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Ken Holland’s Hockey News Interview Is a Step Backwards

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Without room for nuance, the Wings’ GM makes some good points. There’s always room for nuance though.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Tampa Bay Lightning at Detroit Red Wings Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve dripped a lot of pixels on this page over the summer talking about our concerns for the Red Wings going forward. Some of it is just milder concern while some of it is more dour than that. It can be hard to separate out the excitement for the coming season and for what the Red Wings will be from the worry that what they will be isn’t going to be very good.

As one of the resident optimists, I’ve tried to stay relatively even-keeled through things. I can absolutely see the possibility that this season is going to go disastrously, but it’s not exactly crazy to suggest the Wings could be pretty good either. Maybe the likelihood they’ll be a top contender come next April isn’t high, but the dumpster fire scenario isn’t terribly real either. At worst what we have is a smoldering wastebasket.

To put exactly like The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin put it, the Wings are in limbo right now. Larkin got a sit down with Ken Holland and gave us all kind of the biggest state of the team address right from the GM that we’ve gotten since the end of season presser.

I want to give you a bit to go there and read it, because after making a few points about THN’s tone of the article, I’m going to spend the bulk of it breaking down Holland’s quotes. Here’s the link again for you.

The Author’s Tone

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because Matt Larkin isn’t a Red Wings fan, but it’s real easy to see how well Ken Holland can sell a message. Larkin bought in pretty heavily, so he’s peppered his article with a lot of flowery praise for what Holland has to say and absolutely helps sell the kind of flawed all-or-nothing consideration we’re getting without too critical an eye.

You can forgive THN for not exactly turning this into a hit piece if you want, or not. I think if he had been a bit more rounded in his coverage, I wouldn’t be writing this response.

Outside of that, the biggest sin Matt Larkin commits is throwing up the tired strawman of the extreme optimist versus the extreme pessimist. Considering I think of myself as an optimist, it’s insulting to be thrown into this basket of Panglossian horseshit where I have to see a few decent off-season moves as a rah-rah moment confirming the organization’s dedication to excellence. What Larkin is doing is reaffirming one of the biggest errors of logic by people who often confuse pessimism with realism.

I’m also sure you pessimists out there don’t appreciate the third paragraph labeling you as a semi-apologist either, but I’ll let you speak for yourselves in that area. I know that hopeful and realistic don’t have to be opposites and neither do doubtful and realistic, so setting things up as such is the first of many false choices with which we’re presented.

Holland’s Salesmanship

From here, let’s just go to what’s said and take it piece-by-piece:

“The philosophical question you’re asking me is, ‘Do we head in a direction where we make a determination that it’s all about five years from now? Or do we continue to try to be a playoff team?’” Holland said. “When you’ve got Mrazek, and you’ve got Larkin, and you’ve got Riley Sheahan, Justin Abdelkader, and you’ve got Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, and you’ve got DeKeyser, and you’ve got Nielsen… we’ve either got to have those people and we’re trying to win the division, we’re trying to qualify for the playoffs…or don’t sign Frans Nielsen. Don’t sign Thomas Vanek. Don’t bring in Ott. And just go with a bunch of kids. And let the chips fall where they may.”

The opening to the consideration here is Ken Holland outright telling us that he doesn’t believe the kids in the system are good enough. Without Nielsen, Vanek, or Ott, the only other choice presented is a five year plan to get good enough to qualify for the playoffs. Considering two of those three guys Holland mentioned are signed to one year deals, this seems kind of an odd discussion about the middle-length game of his plan for the Red Wings, since the only choices he presented are compete for the playoffs now or worry about five years in the future.

I’d also like to point out that “we’re trying to win the division, we’re trying to qualify for the playoffs” is an immediate step-back from one promise to another, and it’s not exactly confidence inspiring. The difference between trying to do those two things is rather large, considering that only 25% of playoff teams are division winners.

It’s not that I don’t want the Wings to get competitive, it’s that if they’re going to make the playoffs, it needs to happen in terms of a team building to being more competitive and not simply squeezing the last of the ability to compete out of a bunch of veterans on a downward path.

“If you’re going to do a massive rebuild – get a core of players that you think can carry your team for a decade – you’ve got to miss the playoffs five, six, seven years in a row. That’s what Pittsburgh did. That’s what Florida did. That’s what Chicago did. You can just go team after team. You don’t miss one year, and all of a sudden, ‘Boy, we’re back.’ ”

Again, Holland is selling an either/or choice that forgets a lot of in-between. Anaheim is a contender who has missed the playoffs three times in the last 12 seasons. Tampa is a team that started building its current core just one year after losing in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s core came with four playoff-free seasons. Hell, even the Blackhawks “very long” rebuild is a lie built upon the fact that the franchise prior to that wasn’t particularly trying to build a winner. While Holland may be right that a one-year rebuild plan generally doesn’t work, the implication it takes almost a decade is no more realistic.

