Ken Holland's 36 years with the Red Wings has included being a backup goalie and a scout as well as executive vice-president and general manager. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — The Red Wings were a point behind two teams for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference the morning of March 20, and Mike Babcock was updating reporters from Pittsburgh about the season.
The reporters also asked for his choice for the most valuable player in the NHL. Babcock smiled and said Luke Glendening, who had helped keep the Wings in the running since his arrival from Grand Rapids.
“If you asked me, I’d probably think it was him,” Babcock said, drawing laughter.
He was making a point. It was less to be humorous or deflect choosing between the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and another player — the point of the Pittsburgh guy’s question — than to underline conspicuous facts about the Red Wings.
Banged-up, they were, playing for the duration with tons of “kids.”
Then Babcock put a coach’s positive spin on it. Playing for the young Griffins, especially with their startling success, was a classic silver lining.
“The way I look at it, if you’re the general manager of the organization, instead of thinking you’ve got something in the summer, you know what you’ve got,” he said. “You’ve played them all. You’ve looked at the kids in the organization, and so now you can decide what you need to do to fix your team.
“And it’s not thinking you know. You actually do know.”
Babcock was not tossing down a gauntlet for Ken Holland, merely assessing the circumstances.
Holland entered the offseason with knowledge accumulated over what is likely to be a Hockey Hall of Fame career and the tactile experience of watching his team. And, yet, the Red Wings start the NHL season in five weeks with much the same lineup that was eliminated from the playoffs after five games.
Fresh off signing a new four-year contract to stay with the Wings through his 36th year with the franchise, one of Holland’s challenges is persuading people the lack of signings is probably not significant for his redeveloping team in the long run.
And he may be right, again.
In managing expectations, Holland’s task, as it has been every day since Nicklas Lidstom’s retirement was not followed by the signing of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, is explaining the plan.
The account never varies in structure, and only occasionally in words.
“We need to draft. We need to develop. We need to have patience,” Holland said, in a 50-minute interview.
Such explanations, not always heeded by fans, have short shelf-lives in professional sports, even in a town renown for knowing hockey.
But, as thoughts turn to training camp, Holland fervently defends his position that the shortest distance from here to the Stanley Cup is drafting, developing, leavening the roster with veterans who are prime examples of what it takes to play in the NHL — and for the Red Wings — and eventually adding some key players.
All of the while, the hope is Pavel Datsyuk, 36, and Henrik Zetterberg, 33, remain healthy enough to play when the desired squad is fully assembled.
Development is key
“I’ve been with the Red Wings as a player since 1983, since ’85 as a scout, and I would say that the work we did in the late ’80s and early ’90s really set us up for a decade, and in Nick Lidstrom’s case two decades,” Holland said. “And then the work that we did in the late ’90s and the 2000s — and the work at the draft table, the work of developing players — set us up for the last decade.
“If you’re going to be successful as an organization in the National Hockey League, in my opinion, you’ve got to draft well — drafting and developing.
“And free agency and trading is the complementary piece to be a good organization.”
For those who disagree, the zealous, rigid enforcement of the plan is discouraging.
But those who hire Holland, Mike, Marian and, one assumes increasingly, Chris Ilitch, appear pleased with the progress, so far.
Chris Ilitch tapped that vein in a public appearance last spring.
Before the Detroit Economic Club, he said when he heard his parents talk about watching last season, when the young players carried the Wings into the playoffs, it reminded them of precisely the periods of regeneration Holland cites when he talks about building the previous four Stanley Cup winners.
But among fans of the Red Wings there was some audible dissent from the view that four more years for Holland was such a good idea.
Who wants to deal with this “patience stuff,” anyway, some say. Where is the parade?
“We’re trying to do two things at the same time,” Holland said. “We’re trying to be a playoff team that competes with the best teams in the division and conference and at the same time behind the scenes we’re trying to draft and develop the next generation of Red Wings players who are going to help us be a playoff team every year going forward.”
And he is trying to do it without the benefit of missing the playoffs for several years, and amassing top draft picks.
“The players we’re drafting and where we pick them in the draft, they need to work their way to the National Hockey League,” Holland said. “If we get them there too fast? What’s going to allow them to be special players or make the league could be taken away from them if they get there too quick.
“My philosophy in player development was really developed through my nine years as a minor league player and then spending another nine years with Scotty Bowman in Detroit and watching him use veteran players. And when you find good veteran players with great character and they’re role models, and even when their skills start to diminish, they still know how to play the game.
“And they buy time for your young people to develop so that they’re not under pressure.”
Gustav Nyquist, too long a Griffin? Maybe he would not have played as if he were shot out of a cannon if he had arrived earlier.
Daniel Cleary, too long on the team? Late in a classic rough-and-tumble NHL career, few know better all that it takes. Whether it is eating, training, competing or figuring out why Babcock — as an inviolable precept — will never, ever settle for things just being good, and his unrelenting demands to execute his plan, Cleary either explains or provides an example.
As for the fallow summer, Holland identifies the needs as “another 35-goal scorer” to complement Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and a defenseman with the offensive skills of Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall or, dare one say, Lidstrom.
“There was a small cluster of those individuals available,” Holland said. “We made pitches to them all, but I think at the end of the day for a variety of reasons, they went elsewhere.
“It’s got nothing to do with the city. It’s got nothing to do with the coach, or the manager.”
'Excited' for the season
But the Red Wings in recent years are more frequently reminded you can’t always get what you want. And there is perhaps a good reason.
Some players go home, or to their wives’ homes. Some may not sign because it is difficult to fit their idea of a salary under the cap.
Often, however, a free agent shops for a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup.
“There’s probably five or six teams in the league that are at the head of the class that you think they’re in the playoffs, and they’re a top contender,” Holland said. “You know what? We’re not in that group.
“We were in that group for 15 years.
“These past couple of years we’ve been so decimated with injures, it’s hard to get a reading where our team is at. So, if you’re a free agent, I don’t think you look at the Detroit Red Wings and say they’re going to win the Stanley Cup.”
When do free agents begin thinking that way, again?
You guessed it. After the drafting and the development help restore the roster to a critical mass of players capable of taking the ultimate step.
Until then, the plan is to make the playoffs and make a deeper run.
Fewer injuries certainly would help. Holland says he and Babcock, concerned about the trend over the past few seasons, sought to address it in their sessions with individual players at the end of the season, when each man was challenged to return in the best shape of his career.
He said he believes the players responded, and he is “cautiously optimistic” there will be fewer injuries.
Holland also ordered what he termed “an internal audit” of soft tissue injuries, conducted by trainer Piet van Zandt and strength coach Peter Renzetti, and aimed at prevention and quicker recovery.
A better team with a definable future should attract more free agents.
And with the $4.8 billion Canadian broadcasting contract, and a prospective lucrative deal coming in the U.S., the salary cap should expand considerably.
“Three years from now, there will be a brand new rink,” Holland said. “Our ownership has always been committed to doing to the cap. I have the green light from our ownership to spend to the cap.
“I think it’s a great time for the league. I think it’s a great time for the Detroit Red Wings.
“I’m excited about the 2014-15 season. There’s lot of great stuff going on here and in Grand Rapids.”