Krupa: Ken Holland holds reins tightly on Red Wings’ rebuild

By Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
For those listening closely to Henrik Zetterberg's epitaph to the lowly 2017-18 season, when the Red Wings’ great captain last spoke in the dressing room, he said his return depended on his health.

Detroit — The Red Wings did not try to make their best arrangements for drafting Rasmus Dahlin. 

Did anyone really think they would do so for Jack Hughes next season?

The new news out of the first day of free agency, the day the world’s worst-kept secrets are confirmed, is that GM Ken Holland made clear he is not certain Henrik Zetterberg will continue his career.

The old news is, Holland’s rebuild lacks pace.

For those listening closely to Zetterberg's epitaph to the lowly 2017-18 season, when the Red Wings’ great captain last spoke in the dressing room, he said his return depended on his health.

He said he had some concerns, but expected to be back.

Obviously, Zetterberg’s concerns persist.

In fact, one can be excused for assuming, at least for the moment, the concerns have increased.

It is to the point that on July 1, Holland could not rule out the removal of the cornerstone of the franchise from the 2018-19 roster.

That sheds greater light on the Wings’ dalliance with Ilya Kovalchuk.

Zetterberg’s pending decision also explains the rationale for Holland handing the newly-acquired vagabond Thomas Vanek a no-trade clause. If Zetterberg cannot be here to provide an example for the apprentices, Vanek must help fill the role, the general manager reasons.

Holland says he will seek clarity on Zetterberg’s back this month, even as the future member of the Hockey Hall of Fame likely yearns for it himself.

Meanwhile, the Wings build their case to eventually place Zetterberg on long-term injury reserve, whenever the day comes to start deciding the date to lift No. 40 to the rafters.

As for the long-running story of the restrained pace of the rebuild, defining its parameters has been a parlor game since Nicklas Lidstrom bid adieu.

Holland, in fact, laid them out publicly, answering the first question at his season-ending press conference in April 2016, after finishing out of the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century, and knowing for a year that Pavel Datsyuk was about to leave.

“We need stars,” he said. “We’ve got to draft. We’ve got to develop.

“I’m not into a rebuild.”

In Holland-speak, that meant he would not blow it up and start over, seeking stars to power the next Stanley Cup winner in Detroit.

He intended to accumulate gradual change.

By that point, he had already decided to lock up a lot of the support players on the roster, long-term, and at some expensive prices.

More: Wings’ plan gets veteran boost with Jonathan Bernier, Thomas Vanek, Mike Green

More: Jimmy Howard’s status drew Jonathan Bernier to Red Wings

Preparations for the rebuild were already delayed.

But they became sellers at the next trade deadline. As a result, they had 10 shots at the NHL draft last weekend, and came away with four players who could mount successful NHL careers.

And, in Filip Zadina, they garnered a potential star.

The increase in talent among the prospects became evident in the development scrimmage Saturday, when the action flowed on its strength.

Holland has stacked another 10 picks, including one in the first round and two each in rounds two and three, for 2019.

But, after adding the free agents Vanek and goalie Jonathan Bernier to the roster Sunday, and extending the contract of Mike Green, also with no-trade protection, the Red Wings have less room to develop prospects in the NHL, instead of Grand Rapids.

And, an important byproduct of playing less-experienced guys is often improved draft position.

Holland not only resists calls to “blow it up,” he will not take a more effusive approach to preparing a path to expedite training in the NHL.

His is the more conservative approach of continuing to surround prospects with mentors.

If Zetterberg is gone, and Niklas Kronwall at the end of the season, Holland’s thought is to secure Vanek and Green, not to use the roster vacancies to make more room for more apprentices.

He ended last season saying he would add two or three new faces to the Red Wings opening night lineup.

They are likely Michael Rasmussen and Filip Hronek.

Dennis Cholowski will likely have to wait; probably Filip Zadina, too.

Holland held out hope Sunday of having them both in the lineup, raising the possibility of carrying eight defensemen.

But that would seem to make Zadina even less likely, unless Holland is planning a trade.

The Wings may need one, regardless.

With about $9 million cap space, they must sign restricted free agents Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha.

Bridge contracts are the expectation, with Larkin receiving about $5.5 million to $6 million and Mantha perhaps $3.5 million.

That leaves too little for Athanasiou, and suggests personnel movement.

It also suggests Cholowski and Zadina are in Grand Rapids, perhaps with Evgeny Svechnikov.

And, it appears, for a consecutive season, Joe Hicketts’ path is blocked.

The weekend brought the solace of a clear increase in talent among the Wings’ prospects, at the development scrimmage. It also brought reconfirmation, if ever any was needed, that Holland’s approach to the rebuild remains more dutiful than eager.

It is evermore clear he is entirely unwilling to risk a 50-loss season to vastly increase the odds of drafting an assured star, like Dahlin or Hughes.

But Holland can boast that this season his strategy brought Zadina, Joe Veleno, Jonatan Berggren and Jared McIsaac, and he has five picks in the first three rounds in 12 months.

For those who expected a more vigorous approach to rebuilding the Red Wings a few seasons ago, disappointment escalates.

Holland is moving at his pace.

It will hasten, somewhat, in 12 months when, making another 10 selections in the draft, Jimmy Howard, Nick Jensen, Kronwall, Gustav Nyquist and Vanek become free agents, and Cholowski, Zadina, Veleno and Givani Smith might be ready for the NHL, in Holland’s eyes.

But for now, it is a matter of getting Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha signed, consulting with Zetterberg, opening training camp … and patience.