Ken Holland tries to navigate an off-season of unease in Hockeytown

Ken Holland addresses the media at the Hockeytown Winter Festival press conference at Comerica Park. (Dave Reginek/DRW)

By Dave Waddell – 

It’s hard to know if Detroit Red Wings’ general manager Ken Holland is familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “If”, which starts with the virtues of keeping one’s head while all around are losing theirs.

With Wings’ fans clearly feeling unease about their team having seen Nick Lidstrom, Brad Stuart and Jiri Hudler leave and Detroit coming up empty in the hunt for big-name free agents, Holland might find some comfort in Kipling’s prose.

However, halfway through the summer, and with no one of consequence left out there in free agency, Holland is getting a true test of his faith in a system of team building heavily influenced by the New England Patriots.

Simply, Holland believes in a system of slotting players’ values into salary bands. Fit the band’s parameters and the Wings are interested. When value and the monetary band gets out of sync, Detroit’s not interested.

The poem “If” was used in the special Original 6 opening video the Red Wings played during the 2010-11 season.

But it’s not like the Wings are averse to big salaries.

Their offers to Ryan Suter and Zack Parise were both north of $7 million per season, but again the value fit the dollars.

However, $7 million for a player with the baggage of Alex Semin or nearly $6 million for defenseman Matt Carle were simply never going to happen in Detroit. Not only were the salaries out of line for perceived value, but the Wings’ front office wasn’t enamored with the games of either player.

It wasn’t a case of missing out; it was that Detroit wasn’t seriously interested like they were with Suter and Parise.

How Holland navigates the rest of the summer is where he’s going to earn his salary.

He’s clearly playing for time on a few fronts.

Certainly Detroit is interested in Shane Doan, but not at $7.5 million per season for four years. Again, the value doesn’t fit the dollars.

Whether that price is illusionary, as Doan’s agent claims, will soon be revealed.

More realistically, Holland is patiently letting the clock tick down to get a better handle on where the negotiations for a new CBA are headed. The sense is a lower salary cap is coming and teams are going to have to buy out bad contracts on some useful players or dump others to get down to the reduced cap ceiling.

The other aspect of the waiting game that has borne fruit repeatedly for Holland in past summers is the strategy of letting unsigned free agents get nervous as the calendar pages begin to flip through August while they’re still homeless.

That’s precisely how the Wings landed Dan Cleary, Patrick Eaves, and Mikael Samuelsson in his first tour with Detroit.

“I don’t think we need a whole bunch of guys,” Holland said. “I think if we can get one more player…

“We’re done in goal and we’ve got a lot of pieces up front. With the loss of Lidstrom and the loss of Stuart we’re not as deep as we have been in the past, but the two players that are going to replace them are Brendan Smith and Kyle Quincey.

“It’s not like we lost two guys and we don’t have any players.”

Of course patience isn’t what the Wings’ faithful want to see.

The excitement of sports is in the action and certainly the likes of Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren can claim that title in the NHL.

Holmgren has shown he isn’t afraid to create offer sheets (Shea Weber), trading young stars (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) or making risky signings.

But for all the fireworks, Holmgren’s moves have resulted in Weber staying in Nashville, Richards and Carter helping Los Angeles win the Stanley Cup and the Flyers being left with goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s horrible contract and the Flyers being tight against the salary cap.

What may rescue the Flyers’ situation is precisely the same thing the Wings are counting on – the rise of their young, drafted talent.

“We’re in a cap world,” Holland said. “We’re moving some younger people in.

“If we’re not moving younger people in, we’re going backwards. Brendan Smith has to play. Gustav Nyquist has to have an opportunity. Jimmy Howard is 27. We signed Jonas Gustavsson and he’s 28. Darren Helm is 25.

“Those players have to be a part of where we’re going.”

Realistically, Holland is also keeping an eye on the future where he sees some of his own key players, goalie Jimmy Howard, Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary next year, and Pavel Datsyuk in a couple of seasons, become UFAs.

Detroit currently has a touch over $13-million in cap space with 23 players signed.

With that type of purchasing power and flexibility, Holland remains confident he can get something done. It almost certainly will be the acquisition of another defenseman to bolster the top four.

“I don’t because I field calls,” said Holland of whether Detroit has slipped down the NHL rankings of desirable teams.

“We might not always be No. 1, but we were one of two teams that Ryan Suter met with. The other thing is, once you make those types of decisions, you’re out of the game for a decade.

“We’re not going to have major announcements this year, next year and the year after. The league doesn’t work like that.

“I’m confident that at some point in time, and it might be next year, that the history, the tradition, the commitment of our ownership and the passion of the Red Wing fans is going to all add up to us bringing a player of significance here.”