Paul Harris: The Great and Not So Great Era of Red Wings' GM Ken Holland

May 07, 2019, 12:28 PM

Ken Holland (Photo: Tom Gromak)

The author, a local freelance writer, is a former Detroit News reporter. 

By Paul Harris

Ken Holland’s 22-year tenure as Red Wings general manager featured spectacular success in the first decade or so. That wasn't so much the case in most recent one.

So, as Holland leaves to become general manager of the Edmonton Oilers after being a part of the Red Wings organization for 36 years, what will he be remembered for most?

The three Stanley Cups and four Presidents’ Trophies (which goes to the team with the NHL’s best record) in his first 12 seasons? Or missing the playoffs and being one of the league’s worst teams for three consecutive seasons? Not getting past the second round of the playoffs and the questionable contracts? Or draft choices of the last 10 campaigns?

In recent years, the most vocal of Red Wings fans have chosen to focus on the latter struggles of Holland and the organization. Not a surprise when you consider the “What have you done for me lately?” nature of professional sports. Many of those fans finally got their wish when Steve Yzerman was hired as the team’s general manager a couple weeks ago.

The days of Holland selecting Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the later rounds of the draft and bringing the likes of Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull and Marian Hossa, etc., to Detroit seemed to be forgotten.

Instead, the talk was of the Wings having three picks in the second round of the 2011 draft, the far-too-lucrative contracts for Justin Abdelkader and Jonathan Ericsson and missing out on getting current Tampa Bay Lightning star and this season’s NHL scoring champion Nikita Kucherov. (The Red Wings took Tomas Jurco with the 35th overall pick, Xavier Ouellet with No. 48 and Ryan Sproul at No. 55, all before Tampa Bay and Yzerman took Kucherov with the 58th selection).  

But Holland-helmed Red Wings squads reached the playoffs for 18 consecutive seasons and, because of their success, did not have a top 10 draft pick from 1992 until 2017 when they took Michael Rasmussen with the ninth overall pick.

But, it is still a mark against Holland that since the team selected Zetterberg in 1999 (seventh round, 210th overall pick), Detroit did not draft an impact player until 2014, when the Wings took Dylan Larkin with the 15th overall pick.

Holland was also criticized for the way he handled the salary cap in recent years.

That was not a concern during the 90’s and early 2000’s, before the salary cap, when free-spending teams like the Red Wings could pay whatever it cost to keep its own stars and sign whatever free agents were necessary each offseason. Early in the cap era, Holland and the Detroit organization seemed to have made the transition seamlessly, as it won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and took the Stanley Cup Final to seven games the following year before succumbing to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The downside

But that hasn't been the case since.

Justin Abdelkader
For the past few seasons, the Wings have had a limited amount of flexibility within the salary cap, partially because of the contracts of Abdelkader ($29.75 million over seven years, ending in 2022-23), Ericsson ($25.5 million over six years, ending next season) and Darren Helm ($19.25 million over five years, ending in 2020-21). Neither their play nor production has lived up to those deals.

But Holland won more games than any other GM in Red Wings history and is a sure bet for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

While he was not the general manager when Detroit won the Stanley Cup in 1997, Holland was a part of a three-person management group, known at "The Three-Headed Monster," that ran the organization and included then-coach and player personnel director Scotty Bowman and senior vice president Jimmy Devellano. 

That was also the setup in the lockout-shortened 1995 season, when the Wings advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals and in 1995-96, when the Red Wings set the all-time NHL record with 62 wins and reached the Western Conference Final.

Yes, the last part of Holland’s tenure as GM was nothing to be proud of. But his previous 15 years is a tough act to follow.

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