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Red Wings GM Ken Holland learned from ‘being rushed’

Red Wings GM Ken Holland’s brief career as NHL goaltender tells you almost all you need to know about his managerial style: Holland was an undersized but highly intelligent and hard-working back-up goaltender who believes that his initial call-up from the AHL came far, far too early in his development. His first NHL game, played as a goaltender for the Hartford Whalers, shattered his confidence in himself, as he tells the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle:

“I remember that first intermission, sitting in Madison Square Garden, thinking that I’d finally made the NHL and that’s where I belonged,” Holland recalled. “Then I can remember the second intermission, sitting in the locker room, thinking, ‘I’m never going to see the NHL ever again.’ ” Holland was so convinced he wouldn’t get another chance to play, he set his mind on enjoying every second of the third period, even on the wrong end of a 7-3 blowout. When a shot broke the glass behind him, “I thought ‘this is going to add 10 more minutes,’ ” he said, chuckling. “Everyone gets their time in the sun, their little moment, and this was mine.”

So, not surprisingly, Holland believes that the Wings’ decision to, as a rule, ask their prospects to take part in a one-to-three-year internship with the Grand Rapids Griffins, ripening, if not over-ripening, before being slowly worked into the Wings’ lineup isn’t just smart—it’s essential:

“As much as possible, I try to bring our young players along slow, because I lived it,” Holland said. “And I think if I could have had another month, I don’t know that I would have been great, but I could have played in the NHL. I needed a little more time to feel comfortable in that environment.”

Under Holland, youngsters get all the time they need, with the organization determined to work in its prospects slowly. The strategy explains, at least in part, how Detroit – regularly the oldest team in the NHL by average age – has been able to maintain success, year after year.

Holland’s repeatedly stated that the Wings’ status as an aged team is by design as well. Holland, assistant GM Jim Nill, capologist Ryan Martin, the team’s amateur scouts and coaching staff all believe that the Wings’ roster blueprint—starting with 5-7 players in the primes of their career, adding an assortment of veteran players who will often “take less” than their market value to remain Wings over the long haul, and then adding 2-4 young players per season as the team builds a similar 5-to-9-player group cheaply-priced young players who might develop into the team’s next generation of stars, or at least grinders—works, and works over the long haul.

Add in the fact that Holland’s amateur scouts, including European super-scout Hakan Andersson, believe in emphasizing skill and a tendency for self-improvement over size and strength when they go to the draft table, and the Wings hope that they can continue to build a winning team in the salary cap era by crossing their fingers that the Calle Jarnkroks, Teemu Pulkkinens, Guast Nyquists, Jan Mursaks, Tomas Tatars, Landon Ferraros and the puck-moving Brendan Smiths, Adam Almqvists and Jakub Kindls will eventually produce three to five players that might succeed Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and even Nicklas Lidstrom one day:

The giant team depth chart posted in his office at Joe Louis Arena shows 14 homegrown players on the current roster, something Holland points out with pride. Along the way, Holland has had to adapt, too, including dropping his payroll by $30-million (U.S.) with the introduction of the salary cap. The Wings have also put more emphasis on the draft. After trading first-round picks in the years leading up to the lockout, they’ve since held onto them.

“Our scouts did an incredible job in finding Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the sixth and seventh round,” Holland said. “But there’s a real element of luck to it as well. Otherwise, we’d be doing it on a regular basis. I don’t know that we can wait for that next bit of luck.”

That’s why the Wings have more aggressively signed free agents—from amateurs like Brett Lebda, Jordan Pearce, Trevor Parkes, Willie Coetzee, et. al.—and are drafting NCAA participants like Nyquist, Smith and Ben Marshall because their rights remain with the team until the prospects graduate from college.

In any case, as Mirtle suggests, Holland still loves his job, and he hopes to keep the front-office band together for as long as humanly possible while working very, very hard to keep his capped roster together, rewarding loyal, hard-working players with long-term contracts and no-trade clauses, and at the same time, ensuring that the Wings have the largest possible pool of prospects who play the puck-possession style of play, built from puck-moving blueliners on out, that the Wings have employed for the past sixteen or so years:

“You kind of pinch yourself sometimes with the way life has gone,” he said.

