Ken Holland Re-Signs: His Challenge for the Next 4 years
The Red Wings have re-upped the GM who has the most Stanley Cup rings for just one team since he took over the reins of the club in 1997. The immediate response of a large portion of the fanbase has not been positive. The reasons are fairly obvious by now, but I'll give it a brief once-over. After all, I'm not here to bury Ken Holland in past mistakes, nor am I here to prop him up on past accomplishments. Plenty of that has already gone on this summer and plenty more is in store for us.
While criticisms of Holland are varied, they all boil down to a common theme: the Red Wings have fallen farther from contention since they last made the Stanley Cup Final in 2009. The team's core has already started falling off without adequate replacements and the remainder of the core players continue to age through the time period when we should reasonably expect that their replacements are here. While the Wings have a number of extremely promising prospects, the team's policies towards managing those players' ascension plan have appeared too cautious for the urgency of the situation. Finally, the makeup of the roster compared to assumed opportunities lost has led numerous fans to question the GM's ability to effectively manage in both the trade and free agency markets.
We'll no doubt spend endless hours debating these points and the finer points associated with them (not to mention the counter-points reminding us that Holland has effectively steered the Wings for nearly two decades and has already complete one reload-on-the-fly during the Salary Cap Era AND the counter-counter points giving credit for those things to people no longer with the club AND the counter-counter-counter points saying.....well, you get the point). However, none of that has anything to do with what lies ahead for the Red Wings and what Ken Holland has to do in the next four years.
In order to be a successful GM for the next four years, Ken Holland has to make Red Wings fans happy. Ok, that's not actually true. Red Wings fan happiness is a fickle fucker and is only really a byproduct of a GM doing a good job. Quite honestly, there's a decent chance that he's actually going to have to do a few things which makes fans very angry. To tell the truth, keeping fans happy (and therefore willing to show up to games and spend money on the team) is one of the hardest-to-define pieces of what makes a good GM. It's both his most-important job and the one that gets the most in the way.
Here are the challenges for Holland:
Navigate the Coaching Situation:
Mike Babcock has one year left on his contract with the Wings. The fact that he hasn't already signed an extension has fans in other cities practically salivating over the thought of Babcock coming there. We know that Babcock has told the press on several occasions that he's happy in Detroit and that the grass isn't always greener on the other side. We've also heard Babcock talk about how he wouldn't distract the club with contract negotiations during the regular season and that the team should worry about getting their GM re-signed before him. Now that Holland is in place for another four years, the door for a Babcock extension is presumably open.
Here's the thing though: navigating the coaching situation doesn't necessarily mean "re-sign Mike Babcock." In fact, there are a number of people who specifically don't want that to happen. While not many people can claim both sanity and to hold the opinion that Babcock isn't a good coach, there are concerns over his message growing stale in the locker room over the years. A great coach in the wrong situation isn't beneficial, after all.
Despite your feelings on whether Babcock is the right coach for the Wings going forward or whether it's Jeff Blashill (or perhaps somebody entirely different), it's Ken Holland's job to get this decision right. Aside from the Dave Lewis situation, Holland has a pretty good track record of having the right coach in Detroit at the right time.
Forget the Past: Manage for the Present and the Future
It feels lately as though the Red Wings have been a bit reliant upon maintaining their prestige without enough done to build upon it. The consecutive playoff streak is a source of pride for the Red Wings and for their fans, but it cannot remain the ultimate goal or even the base definition of what's acceptable for the team. This year will tell us where the Red Wings stand just as last year did and just as each year beyond the present one will. The last 20+ years tells us where they've been, but won't save an organization from drowning in quicksand caused by the inability to look at where they're going.
Each of the last few years, the Wings have run closer to a precipice carrying a hang-glider that's developed more holes since the run started. Holland has been on trying to fix it so they can take off before we reach the edge, but the end of the run is coming up soon and the point at which one can simply bail out without disastrous results is behind us. It's not yet time to say the concept of another team reload for Detroit has failed, but we're looking at the possibility a very painful plunge down a cliff smacks us in the face with such a realization soon.
Actively Make some GMs Look Dumb
This one isn't an absolute requirement, but holy shit would it make me feel better. For years, the Wings had success just passively showing that there's the Red Wings' way to do things and then there's the wrong way. Watching the people in charge of other teams make dumb signings, dumb trades, and dumb hires was always a comforting thing for a team that was in control. Since control has slipped, we can't simply scoff at free agency misses or assumptive trades not made as though it's the best thing to have happened because nowadays, it looks an awful lot like other teams getting better while the Wings spin their tires.
I do believe that there's a certain stigma associated with being the Wings' GM that perhaps makes other GMs less likely to deal with Detroit than they will with other teams. I fully believe that in the backs of their heads, none of the league's GMs wants to be the guy who cemented another decade of the Red Wings being atop the league with a trade, even if that trade was in the absolute best interests of his own team.
Regardless of whether I believe that or anybody else does, it doesn't matter. Ken Holland has to find a way around that. It's very hard to build a successful team all by yourself when there are so many GMs out there who have needs which can be filled in mutually beneficial way. Holland needs to take advantage of such situations in ways that are more-beneficial to Detroit though.
Reload the Rest of the Organization Too
In the past few years, the Red Wings have lost two men out of their front office who are current GMs of other teams. In his tenure, Mike Babcock has lost three assistant coaches to NHL head coaching gigs since his last cup win and another to the position of President of Hockey Canada. Each of these has been replaced with a newcomer and there's a lot left to say about how effectively they can fill their roles. I'm hopeful that it's at a very high level, but they have a lot to prove in showing Holland made the right choice with each of them.
It's not just coaching though. The teams' training and medical staff has been extremely busy lately, but there are questions about whether or not the right job is being done to protect the Red Wings' players from injury. There's ample room for finger pointing up and down the organization when it comes to this consideration, but the buck stops at Ken Holland. It's his job to solve whatever part of this problem can actually be solved.
For scouting and player development, I do believe the Wings have a good system in place. I think that the team has done a good job of recognizing that they had a pretty severe problem with organizational depth at the lower level and they've spent years fixing that. I've come to accept that finding world-beating superstars in the 6th round is more a luck thing anymore, but that doesn't mean I don't want the Wings on the leading edge of finding hidden gems, because as we've seen for the last decade, those findings pay huge dividends.
This leads me to my last point.
Figure out What Other Teams aren't Doing
The concept of "hidden gems" isn't limited to drafting/signing players. While it's nice to know and be able to compete with the conventional wisdom in the NHL over any given year, the real success is found in doing the things which won't be conventional wisdom for another year or two. It's a coin flip between chasing trends and staying ahead of the game, but it's a coin flip that has to be made nowadays for a team that wants to stand out.
This doesn't have to be about fully embracing the analytics movement either (although I think that it can be extremely valuable). Quite simply, the Wings should be innovating ways to play the kind of hockey that wins the 2015 Stanley Cup, not necessarily the kind of hockey that won last year or any year prior. If I knew what those specific innovations were, I'd be too busy selling them to Ken Holland to write this post, but regardless of the ability to correctly identify them now, it's Holland's job to find them before everybody else does.