Two Detroit teams, both owned by the same family, are currently in “rebuild” mode. But they’re handling it much differently.
On one hand, the Detroit Tigers are tearing everything apart from the ground up. They traded away most of their valuable parts at the trade deadlines this past season and they’ve raised the white flag. General Manager Al Avila is quoted as saying “We had a good run.” Fans are expected to buy tickets and cheer for players they’ve never heard of for (we’re told) as many as four or five years as the franchise develops a fresh set of young talent. We’re expected to conveniently forget that the current front office made several bad moves in the last 24 months, leaving the Tigers in poor shape. We’re expected to ignore the fact that all it takes to get into playoff contention is 82-88 wins.
On the other hand, the modd around the Detroit hockey club is quite different. There’s no resignation to years of futility. Fans, for the most part, are not hopeless. Last season the Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, ending one of the NHL’s longest streaks of success in history. The team has a mix of young (Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha) and old (Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall) on a roster with one foot in the future and the other in the past.
General manager Ken Holland has not made any statements about rebuilding. In lieu of scrapping the roster of veterans, he’s offered extensions to several of them. Instead of turning to youngsters, he insists that the team be patient with prospects like former first round pick Evgeny Svechnikov.
Is Holland stubborn or is he smart?
There are extenuating circumstances. The Red Wings will start playing in new Little Caesars Arena this season, a dazzling new venue in downtown Detroit. It’s possible that Holland has been told to keep core veterans on the ice as the Wings open the new era in a new arena.
But the Tigers are also entering the post-Mike Ilitch era, the owner having died in February. The Ilitches own both the Red Wings and the Tigers, but it’s always been the hockey team that the family has loved more. They’re in control now, and there seems no doubt that an Ilitch will own the Red Wings for the foreseeable future.
In contrast, it was Mike Ilitch who was passionate about the Tigers, and now that he’s gone, how long will the Ilitches keep the baseball team in their portfolio? Some speculate that the front office is stripping the Tigers of payroll to make them a more attractive prize for some new owner. That remains to be seen, as Chris Ilitch recently insisted that the family is committed to long-term ownership of the team.
Are the Ilitches prepared to rebuild two teams?
The financial realities are much different in the two sports. Salaries in hockey are far lower than in baseball. The Tigers carried a payroll over $200 million for several years as they enjoyed some of the most successful seasons in franchise history. What did it get them? Four straight division titles, three MVP seasons, two Cy Young award seasons, and lots of fans through the turns styles. But now, after making a few terrible free agent decisions and letting great players like Max Scherzer walk, the team has been gutted. They probably will be able to get back in contention sooner than most people think (the second wild card spot is low-hanging fruit and in the last decade more than half of pennant winners have been wild card teams). But the mood around the team is bleak.
The Red Wings can retool via free agency while spending far less than the Ilitches would have to pay in MLB dollars. Yet, Holland has opened himself up to criticism after failing to sign any big name free agents. He did lure defenceman Trevor Daley to Motown, fresh off winning two Stenley Cups with the Penguins, But that remains the only significant free agent signing off the offseason.
The Red Wings are standing pat. They enter the 2017-18 season with essentially the same team. Zetterberg is a year older at 36 and who knows how healthy or how good he can be anymore? The goaltending is uncertain, with Petr Mrazek still trying to prove he can be a starter in the net, and opening night starter Jimmy Howard still hanging around. Few have ever been that excited with Howard’s play, and he finds himself as Detroit’s #1 goalie basically by default.
The biggest addition to to the team will be the added year of experience that Dylan Larkin brings. The 21-year old enters his third season after getting somewhat of an education last year. He’ll center the second line for coach Jeff Blashill, where he’ll be expected to put the puck in the net more often.
Right wing Anthony Mantha is a former first round pick like Larkin, but he’s yet to show that he understands the demands of playing in the NHL. His play has been uneven and frustrating to both his coaches and the Detroit fans. But his talent level is off the charts and he could become the next great Red Wing.
Tyler Bertuzzi was drafted by Detroit one round after Mantha in 2013, and the rookie left wing will get a chance to play this season with the big boys. He could blossom into a valuable piece too, but we’ll have to wait to see what he can do, Bertuzzi suffered a wrist injury that will sideline him for a month.
The Wings are a mixed bag: veterans who’ve seen their best days; mediocre players in the prime of their careers; and youngsters with (hopefully) bright futures. Blashill will be asked to blend it all together and somehow guide the team back to the playoffs. It’s only been a one-year drought, but Detroit fans aren’t used to seeing their hockey team “rebuild”, even if the Wings aren’t admitting that’s what they’re doing.