August 8th, 2017
Two once-proud and successful Detroit
teams fall on hard times; which is worse?
By KEITH GAVE
As much as I hate starting the week on such a downer, I can’t help but raise a question that’s been troubling me for some time now: Which of our beloved Detroit sports teams, the Tigers or the Red Wings, will return to the playoffs first?
The Tigers, as you’re well aware, signaled the end of a pleasant, though frustrating 12-year-run with a couple of trade-deadline deals that sent outfielder J.D. Martinez, closer Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila packing for five prospects, all of whom play the left side of the infield. So began the long-overdue rebuilding process that technically began a few years ago, when they dealt away pitchers David Price and Joakim Soria and outfield Yoenis Cespedes that brought them three young pitching prospects and a prospect who can play shortstop and center field – if he can learn to hit major-league pitching.
In those 12 years, the Tigers won four Central Division titles and advanced to two World Series – though they won once in nine games. But the last place finishes two years ago, a close second to Cleveland last year and what looks to be a third- or fourth-place finish this year with one of the highest payrolls in baseball suggests the need to reshape this club – drastically. And that cannot seriously begin until Detroit can unload some of the massive contracts that are handcuffing any rebuilding effort.
The Red Wings, as you’re also no doubt well aware, failed to advance to the NHL’s Stanly Cup playoffs in April for the first time in 26 years. During their quarter-century of success, which included four Cup titles and five President’s Trophies as the best team in the regular season, Wings management was fond of boasting how they preferred not to rebuild but rather “change on the fly.” Except the only flying they’ve done lately has resulted in a crash landing near the bottom of the league standings.
And it looks like they’re there to stay for a while.
Not coincidentally, the teams were built with the similar philosophies. Find good players and lock them up with lucrative, long-term contracts. They got them through the draft like the Wings did start with Steve Yzerman and continuing with splendid late-round picks that nabbed them Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, or via trades, like the Tigers did with just about everybody other than Justin Verlander.
But both clubs were loyal to a fault, giving too many players too much money over too many years, to the point that both are now crippled by their own generosity. Blame the late Mike Ilitch if you must, and for the record I knew him to be the kind of man who would admit to erring on the side of trying to bring winners to the city he cherished.
Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Verlander, Justin Upton on the baseball side. Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Danny Dekeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jimmy Howard, Petr Mrazek, Stephen Weiss, Gus Nyquist and, most recently, Tomas Tatar, all given contracts that were generous in the extreme, either in annual salary or length of contract or, in most cases, both.
Only Datsyuk and Zetterberg in that group consistently earned their paychecks, though Zetterberg’s contract is ridiculously long. At 36, and playing through a chronically bad back, he has four years remaining at $6.083 million, numbers that will cripple this team’s ability to compete under the salary cap in the remaining two or three years of his deal.
Were the Tigers and Red Wings good enough to make the playoffs this year? Absolutely, at least based on the past performances of most of these players and what was expected of them at their given salaries. So whose fault is it? Who is to blame?
Certainly, the players deserve a share of it. They didn’t compete hard enough, didn’t perform nearly at the level most of them expect of themselves.
But athletes are human, too, and they’ll typically perform only as hard as the guy who sets the bar. And that’s the manager of a baseball team and the head coach of a hockey team. Their only job is to hold the players accountable to do their jobs, to perform and succeed. Both these Detroit clubs in recent years were handed over to rookies with no experience, and it showed.
Both Brad Ausmus and Jeff Blashill were given the unenviable task of learning their trade while on the job with veteran-laden clubs. The results were predictable. All too soon, the inmates were running the asylums. It was especially bad in the Red Wings’ dressing room. The veterans had pretty much tuned out Mike Babcock, making it easy for him to leave after 10 seasons, and they weren’t about to take marching orders from a rookie coach with one year in the NHL as an assistant, and a staff of assistants that included two men with no NHL experience.
So yes, the bench bosses get a big portion of the blame. But what about the guys who hired them? Sure, Dave Dombroski, who hired Ausmus, had already been fired for that series of deadline deals two years ago that turned out pretty damned well for the Tigers, after all. But Al Avila kept him on long after it was clear he wasn’t the right guy for this team. And Ken Holland should have recognized that in January when it was clear the Red Wings weren’t going anywhere under Blashill.
The right manager at the start of 2016 would have had the Tigers in the post-season last fall. It’s difficult to make that same argument for the Wings, but a better coaching staff with the right guy teaching and organizing the power play would have made a world of difference for that team.
What I’m getting at is that both teams need to tear it up and start all over again, starting at the top. After this season’s debacle, the Tigers need to show Avila and Ausmus the door and hire someone who can negotiate the kind of tough deals this team needs to make to rid itself of some of these fat contracts so it can rebuild, then hire a teaching manager for a team in transition. It may take 3-4 years to compete for the playoffs again, though if Michael Fulmer, Daniel, Norris, and Matt Boyd develop into the pitchers we think they can be, the turnaround may take as little as two years.
The Red Wings, sadly, have a bigger mess on their hands, largely created by the man who once was considered one of the finest team executives in all of the professional sports. But Holland’s resume over the past handful of years has been a comedy of errors, highlighted by the contracts he’s doled out.
I mean, come on. Six years at $5 million a year for Danny DeKeyser is one of the worst deals ever, considering how poorly he performed last season. Same goes for Ericsson, who has three years left at $4.25 million; Gus Nyquist, who has two years left for a total of $10.75 million; Justin Abdelkader, six years remaining at $4.25 million, and Tomas Tatar, who just signed a ridiculous deal that suggests Holland has completely lost it at the negotiating table.
Tatar had wanted a deal worth about $6 million a season, which was so laughable the Wings took him to arbitration, which they seldom do because of their proclivity to be so generous. In a four-hour arbitration hearing, Tatar demanded a deal worth $5.3 million a season. The Wings offered him a multi-year deal at $4.1 a year for a guy who has averaged 25 goals a season for the past three years, about right, but arguably far too much for a player who has contributed just seven points in 17 playoff games.
But in the 48 hours, the arbitrator had to consider both proposals – and likely hand down a salary somewhere in the middle – Holland caved like a house of cards, which the Wings have been for the last half dozen years or so anyway.
Tatar wound up signing a four-year deal worth. . . wait for it. . . $5.3 million a season.
Steve Yzerman has proven himself to be one of the shrewdest, most successful general managers in hockey since he left the Wings to take over the Tampa Bay Lightning. He cannot come home soon enough. The Wings have always considered their former captain to be Holland’s heir-apparent, but if Yzerman were to take over this team today, it still might take 5-6 years to get the Wings back into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So yeah, life is disappointing at the baseball park in Detroit these days. But it could be worse. Just look across Woodward Avenue where the local hockey team will be open for business next month. The Red Wings are a mess, and their future is bleak.
Thank goodness we have the Lions, eh?