Wojo: Holland will continue Wings' rebuild, with added pressure

Bob Wojnowski

Detroit — He collected picks and pieces, and at the end of another losing season, there were signs of development from young players. Essentially, that’s the only formula that matters for the Red Wings right now, and that’s why Ken Holland is back as GM, and why coach Jeff Blashill is expected back, too.

Skepticism is warranted when you retain the leaders of a group that finished 27th in a 31-team league and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. But when the Wings finally, fully committed to a rebuild, they committed to an unpleasant reality. Ownership simply sought evidence of progress, and because there was, this is the fair outcome — for now.

Christopher Ilitch’s support of Holland comes with a hedge, with a contract extension that’s only two years, announced in a short-notice news conference on a Saturday night before the finale. It’s not a surprise Holland is back, because once he was allowed to sell players for draft picks — at the last two trade deadlines — and surrender postseason aspirations, the barometer for success changed dramatically.

In some ways, Ilitch is doing what Holland has done for many years — practicing loyalty. He’s also acknowledging a long, painful process has just begun, and he wants an experienced leader in charge. It’s not necessarily Holland’s 21 seasons as GM that protected him, but his 12 years before that, as a respected scout and director of amateur scouting.

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Holland, 62, is returning to his roots, scouring the amateur ranks for prospects rather than focusing on win-now moves. Those days are over, and will be for several years, and in the interim, Ilitch is going with what he knows.

Is it the easy, safe move? Probably.

Is it a defensible move? It is, based on Holland’s record and reputation around the league.

“We’re gonna be as aggressive as we can, and I think you’ve seen Ken be as aggressive as he could be,” Ilitch said. “He’s done a marvelous job accumulating assets and picks. … We’re very pleased with the progress. Around these parts, we’re used to being in the playoffs and competing for Stanley Cups, and believe me, that’s where we all want to be. To get back there, it’s a process. We’ve done it before and we’re gonna do it again, and we think Ken is the right guy to lead that.”

Signs of progress

Ilitch said the delay in announcing the extension wasn’t significant, that they’d been talking all along. But there had to be real assessment going on, and while the Wings were losing a bunch of one-goal games, some developments were telling.

The growth of 21-year-old Dylan Larkin into a more-complete, playmaking center was huge. After struggling on the wing last season, he officially looks like a future star.

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Other young guys — notably Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha — made progress, and there were occasional flashes from Andreas Athanasiou. Recent first-round picks Michael Rasmussen and Dennis Cholowski have played well in the Western Hockey League playoffs, stirring hopes the Wings can indeed morph into a younger, faster, forechecking team.

Just as important, Holland’s ability to trade Tomas Tatar for a first-round pick and more, and deal Petr Mrazek for at least a third-rounder, boosted the coffers, as the Wings now have a league-high 11 picks in this year’s draft. They have the fifth-best odds (8.5 percent) of landing the top slot in the April 28 lottery and drafting prized Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

They’ll need plenty of luck because they lack impact players, and with Jimmy Howard, 34, entering the final season of his contract, they lack a goalie for the future. Make no mistake, the Wings are in an extremely difficult spot, and there’s no guarantee Holland will be able to pull them out in a timely fashion.

More:Red Wings wrap up season with another 1-goal loss

But once he was permitted to begin the task and showed he could make forward-thinking moves — after several bad, short-sighted signings — Holland earned the chance to prove himself again. And understand, just because he started the rebuild, doesn’t mean he’ll be around to finish it, as the extension is a short one.

Ilitch pledged patience, and wouldn’t set a timetable for a return to contention. For those who craved a full rebuild, this is how it works. Progress is incremental.

“Our record is not very good, so it looks like we’re not headed in the right direction,” Holland said. “But I think there’s some young people on the team that have made great strides. We’re not good enough, but they play hard. We’re still a long ways away.”

From the ground up

After 25 straight seasons in the playoffs with an aging roster, part of this was inevitable. That doesn’t give Holland a free pass, but it gives him the opportunity to show he was much more than a caretaker for a model franchise owned by Mike Ilitch in a non-salary cap world. It gives him another chance to show his strength truly is talent evaluation, back when the Wings found late-round gems.

“First and foremost, Ken was an integral part of four Stanley Cup championships,” Ilitch said. “But he started out as a scout, and he oversaw drafts that produced some of our incredible players. The other thing I’d say, when I fly on an airplane, I always love to fly with a pilot that’s done it before. Ken Holland has had the experience of seeing a Detroit Red Wings team in the 1980s build from the ground all the way up to championships.”

The Wings may cling to their past too tightly at times, but a franchise’s culture doesn’t change quickly. Holland was part of an amazing build but never has had to engineer an actual rebuild, although he’s also never had such high draft picks.

Not that long ago, there was concern about the young players’ maturation, and even captain Henrik Zetterberg lamented “poke and hope” hockey and its lack of defensive accountability. Gradually, as Bertuzzi jumped aboard Zetterberg’s line and Larkin expanded his game, the signs became more positive. Ilitch met with the team before the finale — a 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders, fittingly — and told players he appreciated their effort, and said it bodes well for the future.

At least there’s no ambiguity, no fake claims of turning it around immediately.

“It took a while to admit it, but we’re in a rebuild,” Zetterberg said. “But I think we’re doing a lot of right things.”

Larkin finished with a team-high 63 points, and others will have to make big leaps. Blashill appeared to coax more out of players as the season unfolded, but growth happens in fits and spurts.

“We live in an instantaneous type society, we want immediate gratification, and that’s not how it works,” Blashill said. “You guys make fun of me for the word ‘process,’ but that’s the reality of life. Making plays at critical moments, that’s the big maturation process for some of our young players, becoming elite players in their prime.”

The Wings are desperately hunting for elite players, while waiting for those primes to arrive. They didn’t make progress in the standings (73 points, down from 79), but that’s not how they’re judged at the moment.

They’re judged on what seems possible, not what is. It’s about picks and promise, and the young pieces bought Holland a chance to show that as times change, so can he.