- Scott Burnside, NHL
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We happened to be talking to the general manager of a struggling NHL club this week, and he related a recent conversation he'd had with Detroit GM Ken Holland.
One word kept coming up in the conversation with Holland, the GM recalled: patience.
Patience, patience, patience.
It's this methodology of patience before panic that has kept the Wings in good stead for most of the past decade and a half. And if history is any judge, patience likely will see them out to the other side of what has been an up-and-down season, one that continues Thursday night in Edmonton against an Oilers team that is likewise desperate to find its identity. After a strong start, the Oilers have lost three in a row and scored just twice during that period. Still, expectations were low to begin with for the youthful Oilers. The same cannot be said of the Red Wings.
We caught up with Holland in the middle of the Wings' western Canada road trip this week, and it wasn't long before the idea of patience came up again. Instead of taking snapshots of how a team or a player is performing, Holland said he likes to take a step back. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, he told ESPN.com, that's when you know where you're at.
"It's hard to move up after that," Holland said. "You sort of start to move as a pack."
Does that mean Holland's sitting back with his feet on his desk, especially after his Wings overcame a 2-0 first-period deficit and the pulling of starting netminder Chris Osgood to defeat Vancouver 5-4 for their first road win of the season earlier this week?
"We've had some curves," Holland acknowledged. "We're going to have to grind."
The first month of the regular season has been filled with blown leads, injuries and underachievement as the Wings started the season with two losses to St. Louis in Stockholm. In both games, they held two-goal leads and looked ready to blow the games open before hiccuping. They've also seen leads disappear in recent days against Colorado and Phoenix.
Last season, the Wings scored a league-high 295 goals. For purposes of comparison, the league's best regular-season team, San Jose, scored 38 fewer goals. If the Wings played 45 minutes of good hockey on most nights, it was good enough to win.
"We could outplay our mistakes," Holland explained.
But with the departure of lineup regulars Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler, Chris Chelios and Tomas Kopecky, and the early loss of Johan Franzen to a left knee injury that required surgery, the Wings don't have that luxury every night. When they play 45 minutes instead of 60 now, it usually costs them a point, maybe two, as their 4-4-2 record suggests.
The Vancouver game Tuesday night illustrated both the yin and yang of the Wings' situation this season.
Osgood gave up two goals on four shots and was yanked just 7:05 into the game, but Jimmy Howard played well in relief, and the Wings' top guns got on track for once with Pavel Datsyuk scoring his first two goals of the season and adding an assist.
Howard's performance was important given that he will be counted on to play 30 or so games this season. Although the Wings had a more-than-capable backup last season in Ty Conklin, a netminder who would have been happy to stay in Detroit, Holland and the management team decided it was time to give Howard a shot. They had invested time and money in developing the former collegiate star, and now they'll find out whether that investment pays off.
To give up on Howard would have run contrary to the Wings' philosophy, which is to let players take their time developing in the minors and then let them play in the NHL.
Moments like Tuesday's relief effort are small parts of building confidence in Howard so he can do just that. He also is expected to start Thursday in Edmonton.
Holland admits the offense has been troublesome -- it ranks 16th in the league, although the power play is an acceptable eighth -- but he remains optimistic the team will turn a corner.
"We've got some players who aren't playing as well as they can," Holland said. "But I like the makeup of our team. I think we're real close to playing good. We're in the process of finding out who we are."
The GM insists, for instance, that he's not concerned about Datsyuk or regular linemate Henrik Zetterberg, who has scored just once in nine games.
"I believe that over the course of 80 games, players find their own water levels," Holland said. "Every player can play real good or real bad for four to six games."
Will Datsyuk and Zetterberg be at the 90-point level? Maybe not. But they are too good not to be point-a-game players, Holland said. "They're too good, and I've watched them for too long," he said.
As for the players who replaced the departing free agents, they are off to slow starts as well, but Holland insisted Jason Williams, Patrick Eaves and Todd Bertuzzi will be helping the club by the end of the year. Bertuzzi assisted on the winner Tuesday, although it was just his fourth point of the season (one goal, three assists). Williams has just two goals in 10 games, and Eaves has zero points in just four games.
As the first month of the regular season draws to a close, Holland knows there are lots of people fleeing the Red Wings' bandwagon.
"Yeah, but I understand," he said.
Still, Holland has seen that movie before. He recalled 2001, when the Wings were knocked out by Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs. The obituaries were written then. All the Wings did was win a Cup in 2002, go to the Western Conference finals in 2007, win a Cup in 2008 and return to the Stanley Cup finals in 2009.
What was it the man said about patience?
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Detroit's slow start has led some critics to ask whether this is the beginning of a Red Wings decline. But the team is banking on its methodology of patience before panic to save the day again.