I come to bury Ken Holland, not to praise him.
When the news broke that the Edmonton Oilers had hired away recently pushed-out Red Wings GM Ken Holland, if I’m to be honest, my first thought was to scoff. Like many Detroit fans, I’ve long adhered to the notion that the game has passed Holland by, that he’s not capable of operating in the salary-cap world like he did beforehand.
But as the hours ticked onward, I gave it more careful consideration. Ken Holland is not an idiot. As we all know, it is entirely possible to fail upwards in this world. Just ask the current occupant of the White House. But I do not believe Holland is one of those people. He moved up in the organization over time, cutting his teeth like you would expect a prospective GM to, in scouting.
Now, it’s certainly true that Holland was surrounded for years by some of the best minds in hockey. He had some truly good fortune to have Scotty Bowman around both as a coach and advisor, he had Hakan Andersson and Jim Nill, two men who have few peers in their realms. But a smart man surrounds himself with smart people. Holland may have done this to a fault, in that the other men got a lot of well-deserved credit, but they may have siphoned away some that Holland himself had earned.
Then Steve Yzerman came upstairs after his career, and seemed to be the man being groomed to replace Holland. And therein lies the rub. It was clear Stevie was going to be running a team soon, and fans were sure it would be the Wings. When Steve left to join the Lightning, it felt like a missed opportunity, but in general, fans seemed happy for Steve that he was getting a shot, reasoning it would be years still before Holland would likely be done, and fresh off success with many pieces signed to long-term deals, there ultimately wasn’t a place for the Captain to hang around if he wanted the big chair.
Even as the team started to backslide, it wasn’t a culture of “Holland must go.” Detroit fans didn’t turn on Holland until word leaked of ownership’s intentions that predated Yzerman’s departure. For those who do not know, it has been widely reported that the organization wanted Holland to move aside, get kicked upstairs so that Yzerman could take over as GM, and Holland refused. The moment those reports started coming out, he was done. Public opinion was never going to be on his side again, and every move he made would be scrutinized far more than before.
This scrutiny was deserved, as Holland has doled out no-trade clauses like they were candy(Tomas Vanek? Really?), making it nearly impossible to get out of the salary cap hell that the team suddenly was in. The work to drag along the playoff streak had ramifications, and those are still being felt as the team is still burdened with some bad contracts(Frans Nielsen) for guys who should be long gone(Mike Green). Yzerman will have to clean this up.
However, it is only fair to allow Holland some credit for getting good hauls of draft picks in recent years’ trades. The Red Wings aren’t lucky enough to have Jack Hughes fall in their laps, but that happens. If you’d asked Jimmy Devellano and Mike Ilitch who they wanted most in the 1983 draft, they’d have told you Pat Lafontaine, he of the exemplary skill and concussion problems that derailed his career. What they got was Yzerman. Sometimes these things work out.
Steve Yzerman will inevitably get the credit when the team rebounds, and he will be due a great deal of it. But Holland didn’t leave the cupboard bare by any means, and it is important the Red Wings fans remember that, myself included. I’ve been begging for his departure, but now with it in the rear view, I can see that Holland still has some skill for the job. I would just advise Edmonton to make sure he’s judicious with those no-trades.