By: Jamie Samuelsen
Memorial Day weekend 2008 may not go down as the greatest three-day period in the history of Detroit sports. But it was a damn cool time.
The Red Wings were in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Penguins en route to their fourth Cup in 11 years. The Pistons were in the middle of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics – their sixth straight trip to the NBA’s version of the Final Four. The Tigers were trying to rally from a poor start in what was supposed to be one of the greatest seasons in Tigers history (didn’t work out that way – the Tigers finished in last place). And even the Lions were coming off a 7-9 season and looking forward to perhaps contending for a playoff berth in the fall (we were oblivious at that point to the 0-16 horror that awaited us in September).
Life as a Detroit sports fan was good. We had Ken Holland and Joe Dumars running the show for our winter sports teams, arguably two of the best GM’s in sports. And Mike Babcock was behind the Wings bench, easily the best coach in hockey.
My how times change.
Four short years later, the Pistons are headed for the NBA lottery for the third consecutive year. And the Red Wings are on the brink of losing in the first round of the playoffs and failing to make it past the second round for the third straight year. Unacceptable by most sports standards but certainly unacceptable by the standards here in Detroit.
The finger pointing has been fast and furious since the Wings lost Game 4 to Nashville 3-1 on Tuesday night. Some blame goaltender Jimmy Howard. Some blame Johan Franzen. Some blame the second and third lines which have been kept off the score sheet for the most part. And yes, some are even calling out Holland and Babcock. They blame the GM for standing pat at the trade deadline when many teams (especially the Predators) were aggressive. And Babcock is the coach of this team, and the coach is always the easiest target.
Some of the criticism is certainly warranted. This is not some blanket love fest for Holland and Babcock based only on what they’ve done in the past. Holland’s draft record for the past few years has been pretty empty. The last star to come to Detroit via the draft was Franzen in 2004. Since then, we’ve had promising players like Darren Helm and Gustav Nyquist. And there are the prospects that warrant excitement like Brendan Smith and Riley Sheahan. But no studs. No stars. Not yet. The excuse is obvious. First, the Wings are always one of the top teams in the league, so the draft spot is generally late in the first round. And second, Holland has been more than willing to part with number one picks to acquire help at the trade deadline. Both valid points. But both lose a little steam when you consider that Pavel Datsyuk was taken in the sixth round (1998) and Henrik Zetterberg was taken in the seventh round (1999). It’s still possible to find stars in later rounds. Holland just hasn’t done it in a long time.
So the criticism is fair. And I’m sure Holland isn’t thrilled with his drafting record in the past decade. But if we all agree on that – what is the next thing that people want. If we agree that Holland didn’t have a good year as the Red Wings’ GM, are we asking that he have some mea culpa press conference? Are we hoping he gets flogged? Or worst of all, are people saying that he should be fired?
Because that’s where our agreement end. Ken Holland remains one of the top GMs in all of sports. He oversaw the transition from the Red Wings being the Yankees of the NHL to just another team existing under the cap. He purged the roster of excess salaries and players and signed some of his stars to cap-friendly deals. He created an atmosphere where a guy like Marion Hossa was willing to take a one-year deal in his quest for a Cup and Brad Stuart was willing to give the team a hometown discount to sign a four-year contract.
He deserves some criticism this year – no doubt. But you take the good (a lot of it) with the bad (not much of it). Nothing lasts forever. Even the most ardent Dumars supporter can’t handle many more years of what we’ve seen since that last run in 2008. But with everyone – you have to look at the big picture. And the big picture with Holland remains very, very positive.
So criticize away. It’s your right as a fan. And by Red Wings standards – this isn’t working. Trust me, Holland feels the same way. But when you’re looking for accountability – be careful what you’re looking for. The roster will change. The players should change. The general manager should not. That’s lunacy.