Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland on Development

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

  • 24% body fat

    This is the FIST reason why not to worry about Hamilton or Pitlick. 20 years old people. Three more years in the AHL is not going to kill them. As with Gagner he just came off a Dominating Super Series performance and 118 point OHL season in 53 games. Don’t think any one of the three studs did this in their Jr career. In hind site he was rushed, his last junior year and rookie season stated other wise about his ability to play in the NHL at that age.

    • I think he’s a first overall pick and an elite talent, and I don’t have any problem with him making the NHL. I didn’t have a problem with Hall or RNH making it in their first year either.

      The rules are different for those players, IMO.

  • Rama Lama

    Excellent article and I totally agree with u that they should take the same approach with other young players that they took with Eberle..
    I think Hartakainen and Omark have been sheltered fairly well..
    omark perhaps too well..

  • toprightcorner

    I would suggest, in most cases, if your not a top 5 stud pick, that player should play another year in junior. If that player is not head and shoulders above everyone else in that year of junior then they should be looking at at least a full year in the minors. Until they can dominate in the minors, they should not take up a roster spot in the NHL unless it is an unavoidable call up.

    Gagner would have been tough, 5th pick and dominated super series and had a great camp. I can see them trying him in NHL, especially with the NHL roster at that time.

    MPS should have had a full year in the AHL his first year unless he dominated after first half of season. I completely blame management for his backslide this year. He was depicted as the 3 kids of the future next to Hall and Eberle. Those two moved in together and Magnus was left on his own instead of moving in with another player. They had Horcoff as a mentor and went to his place for dinner before every home game.

    Paajarvi what left to flail in the wind on his own as the team focused on Hall and Ebs from day 1. How was he to succeed being put in the same light as them and then not given the same organizational attention or help. Of course it killed his confidence. Management screwed it up and delayed him at least 2 years. He should be in the AHL to start this season to show his dominance or if he struggles with the big club he could be done.

    He played better with OKC but not near a dominant player that he should be before making the jump.

    Lander should never played more than 8 games in the NHL this year and I think should spend a full year in the minors next year and play 18 min a night instead of 8 with the Oil.

    Those are the guys you build and mould to come to the big club for when the young studs are on their second contract and the older guys start to leave.

    If the Oil were lucky enough to land Schultz, I think he should start with the Barons before starting with the big club. Sure he is supposed to be a top 4 dman right away, but I don’t care what anyone says, college is a long way from the NHL. Better that then be sent down after 40 games of struggling.

    This needs to be a GM decision and not a coach decision IMO, have a philosophy and stick with it, no questions asked.

    • Wax Man Riley

      I sent your post to “GM” Steve Tambellini. He is going to take some time to read it, then take some more time to assess it, then take some time to think about his assessment, then he is going to consult with daddy KLowe to see if he is allowed to assess it a bit longer.

      And then he will bring up the next rookie.

      • Hey you forgot to mention that assessing what he was going to say, needed some assessment, since he assesess everything he does frequently……

        That’s why we need to rid ourselves of this pretend GM……..let him lead the way and go to the light on his own!

  • Wax Man Riley

    ↑ I think Hartikainen has been brought along nicely. Omark is what he is. 25 year old PP player. Great AHL option, but not quite enough for the NHL and time running out on his development years.

      • 24% body fat

        JW can you fill me in on this as this is a unique situation. Can Schultz sign a 1 way deal or does it have to be 2 way. Can the 1 way still have him move up an down from the AHL to NHL.

        If it has to be a 2 way ELC than I can see him wanting guaranteed time. If it is a 1 way I can see money having him content in the AHL for part of the season. If it can be a 2 way non ELC than why not sign him with an AHL contract that is equivalent to his NHL contract.

        But yes I agree with you. He signs with a team where he will play in the NHL.

          • 24% body fat


            So Petry-Smid, Whitney-Schultz, Schultz-Sutton, Potter looking in and Tuebert as the call up. Too bad we didn’t know if he was coming here or not. One would think add Nail to the mix would really lure him in. Peckham and Plante need to be traded at the draft to make room for the plethora F(3 amigos) of prospects in the system.

            What ever you can get for them in terms of picks is good.


  • Wax Man Riley

    Is it possible that this change will occur once the League club has actual NHL players on it to justify sending players to the AHL for seasoning? Detroit can do this because they have better options available on the big club. Maybe Tambellini should of recognized this and signed a couple decent veterans for 1-2 years to fill the gap?

