Q&A: Red Wings GM Holland on Babcock, Blashill, playoffs

Watch as Alexei Emelin catches Dylan Larkin with a rough hit near the boards.

MONTREAL — Ahead of his team’s 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday, Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland sat down for an interview with Sportsnet.

Holland expanded on the pressure to extend Detroit’s streak of consecutive playoff appearances to 25 seasons, his relationship with former head coach Mike Babcock, and his evaluation of new coach Jeff Blashill.

SN: What’s the tension level here at this juncture with so few games remaining and such a slim margin for error?

KH: We’re in playoff mode I would say. Probably been in playoff mode for at least the last 10 games or so. If you look at the standings, probably five or six teams in the East have clinched and then, realistically, there’s probably one too many teams for the remaining spots. So it makes for big games for our team down the stretch.

SN: On a personal level, are you driven to avoid the narrative — fair or unfair — that if your team misses the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, it’ll be because Babcock is no longer coach?

KH: I’ve been in the business so long. I’m aware what’s out there from a media standpoint. I’m a little older and I’m aware about what’s on Twitter and Instagram and all these things.

I guess my message would be — I don’t know that you can pause to think about those things. Unless somebody’s asking me, I don’t go around on an everyday basis thinking, ‘what if we miss the playoffs?’
Bottom line, I certainly want to make the playoffs for a 25th straight year. It’s great for our franchise, it’s a tremendous accomplishment, but I don’t really look at all 25 years together. I don’t think making the playoffs in 1997-98 has anything to do with this year. I think you look at it each individual year and then the years start to add up.

Certainly if we miss the playoffs, we’re all going to be incredibly disappointed because, when the year started, that was one of our team’s goals. I think any time you don’t reach your goals you’re disappointed.

SN: Knowing the kind of job Blashill has done in his first season, how would keeping the streak alive allow him to emerge from this massive shadow Babcock cast as a part of the Red Wings’ foundation for 10 years?

KH: No doubt it would. I think back to my first year as manager in 1997-98 and we had won the Stanley Cup the previous year. Fortunately we won the Cup in ’98.

I’m sure Jeff, when he got into this business, understood he was following one of the best coaches in the NHL and certainly a coach that had an incredible amount of success in his 10-year run in Detroit. But I think people race to judgment based on a small body work, and I think Jeff Blashill is going to coach a lot of years in this league. But I also think he understands that when the year’s over, we all get judged. That’s the nature of the business that we’re in; we’re all going to get judged on what happened this year.

I think Jeff’s a tremendous coach. I think he’s a done a great job, not only this year but certainly the last three years in Grand Rapids. The impact he’s had on developing the players that have come through is big.

SN: Pavel Datsyuk is such a big part of your leadership group. Are you surprised how well your team held together in his absence at the start of the season?

KH: Pavel had a great year last year. He had 65 points in 63 games and if he played 15-18 more games he’d have been in the hunt for the scoring title.

After the ankle surgery, he missed the first 15 games this season and it probably took him another 15 games to get going.

We felt with the additions of Brad Richards and Mike Green, certainly through training camp and early on with the addition of Dylan Larkin, that we had depth. I think we got off to a decent start and we actually played pretty well up until the All-Star break.

I think since the All-Star break we’ve been close to .500. We haven’t really been able to sustain anything since then. For the most part we’ve been healthy — we lost Niklas Krownwall for a period of time but everybody loses players. Just look at Montreal and the players they’ve lost. But we just haven’t been able to put streaks together of winning eight out of 10. We seem to be 5-5, 6-4 every 10-game segment.

SN: Why is that?

KH: We haven’t been as good defensively as we were. We were hovering around 10th in the league in defence right around the break and now we’re 17th-18th.

In a league where it’s tough to score, it gets difficult if you don’t defend as well. I also think we were a top-10 team in scoring last year, but we haven’t been as good on the power play this year.

SN: Do you think Babcock is pulling for your team to keep the playoff streak alive?

KH: Beyond our working relationship, we’re friends. His wife and my wife are good friends. I would think he’s pulling for us. I would pull for Mike.

We spent 10 years together. It was 10 wonderful years. We made the playoffs every year. Mike challenged me, and I’d like to think I challenged Mike. We were always trying to figure out ways to make our team better and make the team accountable.

He put in lots of structure, he had a tremendous work ethic. You can obviously see he’s doing the same thing in Toronto now.

It was 10 fabulous years. And I consider him one of my best friends in the business. Mike’s fingerprints are all over our organization. There’s a lot of good things still left behind that he had a lot to do with.

I look forward to seeing Mike on Saturday when we play in Toronto.