Ken Holland's battered Detroit death star is in playoff orbit again
Despite key injuries, the Red Wings are heading for their 20th straight playoffs
GM Ken Holland says Jakub Kindl is "an example of the positives from injuries"
Holland insists signing Evgeni Nabokov wasn't a slap at starter Jimmy Howard
Here's some bad news for the many fans outside of the 313 area code who really, really hate the Detroit Red Wings and so badly want to equate the team's general manager, Ken Holland, to the evil Lord Vader:
Meeting the 55-year-old native of Vernon, British Columbia, and not liking him is akin to a six-year-old child spitting out a first taste of chocolate chip ice cream. Not too likely.
Many assume that Holland, the winner of four Stanley Cups in Detroit since 1997 (three as GM, one as assistant GM) -- and the steward of a team that has amassed 100 points or more in an astounding 11 of his 12 years on the job -- might be a little regal and overbearing. But he is the kind of guy who apologizes to an out-of-town reporter for calling back a few minutes later than he said he would, and who mixes as easily with millionaire athletes as he does with the blue-collar fans at the end of the bar.
A 5-foot-8, 160-pound former goalie who played in a grand total of four NHL games (three for Detroit, one for Hartford -- and in that one for the Whalers, he allowed seven goals), Holland is hockey's humble front-office big shot.
"I pinch myself a lot," he says. "I can still remember just being a 14-, 15-year-old kid playing road hockey in the driveway with the neighbors and pretending I was an NHL player, and [I got] a little cup of coffee in the NHL. Then at the age of 29, I really thought I was done with hockey. I was just trying to find a life."
He found one, latching on as a scout with Detroit in 1985 and he has been there ever since, assuming the GM position after the Red Wings' 1996-97 Cup season, during which he served as assistant to Jim Devellano. Three more Cups followed, and a couple bounces here and there could have brought a couple more. Along the way, Holland has eviscerated the tag that green-eyed competitors used to love to hang on him, the same one that Brian Cashman has gotten used to as GM of the New York Yankees. It goes something like, "Oh gee, real tough when you've got an open checkbook at your disposal."
Holland was given the task of reorganizing the roughly $70 million team payroll of 2003-04 into a $39 million one mandated by the NHL's post-lockout collective bargaining agreement of 2005-06. Despite the turnstile departure of many big names (Brett Hull, Ray Whitney, Dominik Hasek, Mathieu Schneider, Derian Hatcher, Curtis Joseph, Darren McCarty), the '05-06 Wings under new coach Mike Babcock had a 58-16-8 record
"We had to take some chances. We had to take some risks," Holland says of those more frugal days. "We brought in a Dan Cleary on a tryout, we signed Andreas Lilja for $500,000, we signed Mikael Samuelsson for $500,000, we brought back Chris Osgood. We were just looking for guys who we thought might help us make that kind of transition from a high-dollar team to one with half the payroll."
No matter what the cap number since the lockout, life has worked out well. Since the 1970s and '80s days of Wings that played more like Paul McCartney's old band than a hockey team, Detroit has made the playoffs for 19 consecutive seasons. Which brings us to this year's team.
Despite a recent rash of injuries, the Wings are right there in their usual Death Star orbit. Wednesday's 7-5 win at Ottawa -- on the strength of five goals from 2004 third-round pick Johan Franzen -- gave Holland's team a pretty 31-13-6 record.
Soon, all-world center Pavel Datsyuk will be back from injury, along with Cleary. After that, Tomas Holmstrom and Mike Modano should rejoin the mix. Meanwhile, Holland believes his team might be better off having suffered the injuries. How is this fair?
"In the short term, the injuries have probably had an effect on our win-loss record, but we think we're going to be deeper in March and April," he says. "After the injury to (defenseman) Brad Stuart, we've had Jakub Kindl, a 22-year-old kid who was our first-round pick, be in there every night now. He's playing 15-to-17 minutes a night and gaining more confidence and the coaches are getting more confidence in him. He's an example of the positives we're getting from these injuries."
But what about Detroit's dicey goaltending? What about that signing of KHL-returnee Evgeni Nabokov last week? That move ended badly with the netminder being claimed on waivers by the New York Islanders. Alas, no from Russia with glove for the Wings...
Has Holland's lack of confidence in Jimmy Howard as the No. 1 been exposed? Will the thwarted move lead to some peace of mind for Detroit's opponents come playoff time as goaltending remains the Death Star's soft underbelly?
Holland insists that the Nabokov signing was no indictment of Howard, who can be an unrestricted free agent in July, and that it had more to do with backup Osgood's tenuous health (he's expected to be out several more weeks following sports hernia surgery).
"It was an opportunity," Holland says of the brief courtship of Nabokov, the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy in 2008. "As a manager, our mandate is to find ways to make your team better. He's still only 34 and made the final four last year. He made the decision to go to Russia and things didn't work out and he wanted to come back. Had Chris Osgood been healthy and we'd had two healthy goalies, I probably wouldn't have done anything. But we're still only (11) points [above] ninth place right now, and every win is critical. We believe in (current backup) Joey MacDonald, but with all due respect, Joey MacDonald isn't Evgeni Nabokov."
Despite losing Nabokov -- who is currently on the suspended list for refusing to report to the Islanders -- Holland says he wouldn't change the NHL's waiver-rule system. And while other additions are still possible leading up to the Feb. 28 trade deadline (don't be surprised if Holland tries to land another veteran defenseman), the Wings' front-office boss admits to being "very happy with what we've got" and with his lot in life overall. He's far too modest to pen some pompous Secrets of My Success business management book like many others in the sports world have done.
"Number 1, you have to work with talented, committed people and I've been lucky to do that here," he says. "And I would say my overall management philosophy has been to believe in patience. I really believe in patience with player development. But I've been lucky to have been in such a winning environment since I took over this job. My patience really hasn't been tested."
The way things are going, it will be a while before haters can enjoy that satisfaction.