  • Taken to the extreme, one could argue with some success that Hall and Nugent-Hopkins (NUUUUGE!, #NugeForCalder), along with Gagner, PRV, Petyry and Lander would have been better off with at least a full year in the AHL gaining muscle mass and experience against bigger, more physical players.

    The thought of how much more solid some of those guys would have been makes my brain hurt.

    • 24% body fat

      Nuge and Gagner would have had to play 2 more years of junior before they would be allowed to play AHL. If they kept up there totals no way they would not have made the NHL right after that. Hall would have had one more year of junior and MPS one more year in Sweden before being AHL eligible.

      Petry is already 24 not much mass left to gain.

      But Lander yes he should have been in the AHL before coming to the NHL. He was not a first round pick, no need to push him ahead of the curve.

      • I would have been very happy to see both Gagner and #NugeForCalder mature in a lower league.

        Yeah you can say that neither had anything to prove but the way Hopkins got batted around this year with his shoulder and all…

        *Looks aimlessly up to the sky, whistles*

  • I think you nicely summarized my biggest concern with this organization. The Lander thing this year had me frustrated to bits. He clearly deserved better than to be the kid who gets run over on the 4th line. Another season or two spent in the SEL/AHL would have done a lot for him, I think. You obviously brought up the Magnus example.

    In fact, my dream at the start of the season was to have Magnus, Omark, and Lander play together as a line in the AHL, through thick and thin. I think the three Swedes would have relished the opportunity and challenge, as well as profited from working together for so long.

    C’est la vie for me, but serious harm to Lander and Magnus, IMO.

  • Shaun Doe

    Jonathan, todays aging stars of the Wings came straight from Europe into the NHL line up (Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg)! The ultra rich Wings at the time had the luxury of plugging all their holes at the NHL level with free agents from small market teams like the Oilers & Flames! These guys learned from the Hull’s, Shanahan’s, Yzerman’s etc etc. I find it very hard to look at ‘the system’ of the Detroit Red Wings without thinking of these circumstances! But times are changing, looks like the true leader of that team will retire this year & Datsyuk & Zetterberg aren’t getting any younger! I personally see them coming apart at the seams much like the Stars & Avs have & it can’t come soon enough for me!

    • Lidstrom, like Fedorov and Yzerman before him is the big question – will they fall off after he leaves?

      Cleary and Datsyuk, at 33, probably have at least 5 years left. Zetterberg, at 31, has more than that. Holmstrom and Bertuzzi aren’t essential personnel.

      But I wouldn’t bank on the Wings imploding just yet. They may, of course, but people have been predicting it since 1998 and it hasn’t happened yet.

  • Patience!Patience!Patience…We hear Oiler management pay loads of lip-service to the Detroit model but there is little evidence they are heeding their own advice.

    Detroit (read Ken Holland) have been so consistent over the last 12-15 yrs they don’t get the high-end draft picks. They have to be patient because they have to develop the later drafted players.

    You can always tell an ’80’s Oiler in management….you just can’t tell him much!

    It’s not the 80’s anymore Kevin. Re-set your watch and your mindset.

  • Some of that has to do with depth. Most of it has to do with organizational philosophy.

    I don’t buy it.

    It’s easy to say “this is my philosophy” when depth doesn’t allow you to play guys anyways. It’s also easy to say when essentially every draft pick you’ve had for 15 years has been a project and everyone knew they would take time. It’s a lot easier telling a 3rd rounder he has to wait a while than a blue chipper.

    • You may not buy that ti’s organizational philosophy for the Red Wings, but there’s absolutely no doubt it is for the Oilers.

      There was no possible argument that the Oilers were forced by lack of depth to bring Anton Lander into the NHL this season.

  • Reg Dunlop

    @ Shaun Doe

    Excellent. Thanks for this!
    Also, the link to racy Paulina Gretzky photos is two thumbs up. Wayne must be one proud papa with such a wholesome daughter. Do you think she has a magnet on a chain to pick up loonies?

  • I would dispute Gagner. The kid has produced reasonable offensive results since he arrived in the league, and it’s important to remember that 40 points is a lot more than it used to be–scoring has been going down year over year, and the rates Gagner has been scoring at has been within range for a second line player. That’s not too bad a resume for a kid who hasn’t hit 25 yet.

