Ken Holland 'Feels Good' About Organization He Turned Over To Yzerman

He helped lay the foundation of Detroit's ongoing rebuild.

Will Burchfield
October 29, 2019 - 3:58 pm

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Strange.

That was the first word out of Ken Holland's mouth. He was standing outside the visitor's locker room Tuesday morning at Little Caesars Arena, his first time back in the building since leaving his post as general manager of the Red Wings in May.  

Different. 

Difficult?

"Yeah, probably," he said. 

The Red Wings belonged to Holland, in essence, for 22 years, and he belonged to them for 36. That's more than half of his life. He's 63 now, and working for a different NHL team for the first time in his career. His Oilers, sitting in first place in the Pacific thanks to an 8-3-1 start, will take on the Red Wings Tuesday night. The Wings, losers of eight straight, appear headed for another bottom-of-the-barrel finish as the rebuild that Holland set into motion three years ago grinds slowly toward ... something. 

There is hope on the horizon, cloudy as it may be. Talented players are on the way, most of whom Holland left behind. Some, like Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski, are already here. Despite handing over a team to Steve Yzerman that's failed to crack the 80-point threshold the last three reasons, Holland is comfortable with the final chapter of his odyssey as GM. 

"I made a decision near the end, the last couple years, that it was time for a rebuild. I feel good about lots of the young players in Detroit, I felt good that there was lots of draft picks, I felt good that the salary cap money was starting to free up and there’s lots of salary cap space," he said. "But the reality is, I don’t care what market you’re in, rebuilds take time, rebuilds take patience. It’s hard on a fan base, it’s tough, but they’ve got a great manager here in Steve Yzerman. I hold him in the highest, highest regard as a person, as a player and as a general manager." 

Prior to their fall, all the Wings did under Holland's watch was win four Stanley Cups and rip off 25 straight trips to the playoffs, a streak that the NHL will surely never see again. It would have reached 29 years this season had it continued, matching the Bruins for the all-time record. Their streak began when Bobby Orr won his first Norris Trophy at age 19. 

That the Red Wings sustained theirs in a league that grew to 30 teams, instituted a salary cap and made parity its primary aim is an achievement on another level. 

"I feel really good about my time in Detroit," said Holland. "I wish we could have gone up to 28, 29 years and then somebody tells me today that maybe you should have started a rebuild earlier. Well, at the end of the day, rebuilds are painful and pretty well every franchise in the league is at some point in time going to have to go through it. That’s the reality of a salary-cap world." 

Before he left, Holland did help lay a new foundation. That can be easy to forget when assessing all those creaky beams at the top, the ones that are starting to crash to the earth. Holland drafted Dylan Larkin 15th overall in 2014, by all accounts Detroit's captain in waiting. Larkin has outscored all but one of the players taken before him. He drafted Anthony Mantha 20th overall in 2013, a first-line winger coming into his own. Mantha has scored more goals per game than all but two of the players taken before him. He drafted Tyler Bertuzzi in the second round in 2013 and Andreas Athanasiou in the fourth round in 2012, plus Cholowski and Hronek in 2016. Right now, these are centerpieces of the rebuild. 

Holland left Yzerman with some unused chips at the draft table, too. That included two extra second-rounders in 2019, an extra second-rounder and an extra third-rounder in 2020, and an extra third-rounder in 2021. As for the cap space, well, let's talk about those creaky beams. Niklas Kronwall and his $4.75 million cap hit came off the books in the offseason. Jonathan Ericsson's $4.25 million cap hit comes off next offseason. Same for Mike Green's ~ $5.4 million, Trevor Daley's ~ $3.2 million and, depending on the goalie outlook, Jimmy Howard's $4 million. Accounting for restricted free agents, Yzerman should have some $20 million to play with next summer. 

Make no mistake, Holland had his share of misses in the draft. He made a crucial call last year that has to leave Yzerman -- and Jeff Blashill -- shaking their heads. He took Evgeny Svechnikov four picks before Brock Boeser in 2015. Most infamously, Holland and the Red Wings passed on Nikita Kucherov three times in 2011 before he went 58th overall to the Lightning. (By the way, so did the Oilers. The man can't escape it!)

And there's still a bill to pay for some of Holland's blunders in free agency. Darren Helm, 32, is owed $3.85 million through 2021. Frans Nielsen, 35, is owed $5.25 million per year through 2022. And most glaring of all, Justin Abdelkader, or the shell of him that remains, is owed $4.25 million through 2023. Depending on his opinion, Yzerman may not be thrilled with $5 million annually through 2022 for Danny DeKeyser, either.  

It's these missteps, characterized by Holland's larger unwillingness to embrace a rebuild earlier, that turned a hefty segment of the Red Wings fanbase against the architect of a dynasty. By the time Holland left town, most were thrilled to see him go. In truth, calls for his firing had started a few years prior. If this was hard on Holland, knowing all he had done for the organization, he never begrudged the fans' anger. 

"That’s sports, and I respect the passion," he said. "That’s what makes these franchises great, is that the fan base really cares and they live and die with your team. For me personally, the last couple of years I felt the fans’ frustration. Certainly our expectations in making decisions, my expectations in making decisions, were to try to put a better team on the ice."

Then, as he likes to do, Holland pointed around the league. Unparalleled success, as this fan base experienced for so long, can throw reality out of focus. The longest active playoff streak in the NHL belongs to the Penguins, at 13 years straight. After that, it's the Capitals and Predators ... at five years straight. 

"This is a hard league to make the playoffs consistently, and those teams are probably veteran teams," said Holland. "You think about the Red Wings in ‘13, ’14, ‘15, ‘16; ‘13 we went to Game 7 in OT against Chicago in Round 2, ‘15 we were Game 7 with Tampa Bay (in Round 1). ... You look around the league, and teams that were once great teams are in rebuilds." 

It began for the Red Wings in 2016, and it still has a ways to go. The playoffs are already a pipe dream this year. Next year? Maybe. The year after that? You hope. The job no longer belongs to Holland, who no longer belongs to the Wings, but in some ways will always belong to this city. Strange, different, difficult, he can call it what he wants.

The feeling for everyone is probably mutual. 

"I moved here in 1994. I lived in Detroit for 25 years. My memories would be about the people I worked with on the ice and off the ice and the fans, the passion of the fan base," said Holland. "It’s an incredible fan base."