Detroit Red Wings General Manager and executive Vice President Ken Holland has been known for putting together some impressive teams, finding gems in deep rounds of a draft, and generally helping run one of the most respected organizations in all of sports.
The Red Wings, over the last 20 years have become the epitome of what it is to win in NHL with other franchises looking to imitate their style. Some said that he had it easy with all of the money that Detroit had to buy free agents (so did Toronto and Rangers), so once the Cap-era NHL came around, some pundits cried out on how the end of the Detroit Red Wings is coming. Well, seven years later and we still have the Red Wings in the middle of talks of better teams in the West. So how does he do it? How does one GM commandeer a winning franchise at such a high level for so long?
I may have been able to figure it out, so stay with me…
It is very hard to come out and tell you that the genius of Ken Holland is somehow underrated, but to me it really is. The obvious things that most people recognize is the scouting team that he possesses. From Mark Howe, Glenn Merkosky, Bruce Haralson, and Hakan Andersson, Vladimir Havluj, Nikolai Vakourov, and so on. The European players that the Detroit Red Wings seem to be able to find, develop, and put in a place for success never seems to end. Having mostly terribly late first round picks, or in some cases none at all, the group of scouts still yield massive results that rival teams with multiple early first round picks (Looking at you, Blue Jackets, Toronto, and Islanders). This is the obvious part of Hollands ability to be successful.
The other obvious part is that the Red Wings do not rush their young players and try to help them develop the key areas of their game that were key reasons for drafting them in the first place. Keeping some players playing in their home country’s leagues and not rushing them over to the AHL, while at the same time keeping players in the AHL and helping them dominate and gain confidence, bulk up, and understand the Red Wings culture. The players sometime spend 3-4 years before being called up to the big club, which causes some frustration from the Wing fans.
This brings me to this genius of Holland in this CAP era of the NHL. The same thing that most fans scold the Wings front office for because of the talent they see playing in the AHL at the Wings disposal yet not being used, while other teams are infusing 18 and 19-year olds into their lineups yearly. But what we need to realize is that the Red Wings can afford to let the young guys get a bit more seasoned and this is something that most teams lack the luxury of. This is the brilliant part of this team’s strategy at staying competitive year in and year out. Hear me out.
Let us take a look at the current three top tier forwards on their way up to the big club; Thomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, and Jan Mursak are the top rookies that are expected to get into the fire over the next few years (Branden Smith has been confirmed to have a roster spot). They will not be winning any rookie of the year awards, last rookie to win the Calder Trophy was Roger Crozier in 64-65, because Detroit does not care about that. What Detroit cares about is winning and name a club who has done more winning over the last 20 years?
Nyquist and Mursak are both in the last year of their contracts according to Capgeek.com. Yet, Mursak has played only 44 games and is twenty four years old and Gustav Nyquist has played 18 games in the NHL and is twenty three years old. Most teams would have both of these guys up two years ago, particularly since both have been fairly dominant at the AHL level.
So where does the genius come in? Well, it comes in keeping the Red Wings competitive. The parity of the league has forced the teams to play it safe, some GM’s are a bit more risky, but most people stick to their guns. LA pulled a nice trade off for Jeff Carter and it paid off in spades. Holland is looking to field a competative team every year and he does it by also crunching some major numbers that go way ahead of just simple next year.
Nyquist and Mursak both will need new contracts after this year and both are restricted free agents. If they spent two or three years in the NHL on the third or second line, we would see them have a higher point totals and demand a much higher contract – look at the Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie Benn debacles. But right now the Detroit Red Wings can have two RFA’s who will get signed, most likely, to a low dollar amount deal for the next two to four years. Both kids will be expected to play a lot more next year – most project top 6 duties for Nyquist and top 9 for Mursak. Need an example of this strategy paying off in spades? Look no further than other players on the Detroit Red Wings roster.
Now, not all of the players have endured this much seasoning in the AHL as the current prospects, but injuries sometimes force your hand. Filppula got thrown into the fire a bit quicker, yet he was already around 23/24 years old when he started full time with the Wings. He did not play top 6 minutes though and assessed only 36 points in his final year of his entry deal. He got signed to a 5-year deal with a $3 million CAP hit. He has turned out to be a key player for the Wings over the last few years (Last year was the first year he got major minutes). He is due for a pay raise after this year, but he still will be underpaid because he only had one season with over 60 points, last year and at the age of 28. That is a quality player that fits into “Red Wings” hockey for a Walmart price.
Other examples include Franzen, Hudler, Zetterberg, Kronwall, Kindl, Datsyuk, Howard and Ericsson. Now some of these guys got brought up a bit quicker due to salary CAP being implemented and the Red Wings had a few older guys retire. Still, most of these guys started with good veteran mentors to shelter them from the “hard” minutes.
Nyquist, Tatar, and Mursak are going to play for the Detroit Red Wings but they will do so at the price that Kenny Holland wants and when him and Babcock will need them to. You can even throw Brendan Smith under this bit. While some would force this guy to play in NHL a few years earlier, by timing his full time stay with his entry level contract expiring, Kenny will be able to sign him for much less. By signing his players that are “over-ripe” later in their careers, he builds depth and keeps the Red Wings competitive in the UFA market. Look at the Red Wings numbers next year.
RFAs to sign – Brendan Smith, Jakub Kindl, Gustav Nyquist, Jan Mursak.
UFAs to sign – Ian White, Drew Miller, Valtteri Filppula, Daniel Cleary, Damien Brunner.
Cap Payroll will be 45.1 million and that leaves almost 20 million dollars to play with.
So, while I think Miller and Cleary will not be re-signed and Brunners future depends on what he does this year, look at how well the Wings are set up to go after big free agents. Filppula will make about $4 million a year or around there, while Smith, Kindl, Nyquist, and Mursak will all have similar deals depending on what they do this year. I expect Smith to get paid the most out of that bunch as he will simply play more in the NHL. The goal here is to have these guys play full time in NHL for three to four years for cheap.
Some will argue that this kind of hoarding just angers and hinders the performance of some of the players. They can demand a trade or run to KHL, possibly not be as motivated as they see no shot at playing with the big club in sight, but to this I say “nonsense”. Kenny Holland is smart and is well aware of this. He may have lost out the UFA frenzy on Suter and Parise, but he has not lost his touch on communicating with his players. This kind of “hoarding” let’s Detroit have depth incase of injuries and retirement. Look at Hulder chasing the big paycheck; as a team Wings did not even break a sweat due to the depth of prospects they currently have.
Not every team can afford to do what Kenny Holland is doing, but Detroit faithful have no worries, this man is brilliant. He understands how to work the CAP and how to minimize the cost. Is there a risk? Yes, he obviously takes risks, but history has showed that he plays the odds well. Look at the situation teams like Boston are in. Big time paychecks for their young players because they had no choice but to play them, Colorado cant reach a deal with a player who suited up for them at 18 years old, and is now just 21 in Ryan O’Reilly, and Montreal is going to shell out big bucks for 23 year old P.K. Subban. Detroit has key players like Bertuzzi, Cleary, and Samuelsson that eat up important minutes for cheap while young guys get to over-ripe and provide the needed depth. This is why the Red Wings continue to be successful and Kenny Holland continues to be a hockey genius.
…and That is the Last Word.