Both the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings have left fans wondering what exactly the plan is moving forward to become successful. Both teams are on the way down from years or even decades of sustained success and championships. With fan bases that expect excellence, there have been calls for both Tigers general manager Al Avila and Wings GM Ken Holland to be fired if there is no clear direction soon.
The reason both front offices have found it tough sledding to put together winning teams in the last couple of years can likely be attributed to the desires of their owner, the late Mike Ilitch. When the former founder of Little Caesars Pizza took over the Tigers in 1992 after taking ownership of the Wings ten years earlier, his wish was to see his hometown teams win championships.
The Red Wings took advantage of an NHL with no salary cap, and their expert scouting team, who drafted Pavel Datsyuk in the sixth round and Henrik Zetterberg in the seventh, coupled with free spending brought them four championships in a 10 year span. We’ll get back to them later, because although the salary cap changed things, the overspending and loyalty from Mr. Ilitch has a similar effect on the Wings.
This post is written in a different tone from the post that was written at the start of June, when the Tigers were still somewhat in the division race. The main thing I glossed over in that post: the albatross contracts of Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann.
It is easy to tell why the moves were made for Zimmermann and Justin Upton in the winter of 2015. The window was closing on a team that finished in last place and both moves were panic buys by a front office desperate to give Mr. I one last good shot at a title before he passed away.
There were similar overspends made dating all the way back to 2012 when first baseman Prince Fielder was available. A career year in 2011 that saw Fielder finish third in the National League MVP race was not ignored by Ilitch, who pushed the deal through despite apprehension on the part of Dave Dombrowski and the front office. Fielder’s massive contract would have been a huge burden had they not fleeced the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler. The Rangers are currently paying the rest of Fielder’s contract despite his retirement in August 2016.
The Verlander deal, signed in 2013, was probably pretty necessary in hindsight. There was really no good reason to let the face of the franchise even get close to free agency, and it just seems like an unfortunate circumstance that JV had a poor 2014, if 3 WAR is considered poor, and was not quite the dominant pitcher the Tigers needed in the fateful 2014 ALDS against Baltimore that signaled the beginning of the end.
Either way, it is the spending from the Ilitches in that time frame that has left Avila with a very big mess to try to sort out. Reports and rumors are flying all over the place that new owner Chris Ilitch is attempting to cut payroll and keep the team presentable to potential buyers. If this is the case, then you can expect pretty much universal disdain from the city of Detroit. It is Chris Ilitch’s decision, that cannot be disputed, but the family has woven itself into the fabric of the city.
For their part, they did manage to move both the Pistons and Red Wings into the brand-new Little Caesar’s Arena, just in time to see the Wings’ playoff streak end. The Wings are another team without a clear route back to success thanks to overspending. With the salary cap in place, even stars do not make much above $10 million a year, but managing to fit 23 players under a $78 million cap can prove difficult if there are bad contracts involved.
There were multiple deals made in seasons past that have had negative long-term effects on Holland’s ability to work magic in the free agency market. Justin Abdelkader was signed for far too long when he re-signed with the Wings in 2015. Then 27, he signed a seven year deal that pays him $4.25 million until 2023. The former Spartan is now 30, and missed a handful of games in 2016-17. That said, paying more than peanuts for seven goals and fourteen assists is ludicrous in today’s salary cap situation.
The loyalty to veteran Wings even extended to Darren Helm, who has never really lit up the stat sheet but has played an important role as a two-way player over his eight seasons with the Wings. Helm is being paid nearly $4 million for the next four seasons despite turning 30 and seeing his advanced metrics decrease. A player like Helm, who has only played a full season once in eight seasons, deserves nowhere near that much money, regardless of sentiment.
These moves may or may not have been completely Holland’s doing – there’s no way of knowing for sure. However, the same philosophy that applied to the Tigers’ pursuit of a championship has come back to bite the Red Wings.
Without any real star power outside of Dylan Larkin and an aging Zetterberg, the 2017-18 season could end up looking a lot like last year, where the Wings were nearly last in their division. Holland might have to conjure up some magic just to keep his job. There doesn’t seem to be any quick route back to a powerhouse team, and with Holland inching closer to the hot seat, fans could be in for another long period of losing.