Wojo: Ken Holland stays course amid his, Red Wings' uncertainty

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
General manager Ken Holland, left, and head coach Jeff Blashill.

There’s no pretense anymore, that much is clear. After years of stretching timeframes beyond reasonable limits, the Red Wings are trying to buy time — time to develop young players, time to stockpile draft picks, time to (rebuild, retool, regroup, pick a word).

Ken Holland knows it, and although he hates the r-words, he acknowledges the reality. The Wings have played better of late, but at the midseason break they’re 17-17-7, six points out of a wildcard spot, still an arduous climb to the playoffs.

Change came when they missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, and more change is coming. And the uncertainty is, Holland either will lead it, or be part of it. His contract expires after this season, and while Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, expressed “100 percent confidence” in Holland last spring, there’s been no talk of a new deal.

More: Red Wings midseason report: Reasons for optimism, pessimism

Holland wants to make this clear — he’s fine with that. He’s not campaigning for anything. If his time is almost up, he understands it. He’s been the GM here for 21 years, and in some ways, the Wings’ slide was inevitable. But he still has supreme confidence, and if you spend any time talking with him, his passion churns as strongly as ever.

“I’m enjoying the challenge, I have a ton of energy,” Holland said. “I also know it’s gonna take time, lots of time, maybe more time than some people are prepared for. I understand the fans’ frustration, I got it. When you’ve lived the things we’ve lived, the playoff runs, how exhilarating it is, it’s frustrating to not win as much. But at the same time, the system is designed for competitive balance.”

Reality essentially hit three years ago, when the Wings lost in Game 7 of the first round to Tampa Bay. Shortly thereafter, Mike Babcock left. The Wings snuck into the playoffs once more and fell again to Tampa Bay, then missed the playoffs for the first time in a quarter-century.

It’s hard for many to see a clear path back, but Holland spies the signs in a talented young forward core — Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha — that’s producing more. That doesn’t mean Holland will get the chance to correct the issues partly of his own making — cumbersome contracts, questionable drafting — and partly the function of a salary-cap system.

The surest formula for success is this: Have a plan and have the right people to carry it out. Holland, 62, still thinks he’s the right person, and his long, impressive record presents a strong case. The flip side is, he never has gone through anything like this, and a rebuild often requires fresh eyes and a new approach. He deserves time to fix it, but not limitless time, and the next few weeks leading up to the Feb. 26 trade deadline could be vital.

Holland said he wants to keep working in some capacity, somewhere, but has no problem letting it play out.

“It doesn’t bother me I’m in the last year of my contract,” he said. “I’m gonna run this team like I’m gonna be here for a long time. I’m gonna make decisions I think are in the best interest of the Red Wings for the 2020, ’21, ’22 seasons. At the end of the day, whether it’s Ken Holland or whoever, you gotta hunker in with somebody, believe in the plan, and hope it bears fruit. I think we’re bearing fruit. Some young people are having a bigger impact and they’ve earned it. I think the process has started.”

5 draft picks in early rounds

Holland sees more youngsters — Martin Frk, Tyler Bertuzzi — contributing, and other players bouncing back with solid seasons, such as Jimmy Howard, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. He has five draft picks in the first three rounds and will have a lottery pick if the Wings miss the playoffs. In another couple summers, as veterans are traded or roles further reduced, the Wings could climb back in the business of acquiring potential stars.

But there’s no quick fix now. Holland stands behind Jeff Blashill (who has another year left on his contract), and won’t pull a showy shake-it-up move and fire his coach. He’s also adamantly opposed to one nasty strategy in pro sports, the notion of “tanking” to position yourself for a better pick. The NHL draft lottery is now weighted heavier against the top losers, and by most accounts, there’s only one franchise prize this year — Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

Ken Holland

It’s tedious and time-consuming, and when you win as much as the Wings won, and just entered a new arena that’s the centerpiece of the Ilitch empire, you can’t fully retreat.

“My philosophy is to try to be as competitive as we can, because I don’t think there any guarantees if you go into these rebuilds,” Holland said. “Sometimes you never latch onto those players that turn a rebuild into a powerhouse. So I’m trying to hang onto the culture we have, and in passing that culture to the next generation, the environment is ultimately going to lead this franchise back to one of the better ones in the NHL.”

It takes time and patience. It also takes higher-end players, and the Wings don’t have nearly enough, especially on defense, partly because they’ve drafted higher than 15th only once since 1991. They have respected veterans in Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Howard, an intriguing younger class and a checkered middle group.

