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Red Wings plagued by overuse of unskilled veterans

Red Wings

There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your heritage. It’s when that pride gets in the way of progress that a problem can occur. This isn’t a call for the Detroit Red Wings to fire general manager Ken Holland. It is, however, a plea. A plea to one of the most prestigious organizations in professional sports to change their stripes before the game passes them up for good.

Or at least for the foreseeable future.

We’ve seen stubborn adherence to outdated philosophies sink once-proud squads like the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins during the salary cap era. The only thing separating Detroit from a similar fate is time. Time that Holland is running out of, should he decide to continue to run the Red Wings the way he has been over the last several seasons.

While the GM has always preferred icing veterans instead of youth–a practice that has become ingrained in our minds as the Red Wings Way, through sheer repetition that borders on indoctrination–the way he’s pieced together the 2016-17 team might be the most questionable yet.

To figure out how to best move forward, we actually need to look back a bit. Back to 1997, in fact. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup that season, snapping a 42-year drought in the process. One of the most important components of that team was the Grind Line; a trio of gritty forwards who could also score goals from time to time.

Since the late 1990’s, Holland has all but insisted that some version of the Grind Line exist. He went as far as reuniting Darren McCarty with Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper in 2008–a full 11 seasons later–to try and recapture that magic. Good luck finding a Red Wings fan who doesn’t have a soft spot in their heart for either incarnation of the Grind Line (Joey Kocur actually rounded out the unit in 1997 alongside Draper and Matlby, while McCarty played important minutes elsewhere).

You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a Detroit fan who wants to see the team even further away from Stanley Cup contention to simply honor the idea of a line that existed almost 20 years ago. It is fair to point out that Holland was just an assistant general manager when the Red Wings won the Cup in ’97, but it’s clear that the idea has stuck with him since those early days.

Why else would a rational human being actively choose to roll out a fourth line consisting of gritty players in Steve Ott, Drew Miller and Luke Glendening? Why else would Holland sign Ott as a free agent and hand Glendening an absurd four-year extension worth $7.2 million this summer?

Especially when it means losing talented young players like Martin Frk and Teemu Pulkkinen for nothing on waivers, while Anthony Mantha bides his time in the AHL and Andreas Athanasiou watches the season opener from the press box. This is an organization that has relied heavily on unskilled veterans for too long, and the cost has finally caught up with them out on the ice.

The trio of Ott, Miller and Glendening (which Hockey Twitter has cleverly deemed the “OMG Line”) was predictably picked apart by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first game of the regular season. If these so-called bangers can’t be effective against a smaller skill team like Tampa–a squad the Red Wings are trying to compete with for an Atlantic Division title–then who can they make a positive impact against?

The answer is no one.

Possession metrics aren’t the end-all-be-all, but when a line is out-chanced by more than 14 shots in less than eight minutes of ice time, there’s a very real problem.

A problem that Holland could have solved simply by allowing cheaper, more talented players to make the team instead of signing Ott and keeping Glendening around until 2021.

There’s this ridiculous fallacy that a team’s top two lines should be skilled, while the bottom two lines should play with sandpaper. The idea of a fourth line that can hit and score has been romanticized over the last 10-to-15 years, but teams around the NHL are figuring out that skill is needed across all four forward units.

Even the Maple Leafs have figured this out over the last few seasons. Their “third line” is made up of Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Even Toronto is letting the kids play, and few organizations in hockey have a history as deep as the Maple Leafs. They realized that trying to find Wendel Clark clones wasn’t the path to success. Icing talented players on entry-level contracts or bridge deals is.

The good news for Holland is that it isn’t too late to change course. Old dogs can learn new tricks. One needn’t look any further back than the 2015-16 season when the Pittsburgh Penguins went from a mid-range playoff team to a Stanley Cup winner in less than half a year. Jim Rutherford had done a lot of damage to the Carolina Hurricanes before he was finally fired in 2014. So much so that when the Penguins hired him, the move was largely lambasted by the media.

He realized during his tenure that speed was the way to win hockey games in the NHL these days, so he made dramatic shifts to Pittsburgh’s roster to reflect that. Detroit doesn’t have players like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in place, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make dramatic improvements to their team in the coming months.

Letting Dylan Larkin make the team last season was a big deal. Now Holland needs to continue to evolve to keep up with the shifting landscape of professional hockey. Ott and Miller both only have one year remaining on their respective deals, and regardless of how this season goes, they should both be allowed to walk.

The Red Wings need to start making room for a true youth movement. Losing players like Frk and Pulkkinen is simply unacceptable, and Detroit can’t keep its head above water too much longer while continually botching the development of personnel like this. Holland has a bit more time to work with, but more of the same might mean it’s time to make a change at the top of the food chain. No more calls for patience and no more calls for time. If the Red Wings want to continue to stay relevant in the NHL, changes need to happen soon.

Franklin Steele is the assistant editor and featured writer of FanRag Sports' NHL side. He also covers the WWE for FRSSLAM.com. Steele, who joined FanRag Sports in October 2013, has been watching and playing hockey since the age of 6. His work has also appeared on TheHockeyWriters.com, FanSided.com and Bleacher Report. All told, he has more than 3,000 bylines to his name and more than six million people have read his work since 2011. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @FranklinSteele (NHL) and @SteeleTheHeel (WWE).

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