By: Will Burchfield
Red Wings fans were up in arms earlier this month when the team left a slew of prospects off the opening night roster, choosing instead to go with established veterans.
Promising youngsters like Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi were sent down to Grand Rapids while Teemu Pulkkinen was placed on waivers. In a season where the Wings don’t appear to be immediate Cup contenders, it would seem to make sense to groom such players at the NHL level.
General manager Ken Holland doesn’t see it that way.
“We’re going to hurt those kids. If they get here and they’re not ready for this, and they lose their confidence and the coach loses his confidence in the player, now what?” he told 97.1 The Ticket on Monday morning. “I’m a big believer that the American Hockey League is the best development league.”
Like head coach Jeff Blashill earlier in the day, Holland stressed that the Wings are focused on assembling the best possible team for the task at hand.
“We’re trying to win tonight,” he said. “I don’t want to just play the game tonight and throw out a bunch of kids and we might not win. What’s gone on here since the early ‘80s is we’re trying to win, we’re trying to put a team on the ice.”
The Wings are clearly in a state of transition. One core of players is on its way out while the next wave is starting to arrive. A large portion of the fan base wants the organization to go all-in on the youth movement, but Holland has seen that strategy backfire.
“I don’t want to talk names around the league, but there are teams that have been doing that for ten years and that hasn’t been the answer,” he said. “You don’t know that these kids are the answer. We think they’re the answer, we draft them, we develop them, (but) do we really know that they’re going to be the absolute answer, that they’re going to take us to the promise land?”
The Edmonton Oilers are an obvious example of a rebuild gone wrong. Despite making countless top-10 draft selections in the past ten years, the Oilers haven’t experienced any real boost in the standings. It’s a reminder that potential doesn’t always lead to success.
What’s more, Holland pointed out, the Wings haven’t made a top-ten draft pick in 25 years.
“There are teams out there that are going with kids that are picked in the top five. You want us to go with kids in the second round and third round or picked 19 and 20 and 21, and you want us to compete? I think you’re wishing, I think you’re dreaming, I think you’re hoping,” he said.
In order for the Wings’ various prospects to get a shot in Detroit, they need to make a consistent impact in the AHL. Otherwise, Holland explained, how can he justify calling them up?
“That’s my philosophy in player development. When we put our young players into Grand Rapids, if you can’t take the jobs of those players down there, you’re not taking somebody’s job up here,” he said. “Once you’ve established yourself at the American League level as being one of the best players on that team and an important player, then you set your sights up here.
“When you come up here, you gotta take peoples’ jobs, that’s what sports is about. I don’t believe in entitlement, you gotta take somebody’s job.”
A number of youngsters had their chance to do that during training camp and preseason. If they were sent down, it’s because they weren’t good enough.