After a soul-crushing 10-1 loss to Montreal Dec. 2, Holland suggested the next 10-to-15-game stretch would chart the Wings’ course. They’re 7-5-2 since, and have won four of their past five.

Holland isn’t spinning anything. The playoffs are still a goal, sure, but no longer the only measure of success. The Wings need young players to keep getting better, pushed by Blashill, and they need Holland to make prudent, decisive moves by the trade deadline.

Mike Green is the biggest trade chip, an affordable 32-year-old defenseman who’s fourth on the team in points. Defenseman Trevor Daley is an option, too. Howard has been excellent but might have to be shopped, considering most of the team’s veterans own hard-to-move contracts.

“The reality is, we’re either a seller or a stand-pat,” Holland said. “I don’t see us spending any real assets to prop us up and make the playoffs. Either this team will be good enough on its own, or we’ll continue behind the scenes to add to our asset base. I don’t like using the word ‘rebuild’ because if I say that, now you’re saying, ‘Who’s he trading?’ It sends this message that we’re not trying to be competitive.”

That’s the conundrum, but you can’t adopt the plan without accepting the pain. And that might partly explain why Holland is operating somewhat in limbo.

Ownership might wonder if he can execute the long-term objective, after years of short-term windows. Fans wonder too. Some of the criticism is narrow, and fails to acknowledge Holland had a win-now mandate under Mike Ilitch. Some of the criticism absolutely is fair, for expensive ill-advised commitments to players such as Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm and Stephen Weiss.

Grinding through process

You can find examples around the league to fit any narrative you wish — rebuilding takes too long, rebuilding can be accelerated with luck and a few shrewd moves. Is Holland positive he has the stomach, and acumen, to pull it off?

“I consider myself a grinder, a competitor,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to watch some great players on great teams, and I want to do that again. Sometimes your time runs out, but there is a plan, and we’re on our way back. Up until two years ago, we were making moves for the today, we weren’t bad enough to make moves for the future. At some point, you’re gonna pay the piper.”

It’s what the Ilitches’ other team, the Tigers, are going through now, a full-on rebuild. It’s actually easier to do in baseball, which doesn’t have a salary cap, which means there’s no cap floor either. In the NHL, you have to spend a minimum amount. And let’s be honest — the Wings don’t have near the glossy trade pieces as Justin Verlander, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez.

Steve Yzerman

So logically, the Wings can’t completely bottom out. And at times, a halting rise seems possible. They have only one more point after 41 games as a year ago (41-40), but have played better. Blashill talks constantly about the “process,” and said after a loss to first-place Tampa Bay the other night, “We can beat anybody in the league, I know that 100 percent.”

Holland sees the same things, while admitting improvement is incremental and fleeting.

“You can say our team isn’t great, but it’s not hopeless,” Holland said. “Most nights we compete hard, we’re structured. We haven’t won enough.”

Not good enough since 2013, the last time the Wings won a playoff series. Holland recognizes some view him as a symbol of a different era, not an agent of change. That’s not totally fair, as he began the overhaul a year ago, dealing away Brendan Smith, Thomas Vanek, Tomas Jurco and Steve Ott for picks.

The fruits of his drafting remain decidedly inconclusive. Last year’s No. 1 pick, 6-6 Michael Rasmussen, is tracking to be a decent NHL forward. The year before, Holland took defenseman Dennis Cholowski, and his progress has been steady, but slow.

One fanciful notion is for the Wings to do whatever it takes to bring Steve Yzerman home, after eight years in Tampa Bay. But Yzerman is under contract through 2019, and has perhaps the best team in the league, while the Wings’ challenge is daunting.

Holland said he appreciates his relationship with owner Marian Ilitch and CEO Chris Ilitch and isn’t actively seeking resolution to his situation.

“I’ve had no conversations with Mrs. Ilitch or Chris about my future,” Holland said. “I’m not concerned about it at all. At the end of season, I’m sure we’re gonna sit down and have a conversation. I’ve slowly worked my way up in this organization (since 1983) and I’ve lived the dream to be a Stanley Cup champion. I’ve been very, very lucky, and at the same time, I’ve been very good at what I do. Whatever happens, I’m OK with it. I really am at peace.”

At peace and at work, a tougher task these days but with the same basic philosophy. Pick a plan and stick with it, and trust that even in changing times, it still can work.