By: Jamie Samuelsen
It’s been said many times that Ken Holland is the best GM in hockey and one of the best in sports. I went so far as to suggest back in 2008 that the Lions should at least talk to him when they were looking to replace Matt Millen. Sheer lunacy? Probably. But I really felt and still feel that good GMs are good GMs because they have a philosophy, they hire good scouts and the stick to a plan. Holland does this with the Red Wings as well as anyone.
But alas, both the Lions and Holland ignored my radical idea, and both teams are undoubtedly better off because of it.
Holland took over a Stanley Cup champion and directed it to two more Cups in the uncapped era. Then, after the lockout forced the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season, Holland retooled the Red Wings on the fly and built another Cup winner. He shed the salaries of high-priced regulars. He reduced the money for others. And went rummaging through the league to turn up the likes of Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson and Andreas Lilja to add to the players he had already drafted and signed. A year later, they were back in the Western Conference Finals. Two years later, they were winning another Stanley Cup – and Holland’s reputation was cemented.
As much praise as Holland has received and as much of it that has been deserved, there’s always been that one nagging factor about his tenure in Detroit. All of his success (ALL of it) has come with Nicklas Lidstrom in the lineup. Holland will never have a better player on his roster. And he’ll never have a more valuable player. Lidstrom was basically three defensemen, two forwards and a Captain all rolled into one player. Some fans grumbled about Lidstrom’s salary number over the past few years as he got older. That’s a joke. There was no number that would have been too high for Lidstrom and what he meant to the franchise. I’m sure Holland negotiated each year hoping to drive that salary down, but he must have always done so knowing that whatever Lidstrom wanted, he was going to get. The Red Wings just couldn’t afford to lose him.
So now, it’s Holland’s time. Can he do it? There’s not a doubt in my mind. He’s got four rings to show for the job he did. But much like Phil Jackson won all of his titles with Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant; Holland will now have to prove that he’s not just a by-product of inheriting the greatest defenseman of this generation and one of the greatest players the sport has ever known. Jackson never coached the Clippers. Holland never ran a team without Lidstrom.
He still has the backing of Mike Ilitch. He still has one of the great support teams in the game including assistant GM Jim Nill and ace scout Hakan Andersson. And he still is the general manager for the Detroit Red Wings – one of the proudest franchises in sports. In some ways, this should be fun for Holland. He has money to spend and he has obvious targets available through free agency.
Nicklas Lidstrom has been the most important member of the Red Wing organization for twenty years. That era is over. Holland is now the man in the spotlight. Opening night for the Wings comes in the fall. Opening night for Holland will be July 1st when free agency begins. And we’ll all be watching.