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Is Red Wings GM Ken Holland still the man for the job?

In Holland we trust?



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Not all such deeds result in injuries; sometimes it's simply to make a show of bullying. For instance, on March 26, when San Jose visited Joe Louis Arena, Joe Thornton of the Sharks was penalized two minutes for slashing Zetterberg in the groin.

Perhaps irked by Zetterberg's dramatic fall to the ice, Thornton skated over and shoved him. No teammate came to Zetterberg's defense.

And on March 29 at New York, the Islanders targeted Justin Abdelkader, one of the grittiest Wings and, at the time, their hottest scorer. First, Matt Martin charged and boarded Abdelkader. No Wing came to his aid, but Wings TV announcer Mickey Redmond shouted for a penalty that wasn't called.

Next, Cal Clutterbuck shoved Abdelkader through the door at the end of the New York bench. No Wing came to his aid. Later, Detroit's Teemu Pulkkinen skated by the Wings bench with his head down.

Wham! Clutterbuck pasted him into the boards like a bug on a windshield. You couldn't tell on TV if any Wing gave Clutterbuck even a dirty look. Will Holland and his scouts look to draft and/or trade for muscle that fits the 21st century NHL template?

Don't count on it. Holland said the Wings' long-term vision took form in the mid-1990s when coach Scotty Bowman put together a team led by the "Russian Five."

It continued in the following decade under captain Nicklas Lidstrom and several other Swedish players. Their top European scout, Stockholm-based Hakan Andersson, was recently profiled in Sports Illustrated as a master of his craft who is highly influential in selecting the Wings' prospects.

The Wings were one of the progressive teams to invest early in European talent. On many nights, at least half the players in uniform are from Europe.

Holland, in the first year of a new four-year contract, said it is unwise to change team-building philosophies suddenly after so much success.

That's one of the reasons his players like him.

"He doesn't panic," goalie Howard said. "When everyone's thinking the sky is falling, he's cool. He thinks everything through before he makes a decision."

Jimmy Devellano, the Red Wings senior vice president who hired Holland as a scout and promoted him up the ranks, says Holland has the full support of the franchise. (Mike and Marian Ilitch, who own the team, did not respond to a request for comment).

"I'm very, very, very, very proud of Ken," Devellano said. "It's a team being rebuilt on the fly. He's won three Stanley Cups. He's had great stability."

When asked about Holland's cordial relationships with almost everyone in hockey, Devellano replied: "Some people try to get respect at the league level with a lot of mouth and bluster. He's not a gossip. Ken doesn't operate that way."

Nill — a former Wings player who worked as Holland's assistant until 2013 — said Holland "is in control of his emotions. He's analytical. He's learned to come down and listen." Devellano said Holland's "inner sides rumble. He gets nervous. But it doesn't bubble out. That's to his credit."

Tom Wilson, a top business-side executive in the Ilitch hierarchy, said Holland is "relentlessly optimistic. I've never seen him get down. People feed off you and so he passes on the energy. He's so creative. He's like a tornado. He's one of those brilliant people who have a way of making complex concepts easy to understand."

Another general manager from the Wings' system — Tampa Bay's Yzerman — recently said he learned a lot by working under Holland before leaving Detroit.

"I learned this from Kenny in Detroit — a general manager has to be a presence, has to be on top of his team, just to be there, has to make sure everything is OK," Yzerman said. "Because there's always something coming up."

Holland can be seen in coach Mike Babcock's office after almost every game, win or lose. The door is usually open, and Holland sits quietly against a table or desk, listening and nodding.

One of Holland's immediate critical issues may be hiring a coach to replace Babcock, who, after 10 seasons in Detroit, will become an unrestricted free agent after the season and has led Team Canada to two Olympic gold medals.

Among the teams thought to be interested are the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose uniform logo resembles the Canadian flag. Babcock, from Saskatoon, is patriotic.

He has refused throughout the season to discuss his coming contract negotiations with Holland.

Although usually quick to respond to any question, Holland recently paused and chose his words carefully when a caller asked him about Babcock on Ron Cameron's Sunday night radio show on 92.7 FM.

Holland's sigh could be heard through his cellphone and the radio signal.

"We're going to give it our best to keep him here," Holland said of Babcock. "I'm hopeful we'll find a way to keep him in Detroit."

If not, Babcock's replacement might come from the same Grand Rapids Griffins farm team that feeds so many drafted players to the Wings. The coach, Jeff Blashill, is finishing his third year there and has coached a major college team at Western Michigan University. He also worked for the Wings as Babcock's assistant.

"Jeff is an NHL coach in the making," Holland said. "We ripped up his contract and gave him a new three-year contract with a nice raise. I think Jeff Blashill is in a great spot."

Holland's player development philosophy — marinate players in the minor leagues — may also apply to Blashill. It's better for young players to stay an extra year or two in the American Hockey League, Holland says, than to rush them to the NHL where their confidence can be shattered if they lose the trust of their coach.

Abdelkader, reflecting on that approach, said Holland refers to those players as "over-ripe," which is better than picking fruit before it is ready.

Another major role for Holland is the legislative movement to change the regular-season's five-minute overtime format from four skaters against four skaters to three against three. (During regulation time, it is five on five).

Jim Rutherford, general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, said Holland has led this push among general managers for years and finally convinced them to support it during their March meetings in Florida.

Holland argued successfully that about 60 percent of overtime games end in shootouts and that the number could be reduced to 40 percent if free-wheeling stars could show off their skills in greater space.

If the players' union and the league owners sign off, it could take effect next season. Just by coincidence, the change would most benefit teams like Detroit, with highly skilled skaters, passers, and snipers like Tomas Tatar of Slovakia, Gustav Nyquist of Sweden, and Pulkkinen of Finland.

Holland's political style blends his franchise's stature with with his longevity and reputation for progressive thinking, according to some of his colleagues.

One is Darcy Regier, the assistant general manager of the Arizona Coyotes, who worked on issues alongside Holland for years when Regier ran the Buffalo Sabres.

"Kenny has input and influence," Regier said. "He tends to look at the big picture, outside the box. He is insightful and forward-thinking."

Another friend and colleague broke it down more simply.

"Everybody knows that goalies are smarter than everybody else," said Rutherford, who, like Holland, is a former Wings goalie but played many more games for Detroit. "And people once thought goalies were crazy."

Jim Lites, another friend formerly with the organization and current president of the Dallas Stars, had the same role with the Wings when he was married to Denise Ilitch, daughter of Mike and Marian.

Lites said Holland charms people by telling good stories and remaining approachable to everyone.

"Some guys have that ability," Lites said. "He loves to laugh. He is witty and self-deprecating. He compliments everybody else."

More available to the news media than most professional general managers (especially in Detroit), Holland says, "I do my wee little part and let our fan base know what we're trying to accomplish."

The Wings have accomplished plenty, but the Red Wings that Holland has built are a far cry, temperamentally, from the brand of hockey that formed his early career.

Back then, it was one for all and all for one with a feeling of family. Holland's wife, Cindi, was visibly pregnant with their son Brad, the eldest of their four children, in 1981 when Ken still played in the minors. Cindi attended a game, her son said, and became enraged when a foe bumped her husband behind the net and got ejected for it.

She rushed downstairs and stood outside the opposing locker room at intermission until an opposing player — noting her condition and wishing to be considerate — said "Can I help you, ma'am?"

Yes, she said. Tell your teammate my husband better not be injured.

Perhaps they could use a little more of that spirit now.

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