By: Will Burchfield
Don’t try to sell Ken Holland a rebuild. He’s not in the market.
In fact, he can barely contain himself when the idea is mentioned, speaking in hurried sentences and hardly stopping to breathe. He has a rebuttal for every argument, a counterpoint for every example.
Sure, the Red Wings have a lot to gain by starting from scratch. But Holland feels they have far too much to lose.
“Rebuilding, to me, means we’re cleaning out anything that’s got some age to it, even if they can help you win. We’re going to go younger. We’re going to dismantle this whole thing, and we’re going to spend a long period of time believing that at the tail end of it we’re going to end up with a Cup contender,” Holland said as the Red Wings enter the 2017-18 season.
He threatened to throw out some statistics. They’d all illustrate the same point: A full-blown rebuild comes with no guarantees.
“This is a tough league to think that you’re just going to dismantle and wake up on the other side and win the Stanley Cup,” Holland said.
In theory, Holland conceded, the odds of capturing a championship are better for a team that builds from the ground up. There’s no winning without superstars, and just about the only place to find them in today’s NHL is at the top of the draft.
“I’m with you on that,” Holland said.
But tanking in the standings doesn’t carry the same benefits it once did. The draft lottery isn’t as tilted toward bad teams. The Avalanche, Holland pointed out, finished dead last a season ago and only landed the fourth overall pick. And even if the balls fall in your favor, the spoils can be underwhelming. The Devils jumped three spots in this year’s lottery to pick first overall, but Nico Hischier isn’t going to transform them into a contender.
“There’s probably a couple guys in this year’s draft that have a chance to be stars. What if you go through all that pain and you don’t win the lottery?” Holland said.
These are well-known arguments, of course. And truth be told, Holland might overlook them if he were running a different organization. He might scoff at the risk of tanking, knowing it paled in comparison to the reward.
But the Red Wings’ reputation, Holland believes, is built on winning. They can’t afford to embrace losing.
“When people have looked at the Red Wings and we’ve done the winning, they’ve looked at the talent. And there’s no doubt we’ve had talent,” Holland said.
But they’ve had something else, too, he said, and the passion was audible in Holland’s voice when he spoke the word.
“We’ve had culture,” he said. “What is culture? Culture is really good people that do it right every day on the ice and off the ice.”
Holland pointed to captain Henrik Zetterberg and assistant captain Niklas Kronwall. They practice hard and train diligently. They’re humble in victory and calm in defeat. They treat people the right way. In bearing a standard, they set an example.
To Holland, veteran leadership is just as vital to the Red Wings’ rebuild as young talent. The latter will wither without the former.
“I’m trying to hang onto the culture so that those young players that come into the Red Wing locker room understand what this organization’s about, what this league is all about, how hard it is to win, that you have to do it right every day. Zetterberg and Kronwall do it right every day. Somewhere down the road, the torch gets passed to another group of players,” Holland said, “but you can’t just flip the thing.”
He mentioned Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou as the leaders of the next generation, the three players most capable of carrying that torch forward. (He also lamented that Athanasiou remains unsigned.) But Holland doesn’t want to ask too much of them too soon. With veterans on the team, he doesn’t have to.
“Much like (Igor) Larianov and (Steve) Yzerman were important to (Pavel) Datsyuk and Zetterberg, the veteran players here are important to these young people to teach them when it’s their time to play 18 minutes and be accountable to the media,” said Holland.
After every game, Zetterberg has to address the media. He has to face the cameras and microphones, win or lose, and explain why the team played the way it did. He has to answer for the result, even if he had nothing to do with it.
“That’s the responsibility game after game after game. Zetterberg was shielded from that by Yzerman, by (Nicklas) Lidstrom, and when he was 26, 27 years of age he was ready to answer those questions on a nightly basis on behalf of the entire team,” Holland said. “Imagine being 21, 22 years of age and the team is losing and losing, and not only are you trying to figure how to to play well but you have to answer why the team’s not winning.”
It wouldn’t be fair, in Holland’s mind, to put someone like Larkin or Mantha in that situation. Nor would it be wise. Holland — along with head coach Jeff Blashill — is adamant that young players should be brought along slowly, that talent should be nurtured rather than thrown into the fire. It’s for this same reason that 18-year-old Michael Rasmussen, the team’s No. 1 draft pick this year, was sent back to his junior club after scoring four goals in five preseason games.
“We think that he can be a top-nine forward, a real important player. But the reality is it’s going to be three or four years from now — on a team that can win,” Holland said, and he added that last phrase with emphasis.
It goes back to the culture he’s trying to maintain.
“I’m not talking just put these guys on the ice and we go lose every night and they get some points. That’s a way different program than trying to win and knowing that you have to chip the puck in, chip the puck out, you have to play defense, you have to have short shifts, you have to do all the things that go into the team winning. It takes time,” Holland said.
Don’t get him wrong. He believes the Red Wings can be a winning team this season. If things break their way, he said, he’s confident they can make the playoffs. And maybe that’s the point. Even if Detroit isn’t going to make a run at the Cup, Holland wants the young players on hand — the Larkins, the Manthas, the (hopefully) Athanasious — to be exposed to a competitive environment. He wants them to be held to a winning standard, because in time that standard will be realistic.
And then they’ll have to deliver.
Meanwhile, down on the farm, Holland is letting the next crop of Red Wings spread its roots.
He mentioned Joe Hicketts, Tyler Bertuzzi and Evgeny Svechnikov in Grand Rapids, Dennis Cholowski in Prince George and Rasmussen in Tri-City. He offered praise for each one of them, before finally taking a breath and saying, “That is the rebuild.”
“Now,” he acknowledged, “where are you getting those superstars?”
Holland sighed, knowing it’s the Red Wings’ unavoidable dilemma. And the most reliable path toward a solution is the one he’s least willing to take.