    Part of the problem is perception, and on two fronts. One, there’s a psychological assumption that a second line player puts up 50 points. Never mind only a ninety five forwards put up that many points, which seems to suggest fifty points puts you as a borderline first line player (the NHL needs bigger nets and smaller equipment, PRONTO). Second, when you score in your first professional season, it’s expected to be onward, and upward. Gagner was supposed to have at least a couple point per game seasons by now.

    But really, a young man who has shown subtle improvements, filled a role at least reasonably since he got into the league, and you can project as at least a second line centre? I don’t know if as firm an argument for Gagner being rushed could be made as Lander or Paajarvi, unless you hold Gagner to a much higher standard than you ever set for the two swedes.

  • Detroit had the luxury of depth to allow their prospects to develop for more years. The Edmonton Oilers didn’t.

    I would argue even before the 2006 Cup run, the depth in Edmonton was extremely weak and the problem was compounded by poor draft selections.

    IT APPEARS (we shall see) that the lack of depth has finally corrected itself and now the Edmonton Oilers can afford to have prospects develop at a better pace in the AHL or in Europe.

    It also helps in character assessments as Linus Omark clearly demonstrated he was incapable of waiting for his turn, while Haartikanen, VandeVelde, Teubert etc where willing.

    So in years past of course Gagner was going to make the team – we desperately needed a centre, and a selling a rebuild to Oiler fans would be extremely difficult if you didn’t let your No. 1 picks play right away and spark some hype for what is to come.

    Without a doubt they screwed up with Magnus Paajarvi – they got excited on the promotional aspects of introducing the FAB 3 Ebs, Hall, MPS and overlooked the possibility that not all 3 where at the same levels of NHL ready for the sake of the ticket gate.

    I believe if you check comments previous to the 2010 training camp. MPS wasn’t sure he wanted to leave Sweden just yet and it was the Oilers that convinced him to come over. Should have just let him stay.

    Anton Lander did it the right way and did stay the extra year in Sweden and it paid off as he was a more reliable centre with that extra year.

    for 2012-13

    Other than Yakupov, I’d like to see the Oilers slow down the amount of rookies to join the lineup and have prospects dominate the minors and ooze confidence before bringing them to the big club.

  • Blah blah…Holland is god…blah blah Detroit is the greatest…blah blah.

    This stuff is getting old, is Holland sending you guys money everytime you mention his name in reverence? Or are you angling for a job as scout in the Wings orginization?

    Hey read the sports headlines …Detroit is out in 5 and didnt look close to being a contender and now they suddenly look (and are) old so where are these great picks that Ken has in his pocket?

    As for gagner not being developed properly well ihis problem stems from being small and having an inability to win a face-off and extra time in the minors would not have changed his size. Magnus just might be a bust and I know this sounds crazy but just not every damn draftpick makes it in the big leagues and yet it seems to be your mantra Willis that when our drafts dont make it then somehow its always managements fault… right?

  • How many players do you have to see go on to other teams and be productive and helpful to understand the Oilers don’t handle young players well?

    They actually have never been good with young players that aren’t no-brainers. Except maybe when Sather convinced Messier to become what he did. Maybe Eberle as well. And when they do accidentally develop a guy, they like to trade them like Gilbert or Arnott.

  • The reason the Detroit Red Wings are a team ive always liked is because the way they do buisness is so professional. The Red Wings see talent and mold them into what they need to be in order to be successful in their organization. They have a swag about them that is truely great to see.

    Now since the Oil are going to have all this depth with high draft picks etc. its time they start finding players to plug holes until their home grown talent is ready, plain and simple moto. In order for a team to be sucessful they need to have about 10% to 15% change in their lineup from year to year and Detriot finds those players to plug a hole and dont look back.

    Thats a great article to read and Holland should win Gm of the year once every 3 years in my opinion.

  • “How many players do you have to see go on to other teams and be productive and helpful to understand the Oilers don’t handle young players well?”

    Name all these guys …its easy enough to throw that one out and not back it up…I think the Oilers are no worse than any other club….hmmm we got rid of xactly what young talent thats burning up the league? Oh yeah thats right…NONE

    Oh and Detroit is just brilliant ..I seem to remember these guys being bottom feeder before and they will be again.