Detroit Red Wings, 1997-present
Central Division Titles, 1998-1999, 2000-2004, 2005-2009, 2010-2011
President’s Trophies, 2001-2002, 2003-2004, 2005-2006, 2007-2008
Playoff Appearances: 1998-2013
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1998, 2002, 2008-2009
Stanley Cup Victories: 1998, 2002, 2008
After 15 seasons of sterling effort, Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland is only 60 plus points away from becoming the greatest general manager in NHL history (according to my rating system).
He is presently the greatest general manager of the 21st century (leading his nearest competitor by 47 points based on my calculations). He is also the greatest general manager of the 2000s (his decade performance was the fourth greatest of all time according to my rating system—no other NHL GM came close to him in terms of excellence during the decade).
As of today he is the second best active GM in the NHL in terms of career value (he is only four points behind the leader whose name will be revealed next week). He is presently the fourth best GM in terms of Average Season Rating (ASR) which measures quality of performance (between Vancouver’s Mike Gillis and Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero). Actually for a time Holland was the best active GM in terms of ASR but the fact that the Wings have only earned 9 plus points in the last two seasons has dragged down Holland’s ASR (and that is also the reason why Holland is only the eighth best GM of the 2010s between San Jose’s Doug Wilson and Philadelphia’s Paul Holmgren).
Still, Ken Holland has the fifth best career ASR among all NHL GMs with at least five years of service. According to my rating system only seven NHL GMs have ASRs of +10.00 or better and Holland is one of them (Ray Shero, Irving Grundman, Pierre Lacroix, and Mike Gillis are the others and the remaining two will be revealed in the weeks to come).
Ken Holland was a goaltender from Western Canada who was good enough to merit being drafted in the 12th round of the 1975 Amateur draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Holland only played four games in the NHL; spending most of his playing career in the AHL affiliate of the Hartford Whalers.
In 1983 he was traded to Detroit Red Wings AHL affiliate. Two years later he retired as a player.
Holland wanted to remain in the game and he began working with the Red Wings as a scout.
Jim Devellano who was the GM of the Red Wings at the time tells the story about how he hired Holland in his memoirs, “I was looking for a Western Canada scout and Bill Dineen (who was coaching the Wings AHL affiliate) highly recommended this young man for the job…I had some concerns about Ken Holland at the time…I was concerned that he didn’t have any real experience as a scout and I was wondered if I had the desire to become a scout? Bill told me not to worry about that, as he knew Ken very well from his time in Adirondack. He told me he was smart, that he knew the game, and that he would stake his job as a coach on Ken’s hiring.”
Just as Bill Torrey took Jim Devellano under his wing and taught him everything he knew about managing an NHL team (which was a great deal); so, too, did Jim Devellano take Ken Holland under his wing and teach him that same wisdom. Holland moved from scout to director of amateur scouting, all the while showing the brilliance that would make him the great GM he is today.
In 1997, when Jim Devellano stepped down as the Wings GM, Ken Holland was heir apparent. Detroit had just won its first Stanley Cup in 42 years. The challenge for Holland was to maintain what had already been built: a powerhouse that would dominate the NHL for the next twelve years.
Holland’s first amateur draft was undistinguished but in the years that followed, Holland demonstrated a keen eye for amateur talent: drafting Pavel Datsyuk in 1998; Henrik Zetterberg in 1999; Niklas Kronwall in 2000; Jimmy Howard in 2003; Johan Franzen in 2004; and Justin Abdelkader in 2005. All of these men form part of the central core of the Red Wings today.
Holland could also make shrewd trades: acquiring Chris Chelios in 1999 and stealing Dominik Hasek from Buffalo in 2001. Both men were instrument in the Wings 2002 Cup win.
With the Illitch’s family money to burn, Ken Holland has, over the years, sweetened the pot by signing key free agents like Luc Robataille, Brett Hull, Curtis Joseph, Chris Osgood, Brian Rafalski, and Marian Hossa, to name a few. Detroit became the team to play for; a class organization that was generous and loyal to its players and employees.
Holland not only had an eagle eye for playing talent. He is also a master at spotting coaching talent. After the retirement of Scotty Bowman in 2002, Holland hired Wings assistant coach Dave Lewis to succeed him. Lewis got good regular season work with the Wings but failed to win the Stanley Cup. In 2005 Holland pulled off one of the greatest coaching hires in NHL history when he took advantage of Anaheim’s letting Mike Babcock leave as head coach. Holland promptly hired Babcock as head coach of the Red Wings and since then has watched as Mike Babcock has become (by my calculations) the greatest NHL head coach of the 21st century.
In 2009 Sports Illustrated named Ken Holland the second best sports executive of the 2000s (second only to Scott Pioli of the New England Patriots in the NFL).
The 2010s have not been kind to Holland and the Red Wings. They remain winners and playoff contenders but the team is aging and in transition. Key players have retired and the team is slowly integrating young rookies into the mix.
Still, the Wings came closer than any other team in defeating the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2013 playoffs.
Also, Ken Holland has passed along his own managerial knowledge. Jim Nill, who had served as his assistant, has now become the GM of the Dallas Stars.
The challenge that remains for Holland is whether he can bring the Wings back to Stanley Cup glory? If he can do this and quickly then that means he will eventually become the greatest general manager in NHL history that much more quickly as well.
Given Ken Holland’s brilliance, it’s not an impossible task.
(My next column will feature the sixth greatest NHL GM of all time.)