Dear Mr. Holland
Dear Mr. Holland,
As a long-time fan, it pains me to say it but, "It's time."
For more than 20 years, we've watched our team become good, then very good, then great, and then repeat champions; arguably the very best organization in professional hockey if not professional sports. You've had a lot to do with that success. Your innovative, out-of-the-box thinking and drafting strategy made you the leader. You built a team that has been fun to watch and remains fun to watch. You did it using mostly skill-players. And the talent level that you were able to assemble allowed that system to flourish for many years, with the pinnacle being the 2002 Red Wing team, one of the very best that's ever been assembled, if not THE best.
But since our championship in 2008, we've watched the team drop to a Stanley Cup finalist, to a conference finalist, to a second-round competitor to, now, what is almost certainly to be a first-round-only team. The decline has been gradual, but steady. Each year, less and less successful in the playoffs.
During most of the series that have led to our exit, Coach Mike Babcock and the Red Wing players have used the term "puck luck" as a major reason for why we couldn't go further; "puck luck," "they got the bounces," and a "hot goaltender." There is no question that these have been true to a degree. We only have to go as far back as games 1 and 2 of our current series with the Predators to see that the bounces went their way in game 1, and went ours in game 2. We played better in game one than we did in game two, but we lost the first and won the second. There's no question that "puck luck" has something to do with success. If the sample size were small enough--like 1 series, no more than 2--those excuses work, because "puck luck" can turn a series sometimes. It happens. Pekka Rinne has been stellar in this series too. No one can argue that.
But it doesn't happen over and over. And when it happens against teams that are similarly built and in subsequent years, at some point you have to start looking for reasons other than "puck luck" and "bounces" for your lack of success. You also have to begin to ask why our success during the regular season no longer translates to playoff success. If you couldn't see it before now, Mr. Holland, it's time.
There is an element of puck luck in success, but when it comes to puck luck, like many say, you make your own luck. Those "luck" opportunities are often made by a style of play. In game 3, the Wings tried to play a more physical, inside kind of game, and did it relatively well for two periods plus some of the third. But despite playing very well during that stretch, they couldn't score. And they couldn't sustain that kind of play for an entire 60 minutes without significantly breaking down somewhere along the way. In fact, it's been a LONG time since we could really say that the Wings were able to play that kind of game for an entire 60 minutes in a playoff game, unless the opponent was significantly less talented that we were and/or where our skill level could make up for our mistakes.
But in the salary cap era, it's really hard if not impossible to build a team that is THAT much more highly skilled than the other Cup-contending teams where you can make up for a physical differential with enough skill to win in a seven-game playoff series in the playoffs. There was a time when you could buy enough talent to do that, but in this new era, even with as much skill as we have with our current roster, it's clear that it's not enough.
Mr. Holland, it's time that we reassessed the style of play that we have built our team on for the last 20 years. San Jose, and Nashville, and perhaps even St. Louis (there may be others in the Eastern conference, but we haven't played anyone in the Finals other than Pittsburgh since 2002) have all begun to build playoff-contending teams which have size and physical play as a hallmark for their defensive strategy, while still developing some skilled players. History shows that that strategy works more than it doesn't in the playoffs.
As the Red Wings had to learn in the early Bowman era, we had to have some size in the back--like Larry Murphy and Slava Fetisov as well as physical guys like McCarty and the grind line to complement our skill players. We had some guys like Yzerman who have skill and play with grit, but there aren't too many Steve Yzerman's in the world are there? Those guys were essential pieces to our Cup success, but they are gone, and we've replaced them with good players but smaller, more-skilled players who can move the puck, but can't match up physically with some other teams' players. And in the regular season that still works, because there is more room. The games are officiated differently. But in the playoffs, it doesn't work as well, as our steady decline in the past 4 seasons testifies.
Watching the Wings pepper Rinne with shot after shot, it is evident that we are counting on a deflection or a rebound opportunity to give us the scoring chances that Rinne won't be able to stop. There have been multiple times where that's happened, but because the opposing players are interfering, either we haven't had someone in position to take advantage of the opportunity, or else they were in position but were muscled by the opposing player enough where they couldn't use their skills effectively enough to score. This is where teams make their own "puck luck." We are creating the opportunities, but we no longer have the personnel that are able to outmuscle the opposition to be able to use the skills or their position to take advantage of the opportunities that we've created.
It is now time to look at the kinds of strategies that are giving teams success in the playoffs and to try to emulate that style of play, because continuing to do what we've been doing isn't working. Trying to ask guys who have a great skill set but are smaller in stature to "play big" only works to a degree. If their size and structure doesn't let them play that way naturally, they have to expend their energy that they would otherwise put towards refining and maximizing the potential of their skill sets on trying to play a physical game. And they can do it in spurts, but they can't to it reliably for a full game, much less for a best-of-seven series without breaking down structurally/defensively or else drawing a bunch of penalties. You've got to have guys who are already bigger and tougher that don't have to think about that part of the game. They can focus on the skill part.
To do this means that you're going to have to let go of the current team model. That's really hard to do, because we've been successful with it for as long as we have. But it's going away. Lidstrom is going away. If not after this season, soon. You're already going to have less skill without him anyway, because you can't find another Nick Lidstrom. That other guy doesn't exist. So you've got to find a better way, and history suggests adding some size and toughness to battle in the middle works.
Yes, it means we're probably gonna have to break up our team. That hurts. Letting go of guys who have given our team years of faithful service will not be fun or easy. But it's time.
If you want what's best for the franchise, it's time to make the difficult decision to do the right thing and change the Red Wings to once again make them into a serious Cup contender where that's still being said about them in the third round, and not just before the playoffs begin.
If you weren't sure before, you should be dang sure now, that it's time to do the hard part of your job. So do it, and don't apologize for it. Be grateful for the success that we have had, but don't be satisfied with where it's taking us. We fans may grumble at first when we lose players that we like, but whether all of us get it or not doesn't matter. We all soon will if you decide to do it right.
So do it, Mr. Holland. It's time.