DREW SHARP: Red Wings GM on hot seat for so-so team

The admission was difficult but necessary.

General manager Ken Holland acknowledged two months ago that he didn’t think the Detroit Red Wings were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season. Decent, not dominant. Hopeful, not hyped-up. Within Hockeytown, such concessions border on heresy. But it was the first indication that the Wings are finally coming to terms with where they rank in the NHL.

“After that five or six teams, there are 20 teams with not much difference between them,” Holland told nhl.com in August. “We’re in that group of 20. … As we sit today, we do not have a superstar in his prime.”

Holland warned fans last April — following the Wings’ fourth first-round playoff exit in the last five years — that they should have lower expectations for the team going forward. He’s trying to upgrade, but he’s limited in options because the Wings don’t have access to the top-10 draft picks awarded to horrid organizations.

The Wings now approach a new season with the same old issues. What they want to be remains in conflict with what they are.

The Wings are an average team. That’s all. The 25-year consecutive playoff streak is marketed as a testament to organizational brilliance. But it has become an acceptance of mediocrity.

The NHL has become the NFL in one critical aspect: Mediocrity is sold as hope. There’s a vast middle class. There’s excellence at the very top. And there’s excrement at the very bottom. Those couple dozen teams in the middle think that a little better luck and execution gives them a chance to advance further than the skeptics believe.

Three things happened over the summer that should make it clear that the Wings’ institutional cachet is gone:

  • The NHL’s top free agent, forward Steven Stamkos, didn’t even seek a sit-down with the Wings before re-signing with Tampa Bay.
  • The Wings weren’t a genuine suitor in the P.K. Subban trade discussions because they had nothing that Montreal desired. The Canadiens moved the top-pairing defenseman to Nashville for another top-tier defenseman, Shea Weber.
  • Even if they had little chance at Subban, didn’t Holland have enough young talent to perhaps pluck defenseman Cam Fowler from Anaheim or Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg? But the Wings failed in filling their biggest on-ice vacuum: a true difference maker on the blue line.

Holland is under fire. And he should be. He’s entering his 20th season as the Wings’ general manager. Even if he achieves nothing else during his tenure, Holland’s headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame. There’s no ignoring the Stanley Cups, the shrewd European drafting and the brilliant trade-deadline acquisitions. But Holland never has entered a season with this much skepticism.

“The frustration’s understandable,” he said Monday. “Everyone wants to go back to when we were consistently in the running for the Stanley Cup. We want that, too. Nobody’s happy here that we haven’t fared well in the playoffs. But we’re confident in how we’re trying to retool our roster: getting younger while still trying to field a team that can give us the best opportunity to win.”

What’s changed is that Holland seems more receptive to shuttling in prospects from the minor league Grand Rapids Griffins if it’s apparent early in the season that there isn’t much separation between what he’s getting from the older, higher-paid veterans down on the depth chart and what they might get from youngsters such as Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi or 19-year-old Evgeny Svechnikov, among others.

The Wings can afford a couple of down seasons because there’s interest in the Joe Louis Arena farewell this season and the introduction of Little Caesars Arena in 2017. But they have to be truly committed to giving the youngsters every opportunity to grow and flourish, even if that results in The Streak ending.

That’s on Holland. But it’s on ownership, as well.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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