How will you remember Ken Holland’s tenure as GM of the Detroit Red Wings? Does he deserve more credit or blame?
Four Stanley Cups really should be the beginning, middle and end of any conversation about Ken Holland.
But 10 years since the last championship means the question morphs from “What can’t Holland do?” into “What have you done for me lately?”
It’s one of the ugly sides of sports. We cheer and laud the best in the game as long as they’re the best in the game. Once that stops, or even slows down, the fawning turns to questioning and the once sterling resume starts to produce some gaps.
Just ask Miguel Cabrera about that. Most of us will never see a better hitter in a Detroit Tigers uniform, but as his power numbers plummet and his salary increases, there is some understandable grumbling in the fan base.
I certainly understand the frustration with Holland. He gave long term contracts to players like Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson and Darren Helm as if they were key weapons for a Cup contender. His drafting record was spotty when the Wings were often picking lower in the first round. And he made some overreaching trades at deadline time to help the Red Wings make the playoffs in the final few years of the 25-year playoff streak.
We may never know if Holland was under some directive to keep that streak alive. It sure seems like he was. But as with any legacy, you have to measure the good with the bad.
I just happen to think that the good is vastly underappreciated.
Holland played a huge role in the great Red Wings dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was a scout, assistant GM and ultimately the general manager for a team that dominated the sport and became one of the model franchises in all of sports.
Great players took less money and less years just to play for the Red Wings. Give credit to Mike Ilitch, Jim Devellano, Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom for that success. But don’t diminish the impact of Holland whose fingerprints were on every trade, every signing and every piece of hardware that the Wings won during that era. Not every GM, fresh off multiple Cups, would go out and trade for a goaltender like Dominik Hasek when the Wings already had a Cup-winning goalie, Chris Osgood, on the roster.
But Holland did. And the result was Cup No. 3 in 2002.
All of that pales compared to what he accomplished in 2008.
The Wings winning another Stanley Cup, their fourth in 12 years, was notable. But they were the Red Wings – it’s what they’re supposed to do. What they weren’t supposed to do was to win the way that they did. Gone were the legends like Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov. Yes, Lidstrom was still around, the most important player of the entire Red Wing run. But if Holland was part of the team that scouted and drafted Lidstrom, then he gets credit for having him in the fold nearly two decades later. They also had Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in their respective primes.
But the Wings could no longer be the Yankees of the NHL, thanks to the 2004-05 work
stoppage and ensuing salary cap. Holland had to identify players who could play the Red Wings Way, but had to be willing to do it at a reduced salary. In came players like Mikael Samuelsson and Brian Rafalski through free agency. Up came Johan Franzen and Niklas Kronwall from the farm system.
In most cities in most sports, that’s called rebuilding. The problem is that Holland wasn’t allowed to rebuild until the very end of his time in Detroit.
The expectation was the postseason, and once there, hope for the best.
So while most GMs view a rebuild as a dismantling and then a restart, Holland rebuilt by
shedding huge names and huge contracts and maintaining a standard of excellence. Show me GMs in other sports who were able to turn that trick. Yet Holland doesn’t get the credit he deserves because of Lidstrom and because of the fact that in that era, it was expected from the team.
Holland’s later years in Detroit affect his legacy. There’s no doubt. If there’s a lesson, it’s
that you should leave when you’re on top because once you start slipping, it’s easy to find faults and point fingers. Joe Dumars learned that the hard way with the Pistons. If Yzerman can come in and enjoy half the success that Holland did, he’ll be celebrated even more than he has been already.
It’s an incredibly high standard. And that should be the main thing we remember about Holland. He set the standard, and his failure to live up to that standard is what ultimately doomed him.