MORLAND: When Sports Loyalty Becomes Bad Business

(@MikeMorland)

Loyalty in sports – it’s a topic of debate that’s been on many people’s minds across Detroit. It doesn’t matter which team you follow, every franchise has been especially loyal to players, coaches or front office staff in recent years. But at what point does being too loyal become bad business?

Matt Millen by John Martinez, via Wikimedia Commons

Matt Millen by John Martinez, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lions may be Detroit’s (and one of professional sports) best examples of loyalty gone too far. The lions hired Matt Millen as General Manager and CEO in 2001. William Clay Ford was extremely loyal to Millen, who was at the helm for football’s worst road losing streak (0-24 from 2001-2003), failed first-round draft selections (Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, and Mike WIlliams) and the worst record from 2001-2005. Despite all of this, Ford expended his contract. It wasn’t until Millen’s firing in 2008 that the losing culture and poor front office decisions ended. This nearly decade-long struggle can still be felt by the Lions organization as they continue to develop depth on both sides of the ball.

Not far behind the Lions are the Detroit Pistons. A team that appeared in six consecutive Eastern Conference finals during the 2000’s, won a championship in 2004 and nearly another in 2005, has become the symbol of holding onto the past for far too long. As time marched on, the Pistons held onto aging stars like Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince to a point when they lost significant trade value. Once the team moved these players, Joe Dumars brought back pieces from his championship team that were a shell of their former selves (i.e. Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups). Between poor drafting (Austin Daye, D.J. White and Darko Milicic) and free-agent signings (Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva), General Manager Joe Dumars appeared to have lost his touch on how to build a contender; and ultimately his job.

The Tigers, one of baseball’s best team’s over the last decade, have overcome most of their loyalty mishaps. Under performing players such as Brandon Inge, Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly have long-held roster spots in Detroit. In addition giving players like Jeremy Bonderman and Jose Valverde second chances with them team and coming up short with highly regarded draft picks (Jacob Turner, Andrew Miller, and Ryan Perry), the Tigers have managed to be extremely successful. However, for the better part of the past three seasons, the Tigers have been trying desperately to build their bullpen from within the organization; and as recently as the ALCS in 2013, the bullpen has been the Achilles heel of a team that has yet to win its first World Series title in 30 years.

Ken Holland by Tom Gromak, via Wikimedia Commons

Ken Holland by Tom Gromak, via Wikimedia Commons

The Red Wings, hockey’s most dominant franchise for the last quarter-century, has defied the laws of being overly loyal. Until recent years, the Red Wings Ken Holland has been a model General Manager, not just in the NHL, but across the professional sports landscape. Holland drafts extremely well, especially in the later rounds (Datsyuk, 171st overall in 1998, Zetterberg, 210th overall in 1999 and Jonathan Ericsson, 291st overall in 2002) and has managed to overcome the occasional mistake to championship caliber teams (i.e. the return of Dominik Hasek in 2003-2004).

However, despite Ken Holland’s nearly spotless tenure with the Red Wings, there have been rumblings in recent years that he has become too loyal to aging core.

It’s one thing to be loyal to your core stars (Yzerman and Lidstrom) but it appears that Holland has become almost equally loyal to role players (Mikael Samuelsson, Kyle Quincey and Dan Cleary) in recent years. As the Red Wings struggle to land high profile free-agents (Parise, Suter, Niskanen, Boyle and Stralman), some wonder if Holland’s at the point of forcing round pegs into the square holes of the Red Wings lineup.

With developing stars like Gus Nyquist and Tomas Tatar already in the Red Wings lineup, what sense is there in retaining underperforming players like Dan Cleary (4 goals, 4 assists, -11 during 52 games in 2013-2104) and Kyle Quincey (4 goals, 9 assists, -5 over 82 games in 2013-2014) when Detroit’s top prospects (Jurco, Mantha and Ouellet) are waiting in the wings and appear ready for NHL ice time?

The Red Wings do need a balance of youth and scoring, but this offseason has appeared outwardly reactionary. The Red Wings did not offer Cleary or Quincey contracts after the playoffs, yet, signed both players after Ken Holland tossed his wish list in the garbage on July 2. Two of the Red Wings most unproductive players will be back in 2014-2015, which raises concerns about a team that barely made the playoffs last season.

Over the last decade, Detroit sports fans have watched how loyalty can hurt and help an organization. The Red Wings, Detroit’s most stable franchise, is at the cross-roads of loyalty and reality. If they’re unable to move past failed signings (Tootoo, Samuelsson, Colaiacovo), let go of aging veterans (Cleary) and provide depth around streaky scorers (Johan Franzen), the days of utmost confidence in Ken Holland and the Detroit Red Wings may be a vision of the past.