Ken Holland became the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings in the summer of 1997. Thirteen Stanley Cups have been awarded since then; his Red Wings have more than anyone else with three. He’s managed to keep a team that was old when he inherited it competitive.
He’s also managed – despite picks being either low or traded away – to keep restocking his team.
One of the reasons the Red Wings have been successful is due to their development program. There are a host of other factors, but Detroit’s knack for having NHL-ready players just sitting in the system, ready to be plugged into the lineup, is second to none. A big part of the reason is their unique outlook on player development, an outlook formed in large part by Holland’s years as a player in the American Hockey League.
Holland’s take was quoted in Behind the Moves, the book on NHL managers by Jason Farris:
I spent nine years in the American Hockey League, and what impacted [me] there as I got into my third, fourth, fifth year of pro, was that I was a veteran American league player who was kept around to provide leadership and to be a good player to help the team win. Hartford would bring all these kids in – and the organizations that I was with in Detroit and Hartford, they were struggling organizations. The minute a young kid would play well for six weeks, he’d get [called] up and [provide] a little bit of spark [to the parent club,] and then six weeks later they would [be sent back] down and they were just beaten up. The league was too tough. They couldn’t make a difference. It took you another few weeks, few months to get those players back to where they [had been] confidence-wise and playing-wise. So from a player-development standpoint – a personal-development standpoint – [I learned that] people are ready when they’re ready and [I learned about] the importance of building a foundation.
Holland’s fifth professional season was 1980-81; he earned one NHL call-up with Hartford that year and played 47 games for the Binghamton Whalers in the AHL. Looking at some of the players on the team that year, it’s easy to see how Holland arrived at the conclusion he did.
Ray Allison, the 19th overall pick in 1979, played 64 NHL games as a rookie pro. He played just six as a sophomore before being sent away in a trade. Jean Savard, the 19th overall pick in 1977, played 42 of his 43 career NHL games in his first two professional seasons. Jim Hamilton, the 30th overall pick in 1977, played 25 NHL games as a rookie pro. He’d never play 25 NHL games in a season again. Stuart Smith, the 39th overall pick in 1979, played half of his career NHL games as a rookie pro. On and on it went: John Baby played 24 of his 26 career NHL games as a rookie pro, Jeff Brubaker played 43 games before being waived; he’d play just seven over the next three seasons before getting another NHL shot, and there were similar stories for young skaters such as Mickey Volcan, Bennett Wolf, Dave Debol, and Bernie Johnston.
Even the one guy on the team who went on to have a lengthy NHL career – Ray Neufeld – was promoted far too early. He played 60 NHL games over his first two seasons as a pro (doing not much), spent most of his third year in the minors, and then finally emerged as an NHL’er a year later.
That’s a long list of players that the NHL organization saw something in at a very young age. They got promoted too early, and in most cases never lived up to the potential that earned them NHL jobs at a young age. Would things have been different had they been brought along slowly?
Holland clearly believes so. The Red Wings under his watch have become well known for their patience with prospects, keeping them in the minors until such time as it’s impossible for them to stay there any longer. Henrik Zetterberg played in the Olympics before he played for Detroit. Pavel Datsyuk played four full seasons in Russia’s best league and played in the World Championships before his rookie season in the NHL. Jiri Hudler spent three years in the AHL and picked up 96 points in a single season before the Red Wings let him make the NHL full-time. Brendan Smith, in his fifth post-draft season, probably would have been a top-four defender on the Oilers this season; he played just 14 games with Detroit.
Some of that has to do with depth. Most of it has to do with organizational philosophy.
The Oilers take the opposite view. Magnus Paajarvi made the Oilers out of camp last year and spent the whole season (his first in North America, at the age of 19) with the team. This year, he split time between the NHL and the minors on an almost 50/50 basis. Anton Lander played 56 NHL games this season, also his first in North America, at the age of 20. He picked up six points and isn’t really a lock for the NHL roster next year. Sam Gagner made the Oilers as an 18-year old, posting 49 points (he hasn’t matched that total since) and a minus-21 rating.
It’s not that the Oilers haven’t had success by making guys wait, either. Jordan Eberle is perhaps the best example – many expected him to make the Oilers at 19, but he didn’t put up massive totals in training camp and Pat Quinn sent him back to junior. He had a brilliant season, scoring 50 goals in 57 WHL games, leading Canada at the World Juniors, and then blowing the gates off in a late-season cameo with Springfield of the AHL. Quinn failed to impress most observers with his performance as the team’s coach, but he made the right decision there. Not only has Eberle developed brilliantly, but as a bonus the Oilers will get next season under his entry-level contract, as opposed to being forced to negotiate a much pricier contract with him this summer.
The Eberle decision should be the organizational standard: hold players back until they’re ready. With 74 points in 61 WHL games entering 2009-10, Eberle wasn’t a must-promote candidate. With 106 points in 57 WHL games entering 2010-11, he was.
The Oilers have been rewarded for their patience with Eberle. They’ve reaped only trouble thanks to their impatience with Paajarvi, Lander and Gagner. Maybe it’s time they start taking Holland’s view on their prospects.
This week by Jonathan Willis
- Team Canada takes shape – and is looking pretty good
- Anton Lander: Putting the genie back in the bottle
- Milan Lucic and drafting "Coke Machines"
- Tyler Pitlick’s future with the Oilers
- Does the Presidents’ Trophy matter?
- Raffi Torres suspended 25 games for his hit on Marian Hossa
- Are the Oilers to small down the middle with Gagner and Nugent-Hopkins?
- Will Nail Yakupov’s reckless style lead to injury?
- Goaltending: There’s no sure thing and Pittsburgh/Philadelphia proves it
- Ryan Smyth isn’t a third-line winger in Edmonton