At the beginning of this offseason, the normally reserved Ken Holland said something that many of us had been waiting to hear for a long, long time: “We’ve going to be active and aggressive in free agency.” Really, he had no choice. Nick Lidstrom’s retirement and Brad Stuart’s need to be with his family meant Holland was down two top-pairing D-men, with a third becoming a RFA in Kyle Quincey. The answer, of course, was supposed to be Ryan Suter. Ken Holland would march right in there, lay down the most compelling offer the Wings had ever thrown at a defenseman not named Lidstrom, bring him back to Motown and sit him at a table where he could declare to everyone that he was a Red Wing and the best was yet to come. And of course, let’s not forget Zach Parise. Sure, the Wings didn’t really need him, but if Ken Holland was feeling lucky, perhaps he could just flip the switch and convince him to tag along in Motown. That’s what big time players do, right? They work their way up through the ranks of the “lowly” teams in the NHL, just to eventually sign with the mystique-laden and history-rich Detroit Red Wings.
We already know how this story ends. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise both spurned Detroit to go to the Minnesota Wild, with one player returning to his hometown and another getting the quiet lifestyle he craves. If it feels like a slap in the face, well, it’s because you’ve been living under the same rock that Ken Holland has been under since 2002. To be fair, there’s plenty of things that Holland did right in this process. They secured the elusive in-person meeting with Suter, they made the competitive offer and they bent over backwards sending coaches and former players to ensure that the Wings organization was represented well at all times. But at some point during this process – especially after the in-person meeting with Suter – how did Ken Holland not realize that this thing wasn’t coming together and that Suter and Parise were a package deal with only one real destination in mind? I mean, Ken, if you’re REALLY reading Twitter, it only took one pass through Michael Russo’s feed last night to get the educated idea that maybe you’ve done all you can on these guys and it’s time to get to work elsewhere.
The fact is, though, that the Wings find themselves at a crossroads in terms of how they promote this team to the outside world, and especially to free agents. I’ve beaten this horse dead a number of times, but the shtick about this being an elite destination for the elite talent of the hockey world is now old and dead. The Wings haven’t been truly elite since 2002, and found their way to a Stanley Cup in 2008 and the Final in 2009 with very, very good squads. Not elite squads, but very good ones. So why, then, does Holland continue down this path? He lowballed Ryan Suter, frankly, with 13 years at $80 million, and had to come up to $90 million just to stay in the conversation. Except Suter ended up signing for 13 years at $98 million. How the hell is that being aggressive in free agency? No, we’ve seen this before. That’s the move where Holland throws out a number but reminds you that “Hey, we’re Detroit, remember?” No, Ken, nobody remembers. These kids don’t care about that.
What Zach Parise and Ryan Suter care about are the following: their lifestyles, their family, being the top dogs on the team and making some money. But when Ken Holland’s “increased” offer falls $8 million short of a defenseman they “desperately” need – and one they’ve probably tried to sell the whole “mystique” argument to – there’s a real big problem in the room, and quite frankly it’s not Suter or Parise. Call me crazy, but when you lose out to both of these guys after supposedly being in it – and then lose out to your protege in Tampa for the enigmatic Sami Salo – perhaps it’s time to take a look in the mirror and figure out if you really understand how this thing works anymore. Sure, you’ll always have those guys – Jaromir Jagr – that go where the money is. Some guys will also want to go to a market rich with history and play for an organization that is steeped in tradition and prestige. But others, well, others just want to be made to feel that they are important and that a life-changing decision for them is a life-changing decision for the organization too. Minnesota afforded that opportunity to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Detroit? I’m not so sure. My gut tells me the Wings made their pitch, sold Suter on playing for the “premiere” organization in the NHL, and probably didn’t really read between the lines on his needs.
Maybe I’m just sour grapes over this whole thing. Heck, that’s probably a really logical explanation. Maybe this thing was over before it even started and Parise and Suter were just taking us all on a huge joyride. But the fact is that free agency has become an instrument of torture for Red Wings fans over the past few years and this year is no different. Ken and Co. are now scrambling to piece together a free-agency period that includes more than just Jonas Gustavsson, Mikael Samuelsson and Jordin Tootoo, but now that the big fish are off the line, everything feels small. And instead of scooping up the big talent for alot of money, the only way that big talent ends up in Detroit is if we ship out some of our own in return.
Aggressive in free agency? That begins by getting out of that ivory tower we call Red Wings legacy.
Happy 4th of July everyone. Go drink a beer.
Photo Credit: The Detroit News