Ken Holland’s Plan for Detroit Red Wings is An Enigma

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It’s been just over a week since the end of the Stanley Cup Final, and naturally the off-season rush of activity is percolating. More than half a dozen teams have already have agreed to deals in place with the Vegas Golden Knights but cannot announce them until the NHL Awards are over Wednesday when the Expansion Draft takes place. The Dallas Stars are listening to offers for the third overall pick for Friday’s NHL Draft. Jonathan Drouin‘s trade to Montreal already has a case for blockbuster of the summer just daring other teams to top it.

Then, there are the Detroit Red Wings.

Ken Holland‘s Plan for Detroit Red Wings is An Enigma

Missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 25 years, it’s clear changes must be made for a franchise that once had the expectation of a perennial Stanley Cup Contender. Then again, the Wings have been fairly comfortable not making a major move the last five seasons, where they’ve won a total of one playoff series while extending a streak that was marketable and provided some sort of reminder or relevance that said “Hey, we’re still here!”

Sure, general manager Ken Holland traded away Pavel Datsyuk‘s contract last year presumably to make a run at Steven Stamkos, but that never came to fruition as they never got a meeting with him. Mattias Janmark and Calle Jarnkrok, two depth scorers that were given up in trades for Erik Cole and David Legwand, are performing for the Stars and Nashville Predators. Both were traded for players that would, in the organization’s mind, give the team a chance to go deep in the playoffs and recapture old glory. Both runs in 2013 and 2015 lasted one round each. The Kyle Quincey trade in 2012 cost the team a first round pick (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and they suffered another first round exit.

Luke Glendening, Justin Abdelkader, and Darren Helm have weakened financial flexibility tremendously taking $9.9 million up in space for the next four seasons at the absolute least. That’s a lot for 18 goals and 52 points of combined (!!!) offense.

Yet their expansion list yielded no desire to change for the younger or at all in fact.

Abdelkader and Danny DeKeyser, unlikely to get snagged by Vegas due to their contracts, were protected anyway in favor of their experience and, dare I say, character, over Riley Sheahan and Xavier Ouellet. The former could have reportedly been dealt for a pick as high as the second round at the trade deadline this past year. The biggest shock had to be the protection of Jimmy Howard, 33, over Petr Mrazek, 25.

Holland has added fuel to Hockeytown’s fire with his goaltender protection, with Mrazek now being leaked through news outlets as one to deflect blame from himself as a toxic teammate that doesn’t fit the character card that the organization seems to value over apparent asset value. This was reportedly seen with his contract negotiations last summer that went to the 11th hour in arbitration before settling at a 2-year, $8 million deal.

Sure, an .894 save percentage and 2.80 goals against average since the beginning of February 2016 (70-appearance span) is alarming, but given his age and raw value, it shouldn’t be a hard decision for Vegas to agree to a deal and flip him for assets to build their team through the Entry Draft. Howard will not yield those assets with his term and cap hit (two years, $5.3 million AAV), and even though he had a resurgent 2016-17 posting the best goals against average (2.10) and save percentage (.927) of his career, he only started 24 games and his health is a concern heading into his mid-30s.

Going back to protecting the contracts, the Holland has publicly stated that there will be no side deals and Detroit is comfortable in losing a player without preventing a certain number from being selected. There’s a full opportunity for Detroit to play around with a draft pick or two, possibly ninth overall this season, to get themselves out of a bad contract a la Howard, Abdelkader, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, and for Holland not to, at least publicly, attempt to get out of one of their crippling deals is an ominous sign for the future that looks stagnant riding a high of Little Caesar’s Arena. That high won’t last forever.

The New York Islanders are reportedly getting Mikhail Grabovski off their books in a package that will send the 15th round pick along with him so they can open up cap. They’re looking to add a top-six forward to support John Tavares. The Tampa Bay Lightning may be getting Jason Garrison off their cap. Teams are getting creative to open themselves up and show some kind of direction. That direction in Detroit is difficult to see.

Heading into the Entry Draft starting with the lift of the trade freeze Thursday morning, it’s unknown what Holland will do other than draft ninth. There’s no dead weight contract to get rid of this year a la Pavel Datsyuk, and reportedly, the team is dying to draft top defensive prospect Cale Makar. In mid-May, the general manager told the Detroit News he’s looking for something to make the team better. This week, it was reported in The Athletic that he wants to see a playoff game at “LCA” this season. There are some blue-chip pieces to deal for assets to “win now” that include ninth overall, Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Evgeny Svechnikov, but the Larkin and Mantha seem to be untouchable for the time being.

For the vision of 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff hockey to happen and the vision, although quite polarizing, to come to fruition, Detroit obviously cannot stay the way they are. Patience is running thin with Holland’s inactivity to start this offseason. Sure the Grand Rapids Griffins won a Calder Cup Championship, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee near future success for Detroit. Tomas Nosek and Tyler Bertuzzi may contribute to the bottom six, but there are no slam dunks.

Defense is a prime target and Detroit was not proactive in using the expansion draft creatively to move any washed up veterans to make space for possible puck-moving acquisitions on the market in Sami Vatanen, Mathew Dumba, or even Jonas Brodin echoing Holland’s playoff mentality. It’s highly unlikely that any of those are a lock for number-one defensemen anyway. The opportunity to gain leverage in scooping up assets to build for the future or even use those to trade for defensive help may hit a snag with either of Sheahan or Mrazek getting taken by Vegas, skewing the opportunity to added pieces to a reload.

Holland has a long way to go this summer, but his stance on the expansion draft continues an unclear approach that is stuck between win now and rebuild, a purgatory that has pushed the Wings into irrelevancy with a road of pain looming. Henrik Zetterberg is going to be 37. Frans Nielsen will be 33. Those are your top two centers. DeKeyser is entering the  second year of his six-year pact that will pay him $5 million per season, and he struggled mightily in his fourth NHL season. Mike Green, 31, is as good as gone after or during this season. There’s no guarantee Howard will repeat his performance this season with few “good” years left. There’s no clear franchise cornerstone at forward, defense or in goal now that Mrazek looks to be on his way out even if he gets passed on by Vegas. Yet, the mission is to make the Playoffs next season.

How Detroit will get there is between the ears of Holland, and he needs to give a hint on how that process will start, and fast.

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