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perfection's avatar

i would add last year’s first rounder Riley Sheahan to your list of potential stars… i watched him play 4 times this past season in person and the kid is a Wing through and through. i mean, he’s a big, Bertuzzi-like power forward who kills penalties, plays the point on the power play, takes all of the most important faceoffs, has one of the silkiest breakout passes on the team, AND is ridiculously mature and dependable defensively. plus he’s only an underaged sophomore.

i actually spoke to his mom at length a couple of the games and she said that Ken Holland wants Sheahan to make the jump to Grand Rapids this next year while Jim Nill thinks he should spend one more year at Notre Dame. If you look at our other college prospects - Nyquist, Smith, Howard etc. they usually play three seasons before going pro. Sheahan is not only a sophomore, but is an 18 year old sophomore. he actually started college early. while i’m real excited to see him on a bigger stage, he’s playing over 20 minutes a night in every situation against really high quality opponents in the CCHA. plus, he has to actually educate himself at a pretty tough school which can only build intelligence and character in the kid. it’s almost like Kenny Holland needs to follow his own advice above and don’t rush a kid from any level to the next level, including college to the AHL.

i think his reasoning has to do with the downside of college (the education being the upside). Sheahan was already arrested once his freshman year with a bunch of other hockey players for drinking. Much like Brendan Smith before him. I think Holland is eager to be in a position where the team can monitor his behavior and conditioning, but at the same time, they know that Sheahan is a really good, intelligent kid.

As of the end of the NCAA tourney, I know that he hadn’t made a decision on what he was going to do. And according to his mom (who’s a real nice lady), the choice will be his alone. I wonder if Nyquist deciding to make the jump affected that decision at all, or at least Ken Holland’s opinion on it. Last I spoke to her was before that.

Posted by perfection from LaLaLand on 04/29/11 at 04:13 AM ET

George Malik's avatar

I like Riley. For such a highly-heralded prospect, he’s a very grounded kid and as you point out, he’s still very young. I get the feeling that the Wings are going to allow him to play for three years at Notre Dame as he *just* started to find his offensive sea legs during the Fighting Irish’s push to the Frozen Four…

And as for the arrest, that happened prior to nine incoming freshmen and team players being busted for underage drinking, so there was some sort of team-wide partying issue going on that coach Jeff Jackson eventually nipped in the bud.

In terms of maturity, I will tell you this—Sheahan is an impressionable youngster, but he’s nowhere near the cocky hot dog that Smith was at Riley’s age. Brendan thought he was the coolest thing since sliced bread and God’s gift to hockey, and as much as I’ve earned all sorts of respect for his maturity over the past three seasons, I will also readily admit that I never thought that he’d get his act together. He was nothing less than a jerk three years ago, and now he’s a grounded young man. Methinks that Jiri Fischer and the Wings’ staff monitored him very closely and made sure to explain to him what he needed to focus on to be successful—getting his head together—and to Brendan’s credit, he’s matured by leaps and bounds.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 04/29/11 at 04:19 AM ET

SYF's avatar

Methinks that Jiri Fischer and the Wings’ staff monitored him very closely and made sure to explain to him what he needed to focus on to be successful—getting his head together—and to Brendan’s credit, he’s matured by leaps and bounds.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 04/29/11 at 03:19 AM ET

OMG.  Jiri Fischer.  So good to hear he has an important job with the Wings’ prospects in keeping them grounded and focused. 

i actually spoke to his mom at length a couple of the games and she said that Ken Holland wants Sheahan to make the jump to Grand Rapids this next year while Jim Nill thinks he should spend one more year at Notre Dame.

Posted by perfection from Chicago on 04/29/11 at 03:13 AM ET

If it were me, I’d go with Nill’s suggestion as well.  Nothing wrong with a little more balance between playing and getting an education at the same time.

Posted by SYF from Twerkin' with Anastasia Ashley on 04/29/11 at 03:29 PM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.


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