But Wednesday night, the Wings heard knocking from below, and a new rock bottom was beckoning with a pitiful 4-0 loss to the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs – at home, where half the crowd was wearing blue. The Wings were gracious hosts. They rolled over meekly
No sense of urgency, no desperation, especially considering their place in the standings. Sloppy play with the puck resulting in grievous turnovers. Passive play in front of both nets. An impotent power play. Poor goaltending by Petr Mrazek, who allowed two soft goals with the game on the line.
Just a lousy effort all the way around, leaving – we can only hope – a bad taste in their mouths as many of them scampered to warm sunny places for an extended four-day respite for the NHL All-Star Game. The Wings are one of only two teams that don’t play tonight, so they get an extra day tacked on to their break. Not that they deserve it.
This game, this whole damned season in fact, could really use some “alternative facts” but all we have is the truth:
* This was the seventh time in in 49 games the Red Wings have been shut out. Their offense is one of the least productive in the NHL, their power play dead bleeping last.
* They don’t have a true No. 1 line that strikes fear in opponents, nor anything close to a top defensive pair.
* They may be only six points back of third-place Toronto in the Atlantic Division and five points behind Philadelphia for the second playoff wild card spot, but the Wings are eighth among the remaining teams contending for the berth the Flyers now hold.
But let’s get to the specifics of that email I received this morning:
* For the past several years, I have been sending you good young players. . .
True enough. Guys like Tomas Tatar, Gus Nyquist, Luke Glendening and Alexei Marchenko have proven to be decent NHL players. None great. Pretty average, in fact. The jury is still out on guys like first-round draftees Dylan Larkin (those early comparisons to Steve Yzerman as a franchise player were woefully overblown) and Anthony Mantha, but both are still trying to find their way in the NHL.
* a tremendous goalie. . .
Whoa. Let’s not get carried away here. Indeed, Petr Mrazek was called up after Jimmy Howard went down with a severe groin injury two years ago and might have been the main reason the Wings sneaked into the playoffs in 2015. And Mrazek had a stretch last January when he was unbeatable. Since then it’s been a monumental battle with consistency. And it’s gotten worse since Holland overpaid him with a contract worth $8 million over two years. Lately, Petr Mrazek hasn’t been able to stop one of those big yoga balls.
* and a coach who has won two national championships. . .
Yep, but this is the NHL, and Jeff Blashill, despite his impressive credentials in minor pros, college and at Grand Rapids, is still learning on the job. And – this may be Holland’s fault more than anyone’s – Blashill hasn’t had the best supporting cast of assistants. It’s better this year, to be sure, but this team’s greatest need might be a coach who can get more out of the power play. The jury remains out on Blashill, too, but according to the people I talk with, he’s not the problem. (That’s not to say owner Mike Ilitch will stand for the all-around incompetence we saw on the ice against the Leafs on Wednesday night.
The truth is, the Wings have lost by far more man games to injury (more than 200 already) than any other team in the league. Even when 100 percent healthy, they would be scrambling for a playoff spot in what might be the most competitive division in the NHL.
There is a big difference, too, between the American Hockey League and the NHL, and those players the Griffins have been sending to Detroit just aren’t nearly as good at the next level. They’re just not a good hockey team right now, and that’s the result of where they have been
drafting for most of the last 25 years we’ve been enjoying Stanley Cup playoff hockey – including four Stanley Cup titles.
But Detroit is hardly alone. Wings fans of a certain age will remember than when they won that first Cup in 42 years in 1997 they were one of three outstanding teams in the Western Conference, including bitter rival Colorado and Dallas. And there was one really great team in the Eastern Conference, New Jersey, that Detroit fans remember not-so-fondly from the 1995 Cup Finals.
Well, just look at the overall standings today: New Jersey, 25th overall; Detroit, 26th; Dallas, 27th; and poor, despicable Colorado, dead last at 30th overall.
What has happened to those teams was supposed to happen the way the league rewards teams that finish poorly with higher draft picks. The Wings were just able to maintain a level of relative success far longer than all those other teams. And for that, at least, every manager, scout, coach and player over those years deserve some credit, but as they say “all chickens come home to roost” that’s explains why we’ve seen so many eggs laid this last year at the Joe.