“My philosophy as a manager, and my owner’s philosophy is, ‘The Detroit Red Wings: we’re playing to win,’ ” Holland said. “We’re trying to be a playoff team. We’re trying to get in, give ourselves a chance to go on a playoff run. I guess at some point in time, when you miss the playoffs once and then twice and three times, maybe you determine we don’t want to just miss and pick 14th. Then we’d want to miss and pick sixth or miss and get a lottery pick.”

I’m separating this from the rest of the paragraph because I want to point out that Ken Holland is painfully close to being on the nose here before missing, but kind of strengthens his idea about it taking eight years to rebuild, but only because he’s also talking about taking three straight years of missing the playoffs before realizing that picking 12th kind of sucks.

“But right now we don’t want to pick 12th. We want to pick 16th or 18th or 20th. We want to be a playoff team. And I also think if you get in, once you get in, anybody’s got a chance. If we had started the playoffs in January, neither San Jose nor Pittsburgh would’ve been in the tournament.”

[ahem]

PICKING 16TH, 18TH, OR 20TH IS WHERE THE TEAMS WHO BOW OUT IN THE FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS PICK. IF YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY YOU WANT TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS AND HAVE A CHANCE, THEN YOU WANT TO PICK 27 OR LATER BUT WILL ACCEPT PICKS IN THE LATE TEENS.

[/ahem]

Sorry. I know it’s easy to deduce what Holland is trying to say, but specifically saying it in a way that implies you’re perfectly content aiming for first round flameouts is precisely why a large chunk of this fanbase has spent the better part of the last 40 days with clenched cheeks over “the plan.”

It’s precisely why a fan who considers himself an optimist isn’t as rah-rah about a “commitment to excellence” as Matt Larkin implies one ought to be.

Also, nobody cares about San Jose and Pittsburgh being out in January. If the season ended then, strategies would be different. Neither of those teams had reason to pull the chute on their seasons at that point, but plenty of smart GMs know when to do so.

“We’re hoping we’ve got a guy [Vanek] who wants to prove people wrong. He’s not an age where he’s way over the hill. He’s certainly still young enough that if he’s motivated and puts in a good summer, we think he can be a real asset for us.”

I’m not exactly down on the Vanek signing and agree here, but Martin Frk is a right-shooter who wants to prove people wrong and is not an age where he’s way over the hill. Far be it from me to suggest Martin Frk is better at hockey than Thomas Vanek, but again, we’re talking about where I’ve been given a false choice between use more short-term veterans and miss the playoffs and another false choice where missing the playoffs is a horrible waste of time.

The Conclusion

Ok, back to Matt Larkin real quick, because this paragraph is chock full of issues:

If Vanek doesn’t deliver, and if Nielsen doesn’t prove worthy of top-line center status, maybe the Wings miss the playoffs for the first time in a quarter century. Holland doesn’t deny that possibility by any means. He knows the jig could be up any time. He insists no franchise can rely on late-round gems as an official strategy despite the fact his brain trust has hit with so many. He’s realistic. At the same time, he’s nowhere ready to roll over. He’s willing to make trade-deadline moves to upgrade his team in the short term next winter if he feels he has a contender on his hands. Parity in the NHL is so potent nowadays that we can see the Pittsburgh Penguins fire their coach mid-season and crusade all the way to a championship. We can see the Sharks miss the playoffs and come within two victories of a Cup the next year. We can see the L.A. Kings win it all as a No. 8 seed.

  1. If those signings go bad and the Wings miss the playoffs, then Holland has failed to get in that mythical position to make a run and he’s failed to earn a lottery pick. This seems to be the heart of the big gamble problem (and also a problem with pinning the Wings’ success or failure on those two guys rather than the completely-unmentioned-by-this-article Darren Helm). It doesn’t build towards anything and it doesn’t get the Wings closer to still competing. This plan pretty much only makes sense if the playoffs are simply the end goal rather than the cup.
  2. It’s nice that Ken Holland is willing to make trade-deadline moves to upgrade the team, but what I’d like to know is whether he’s willing to make trade-deadline moves to better position the team for the future if he doesn’t feel he’s gotten any close to building a contender. Can Holland bite the bullet and sell if he needs to?
  3. Wait, the Sharks missed the playoffs one year and then almost won the cup the next year? Didn’t Ken Holland say that’s not how it works?

The bottom line is that the Red Wings aren’t as bad as it seems, but the most recent comments from Ken Holland double down on some of the less confidence-inspiring parts of his postseason presser and set up a number of absolute either/or considerations that aren’t realistic. I have plenty of hope for the Wings this season, but that doesn’t mean that an optimist can’t see storm clouds forming.