Wrapping up our series of grade posts, we finally arrive at the head honcho. Ken Holland has been the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings through a lot of changes. This year, he finally experienced being the general manager of a Detroit Red Wings team that missed the playoffs.
Let’s not waste time building to this: Ken Holland is getting an F.
Grading the GM
Just like Blashill got, Ken Holland is going to bear the responsibility of everybody beneath him Including, in this case, Blashill). A failure anywhere in the line, to include players, coaches, or any staff is a reflection on his choice in having that person in that position. Not everything that goes wrong is Holland’s fault, but it is his job to both minimize and manage those problems by putting people in a position to take care of things.
In a way, we’re extremely lucky as Wings fans to be in a position to so thoroughly lay blame at the feet of one man. For many, it’s really hard to say that a GM can be faulted on some level for just about everything, since GMs will fairly often find themselves within a transition period where it can take many years to work around a predecessor’s mistakes. In times like this, grading a GM for one year’s results becomes nearly impossible.
Ken Holland has no such excuse, and this grade is a culmination of a team he’s been in charge of since 1997. This F grade isn’t his entire legacy, but for the 2016-17 season, it’s where he’s led his team.
The Best Excuse
One of GM’s jobs running a hockey team is also one of the easiest-to-overlook among hardcore fans, the likes of which are still reading opinion pieces about the team more than a month after their season ended: the general manager is responsible for selling hockey in his city. We, the dedicated and the bloggers are essentially already sold. We are a mix of those who are hardest to lie to, but easiest to count on.
Call us suckers if you will; if you’re reading this in mid-May, there’s a really good chance you’ve been around for a number of the comments lamenting a loss of interest in the team as this most-painful season ground to a sad close. You’ve probably also seen the buds of a fandom surviving sprouting along the lines of “I’m just here because Mantha and AA are fun to watch.” There’s a reason the term die-hard is used.
We complain because we care, and our money is worth exactly as much as the folks who don’t complain and don’t care. Our fandom is a relatively secure commodity. It can wane in value, but mostly remains stable, meaning little growth as well. The casuals are fickle but numerous, and turning a casual into a die-hard is where the explosive growth happens. Those are the folks who spend it up on trips to the game, new shirts/jerseys, and other memorabilia. As a GM, you have to balance keeping the hardcore fans with convincing the casuals to show up and trying to nurture them into becoming nascent die-hards.
To that end, you can see the reason a GM might want to take gambling for success a little farther than what makes hockey sense (especially in light of the new arena opening next season). Lots of the die-hards have been calling for a rebuild - or at least a more-aggressive reload - since before the end of the Lidstrom era because you could see the foundation rotting away. But, as long as there’s a chance to extend the glory, there’s a reason to take it. If it’s possible to enjoy the explosive growth in fanbases like Chicago and Pittsburgh without the years of empty arenas, then it’s something worth shooting for.
Still, we’re die-hards here and understanding an excuse is not the same as accepting it. I’m sure many of us would rather have been celebrating unexpected wins than comforting ourselves with being right about expecting failure, but Ken Holland’s missteps led us to those expectations.
A Victim of Your Own Success
Outside of the large benefit of the blank check which allowed Holland to meet/exceed the cap and the relative flexibility that gives, Ken Holland has not had it easy. The prolonged success of the Wings, introduction of the salary cap, and introduction of punitive cap measures against contracts signed under an older CBA have turned previous advantages against Detroit. Draft picks are more-important now than they ever were, as is getting maximum contract value.
On the flip-side, loyalty to players has become much more a double-edged sword. You want to be an attractive destination, but you can’t fill your roster with guys who are better in the room than they are on the ice. On top of all that, rival GMs work on reputation as well. While Holland’s reputation has faded with fans in the last few years, his history and prestige adds a layer of risk to making deals with. I’m not saying GMs are terrified of getting duped by Ken Holland, but being the guy who sells the evil empire the missing piece they need to re-power their machine and only getting an iffy return has to at least live somewhere in the back of their minds.
Still, all this indicates is that the league has evolved to make what used to work no longer work as well. Ken Holland’s job is to have also evolved. His job being harder makes the failure easier to understand, not more acceptable.
The Balance is Off
I spoke earlier about how there’s an understandable pull for a GM as a watchdog of the financial bottom line to maybe act riskier chasing results, but there’s also a factor of being too conservative at play for the Red Wings. Aside from the loyalty to iffy players, the Wings have long relied too heavily on veterans. A series of misses and misfortune with veteran players created a system in which players on the downside of their career arcs were expected to either keep or regain prime numbers, which cost younger players time and opportunity to develop.
This development process has essentially aimed itself towards turning prospects into veterans by the time they’re rookies. Gustav Nyquist was 24 at the time of his breakout, so what looked like a promising jump out of the gates was in reality a player already on a plateau finally getting to show his promise. Tomas Tatar got two short stints, but didn’t become a full-timer until he was 23. Both of these players at one point found themselves lower in the depth chart than a 35-year old injury-plagued Mikael Samuelsson who was brought back with a NTC at $3M AAV for two years in 2012.
Another problem with this plan is that it’s unusual for NHL teams. Generally, by the time guys hit these ages and are running out of waiver exemption and/or coming due for post-ELC contracts, they have more experience and are therefore more well-known commodities around the league. It seems easier to get value for trading away prospects if they’re better-known. At the very least, it’s easier to sell promise on non-breakout players when they’re still young enough to potentially do so without being severe outliers like Marty St. Louis.
The Results Matter
Honestly, if we take an objective look back on the decisions Ken Holland has made which have ultimately led Detroit to the position they’re in now, there is a ton of good reasons fading into hindsight for a lot of those moves and it’s hard to pinpoint to just one or two which sunk the franchise. This is kind of the problem. If Holland had a huge royal screwup, it would have been easy to just fire him for it. Some of the mistakes were simply gambles which didn’t pay off, and I can generally say that perhaps the luck of getting Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the 6th and 7th rounds has been evened out by what happened with Mike Modano, Stephen Weiss, Erik Cole and others. It’s hard to be good enough to compete and it’s even harder to win it all. You’ve got to be lucky and good; Ken Holland hasn’t quite been either for a time.
I don’t believe Ken Holland has passively sat around twiddling his thumbs and kicking any spare tires lying around while his team burned down around him, but we can’t attribute it all to the excuse of him having a hard job and some bad luck. In the end, managing a hockey team is a results-based business and the results speak for themselves. It is possible that a different path would have been worse, but from the bottom, it’s real hard to imagine plumbing deeper.
The Red Wings failed this season, so Ken Holland failed as well.