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To understand the Detroit Red Wings, you first have to understand the plight of Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The New Jersey resort town could see three of its 12 casinos close by Labor Day, according to analysts, having watched revenues fall by close to $2.5 billion since 2006. The main culprit: Competition in surrounding areas, as casinos have opened in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York, as well as the siren’s song of online wagering.
Atlantic City believed it always had the advantage. It had nostalgia on the boardwalk. It had tradition on the beach. It was, in many ways, the only game in town.
"The game has changed. Players can go wherever they want."
That was Red Wings general manager Ken Holland on Tuesday, lamenting the fact that his team whiffed on every major free agent to whom it pitched. Dan Boyle, their prime target, took less money to sign for two years with the New York Rangers. Matt Niskanen, to whom they were willing to give seven years and a reported $38.5 million, signed with the perennially underachieving Washington Capitals. Stephane Robidas got 3 years and $9 million from Toronto and Christian Ehrhoff joined the Penguins for 1 year – deals Detroit would have gladly matched. Anton Stralman opted to join Steve Yzerman in Tampa.
Combine that with other recent high profile courtships that came up empty – looking at you, Ryan Suter – and it’s enough to wonder what’s so repellant about the Red Wings to elite free agents.
The Red Wings have a playoff streak that stretches back to when George Herbert Walker Bush was president. They have star players, a renowned ownership and arguably the best coach in hockey. They have nostalgia. They have tradition.
But just like in A.C., the players now have something they didn’t have a decade ago: options.
“Free agency used to be about eight or 10 teams,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo Sports. “Everybody’s in the free agent market now because of the ceiling and the floor."
The money for those 8-10 teams is equal. Teams with money to spend are usually the ones that aren’t predestined for a playoff seed; and yet even Dave Bolland and Willie Mitchell have to think that they have a puncher’s chance at playoff contention, if not a spot, with Roberto Luongo in Florida.
That brings us to another factor for the Red Wings: Parity.
Yes, it’s true that Daniel Alfredsson made his decision to leave Ottawa for Detroit based partially on their ability to bring him his first Stanley Cup. But in reality, the Wings aren’t that team anymore, and haven’t been since the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom. Only three teams fit that status in 2014: The Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings.
Everyone else gets a whack at the piñata. The playoff races are a shell game constructed by the NHL to keep every team alive as long as they can be. A player can sign anywhere among about 20 teams and feel confident that the playoffs are a possibility.
But again: What compels them to sign elsewhere rather than Detroit?
Well, why did Suter sign in Minnesota? Family and geography. Why did Boyle sign in New York? For Marty St. Louis (one assumes) and because he always wanted to play in New York. Why did Niskanen sign in Washington? Because his mentor with the Penguins is now their assistant coach. Why did Ryan Miller sign with Vancouver? Because the guy who drafted him is the GM.
Why did Stephen Weiss, seen at the time as a coup for Detroit, sign with the Red Wings in 2013? Partially because he was a Plymouth Whaler and because he was closer to his hometown in Toronto. Why did Alfredsson sign with the Wings? Say, do they have any Swedes on the team?
Relationships and geography have always played a role in where a free agent will sign, but it’s now become overriding factors since the money’s become equal. Predicting the next home for a free agent used to be as easy as predicting who could give him a max contract; now it comes down to whether his father’s cousin’s son’s sister’s friend’s former roommate is the assistant general manager.
It’s about familiarity, and it’s about comfort, which leads us to a question Holland had to answer on Tuesday:
What if free agents don’t want to play for notorious hard-ass Mike Babcock?
It’s a crazy notion on its surface, because the question is essentially “why don’t players want to play for the best coach in hockey?” Holland addressed it thusly: "I've never heard those rumors. I think that we've got one of the best coaches in the NHL and he's been a reason why some people have come here."
Except no one did on Tuesday.
What if the problem lies with the general manager, the previously infallible Ken Holland?
If today had been a one-year aberration, that would be one thing. But since the 2009 season ended, the Wings have failed to land any player of any magnitude. Granted, a lot of that has had to do with the salary cap and the fact the Wings had several players who needed raises. But in 2012, after the retirement of Lidstrom, the Wings have not only failed to land the best free agent who clearly fit their needs, they were unable to even get the second or even third best players after that top guy.
The fact is that we are now entering a period of time where Ken Holland the rest of his management group are not only failing to make the Wings better, they're not coming up with a cohesive plan for the future.
Which brings us back to Atlantic City.
There are successful casinos in Atlantic City, ones that will thrive. But tastes change. Traditions become antiquated. What were the gleaming palaces of yesterday are the well-worn poker parlors of today – still enormously entertaining, but no longer awe-inspiring.
Pavel Datsyuk is 35. Johan Franzen is 34 and Henrik Zetterberg is 33, while both of their bodies age are about 40. They are the incredible past for this franchise and its impressive present.
The problem for some free agents – like those with 7-year contracts – is what the future holds for Detroit.
"We made offers to four or five,” said Holland. “For a variety of reasons, they chose to go elsewhere. That's the reality of the cap world.”
The reality of the Red Wings’ as well.