Detroit — Four months into his 21st year as general manager of the Red Wings, Ken Holland would like to see his club win more of the games in which they play well enough to tempt victory, only to leave the ice with a point or none.
But, as Holland said before the season, they are a team hunting for a playoff berth and hoping to perform better as the season progresses.
A few of the players in Grand Rapids may get a look before the trade deadline, Holland said. But major moves are unlikely, until then, when the standings will again determine whether management is buying or selling for a consecutive season.
He likes the systematic development of three young players, Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, and he included Martin Frk, saying new guys are producing more and more good play for the Red Wings.
And he remained discreet about his future with the team, beyond this season.
“Well, I think the good news is, we appear to be in the game,” he said, of the Red Wings’ performance through earlier this week.
“We’re going to have to play better. We’re in the race.
“Certainly, for the next 50-some games, teams are going to play their way in. We’re going to have to be better.”
But, as his former coach Mike Babcock used to say, top defensemen and goal-scoring forwards are unlikely to walk through the door.
It is still more about development for the Wings.
“There’s a player or two we’d like to see in Grand Rapids,” Holland said. “If we have injuries up front or on defense, there’s a young player or two in Grand Rapids we’d like to see what they can do.
“So, I think for the most part it’s going to be internal between now and the deadline.”
By then, he said, the team will have improved or not.
He can tick off the action in the Red Wings’ close losses like a tax accountant recites the available deductions, including the details of the losses to the Capitals, the Avalanche, the Devils.
He said the 0-4 record in overtime, with three of the losses at home, demonstrates the narrow margins.
“Obviously, if you’re going to make the playoffs, you’ve got to have a good home record,” Holland said. “We’ve got to find a way to be better at home.”
That said, the power play and the penalty kill, both about as bad as they have been in a generation in Detroit last season, were eighth and fourth in the NHL entering play Thursday.
“I just think that, for us, it’s a fine-line league,” he said.
“Finding a way to score a little more 5-on-5 goals here, especially with specialty teams that are pushing the top-five — we’ve just got to find a way.
“I think, certainly in the early going here, up front, the three younger players – four, with Frk, when he has been in there — Athanasiou, Mantha and Larkin, they are getting more ice time. They’re having a bigger role, a bigger impact on our team, which is a good thing.”
Holland said the incremental nature of the development of Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha is, in part, by design. Management and coaches intend it, because it is consistent with the kind of players they are.
While many tried to tag Larkin with a “sophomore slump” label last season, plainly much was going on in his second season.
“We wanted him to be a center iceman. Obviously, with being a center iceman, there are more responsibilities,” he said. “Early in his career we wanted to free him up to use his speed. Then we slowly moved him into the middle.”
After improving through the last 20 games of last season and a fine performance at the 2017 World Championship, Larkin led the Wings in points before the game against the Canadiens Thursday, with four goals and 17 points.
“He turned 21 in July,” Holland said. “He’s young.”
And then Holland talked about sets of young players who arrive as stars, and sets of young players who become stars in their early seasons.
“Certainly, you can look at Steve Yzermans and Joe Sakics and Connor McDavids,” he said, of the stars upon arrival. “But there’s also Zetterbergs and Datsyuks. Pavs and Z became Pav and Z at the age of 25 or 26.
“It’s a hard league.
“So, I think Dylan’s in a great spot. He’s an important guy on our team.”
Mantha’s incremental progress is well on course, Holland said.
“You know, when the coach talks to the players, we want the players to be the best they can be,” he said, of the occasional public criticism of Mantha.
“I think that most young players, almost all young players have some parts of their game that they need to improve, whether it’s defensively, whether it’s strength, shoot the puck or don’t shoot with the puck.
“I think that Anthony is a very gifted, talented, big, big player.
“He has 30 goals in the NHL. He’s on a nice path. He’s getting better every year – every year.
“At this time last year he was just getting up here and now he’s our second leading scorer.”
Athanasiou impressed the organization with how he returned to the Red Wings after negotiating a contract up to a week before Halloween.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Holland said.
“I mean, he came back with a great attitude. I’m a manager I’ve been around a while, so I understand that business is business. And when business is done, then we go about the game.
“I was impressed that he was able, once we got it done, to come back and go about his business, and he’s played good.
“He came back, he’s scored some goals,” Holland said. “He’s had an impact on the team.”
Holland last season expressed a desire to stay and continue to work on rebuilding the Red Wings. Is he talking about a contract for himself, for next season?
“I have nothing to say about it, at all,” he said, with a facial expression that reinforced his firm intent.
Told that lots of folks around at least a couple of countries in North America are quite curious, Holland’s expression changed only slightly.
“I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “I have nothing to say.”