Red Wings no longer a marquee free agent spot

I should start off this column by first saying, around halfway through it I started to get nauseous. My throat got dry and I swallowed hard before continuing to write.

It might finally be time to acknowledge a tough as nails realization.

The Detroit Red Wings are no longer a free agent destination.

It’s not an easy thing to accept. We’re so accustomed to the Red Wings getting the top available player on the market, watching them fit in seamlessly with the team, helping Detroit to more Stanley Cups.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Red Wings signed Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull and Luc Robitalle in one offseason, compiling the 2001-02 Red Wings, possibly the most talented team in NHL history.

Hasek was recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the seventh member of that team to be enshrined. That’s staggering.

And it will never happen again. That’s all but a certainty.

The salary cap is the reason why teams like Detroit can’t go crazy on the free agent market like a kid in a candy store anymore. But is it the reason why Detroit can no longer get seemingly any significant free agents to come play for the Red Wings anymore?

This was a key offseason for Detroit. It marked the fifth consecutive season that the Red Wings hadn’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Though the team has made 23 consecutive postseasons, a landmark achievement that stands as the longest current streak of any professional franchise, fans expect more from this team.

The defense unquestionably needed an upgrade, and resigning Kyle Quincey, at a raise at that, was not it.

It would have been nice to see Matt Niskanen come to Detroit. Instead he chose Washington, which didn’t even need to spend much to get him. $40.2M over seven years, an average of about $5.7M a season is what the Capitals spent.

It was no secret Detroit wanted Niskanen, and it’s safe to assume Detroit offered at least that, if not more, but like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter before him, Niskanen saw green pastures elsewhere.

How did this happen? How does a storied franchise with plenty of success, both current and historically (11 NHL championships), and with NHL superstars like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and now Gustav Nyquist not draw in its main target?

How do free agents turn up their nose when they look up at the rafters at Joe Louis Arena and see retired jersey’s like Gordie Howe’s iconic No. 9, Steve Yzerman’s No. 19 and now Nick Lidstrom’s No. 5, and then look to the crowd and see a packed house full of rabid hockey fans that love their Red Wings more than the NFL franchise in town (Where else does that happen) and not get excited?

Detroit has unquestionably the best general manager in the business in Ken Holland. He’s overturned this roster twice during his tenure, watched some of the best players in NHL history retire, cut more than half the team’s salary to become cap compliant, and yet the team hasn’t skipped a beat due to his shrewd maneuvering and top-notch scouts. They’re a steady presence, and the only one in the NHL. Other teams try to emulate Detroit and aren’t shy about admitting it.

So what has changed? Why aren’t the free agents coming to Detroit?

I’ve thought about this and there are probably two main possible reasons for this.

The first is Joe Louis Arena. The place is frankly, a dump. The players hate it, the fans hate it, it’s a bad arena. It was bad when it was built, it’s terrible now. A blight on the NHL, and an embarrassment that it houses one of the NHL’s foremost franchises.

The Joe won’t be around much longer as plans to construct a new arena for the Red Wings are in full motion. When that day comes, maybe the free agents look to Detroit again, but that’s still some time away.

The second is far more tricky and hard to swallow. It deals with head coach Mike Babcock.

As a fan, I wouldn’t trade Babcock for any coach in the league. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best in the business. He’s practically Scotty Bowman in many ways (obviously without as many championships).

But the players sing a different tune.

Babcock reportedly is an impossible man to play for. He’s relentless, driving, pulling and scraping every ounce out of every player, and you’re going to do it his way, or you aren’t going to play.

It is professional sports right? Isn’t that how its supposed to be? But Babcock apparently takes it to another level. If you follow Deadspin, you’ve heard of players on other teams say Babcock is why they won’t come to Detroit. Current Red Wings are more reluctant to talk about it, or dance around the issue.

Obviously, Babcock knows what he’s doing. He’s had to deal with the most man games lost due to injury in the NHL over the last two years, yet the Red Wings have still made the playoffs. Yet, Babcock has never won a Jack Adams trophy as the NHL’s top coach, and if you read into it, could his reputation be a reason why?

If it’s true, what can Detroit and Ken Holland do about it? Dismiss the game’s best coach to draw in free agents? I can’t see Holland ever doing that. Who’s running the show? Him? Or players not even on the team?

A franchise should never be dependent on a free agent haul, and the Red Wings aren’t there yet, but free agents do complement a team and can sometimes help them reach that next level.

So, Detroit must do something. I’m sick of seeing free agents treat the Red Wings like a second-rate franchise. It’s unsettling.

Eventually, it may lead to that complete overhaul the Red Wings have so far eluded.