By Allan Muir
Ask anyone. They'll tell you that Danny Cleary is a good guy. A great teammate. A leader on the ice and in the room.
Those are qualities that carry a lot of weight in Detroit, so it was no surprise this summer to hear that both Cleary and the Red Wings were hoping for one more go-round together.
But these things don't always work out, and when Cleary's contract expectations clashed with Detroit's cap limitations, he made a drawn out and painful decision to cut ties and reportedly agreed to a three-year, $8.25 million with the Flyers earlier this week. (Philly GM Paul Holmgren has since disputed those numbers).
The only problem was that Cleary couldn't actually sign the deal with Philly until after the season opener because of the Flyers' salary cap crunch, so he turned around and headed back to Detroit, where he came to a one-year, $1.75 million agreement this morning.
It's easy to see this as a good news story. Cleary takes less dough to stay where he's happy and the Wings get a player who GM Ken Holland says "makes them better."
That assessment might meet with skepticism from many (alright, most) Red Wings fans. But Cleary's ability to help the team now, or later in the playoffs, is hardly the point. He isn't a player anymore as much as he's a roadblock.
It would be easy to say here that everyone should settle down and trust that Holland knows what he's doing. After all, no one's ever gotten rich betting against that guy.
But despite all those skins on the wall, he's hardly infallible. In fact, it might be the success of the past that's clouding his judgement in the present. Signing Cleary seems like a decision motivated more by loyalty than logic.
As tough as it might have been to say goodbye to someone who'd given all he had to the team, Cleary's departure was a blessing for the Wings, a team that already has too many aging warriors up front. If nothing else, it helped thin out a logjam of forwards that still requires a trade or two (and maybe an LTIR designation for Darren Helm) to get the team under the roster limit and the cap.
But the bonus to Cleary moving on was that it opened a door for prospects like Tomas Tatar, the MVP of the 2013 Calder Cup playoffs, and Gustav Nyquist, who was effective in a third line role for Detroit last spring, to legitimately battle for full-time positions with the big club.
That he felt more comfortable with Cleary and his diminishing game speaks volumes about the lack of confidence that Holland and coach Mike Babcock have in these players. It's not just a slap in the face to the kids. If a player like Tatar isn't ready after three years in Grand Rapids, it suggests that the Wings are either drafting poorly or not properly developing their prospects.
It's easy to say that another year in the minors won't kill their careers, but that's not necessarily true. Guys get stale playing lesser competition. They lose confidence. They wonder where they fit. Because a deal like this suggests they don't fit in Detroit. Maybe I'm missing something here, something glaringly obvious that will remind me why I think Holland's a genius. Maybe it'll turn out that Helm and Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi are lost for the season and Cleary is back as an insurance policy, a fourth line stabilizer. If that's the case, then signing him can at least be defended. But if his return means guys like Tatar and Nyquist don't get the ice time they deserve--or forces one to be dealt, as might now happen with Tatar--it's hard not to see this as a bad move for the Wings.