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November 12, 2002 - Wings GM: 'I think the team can be better'
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Wings GM: 'I think the team can be better'

By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine

As Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings made the customary visit to the White House last Friday. The Wings were greeted by President Bush, who was presented his very own personalized home jersey. (Do you think presidents ever wear those gifts?)

Curtis Joseph
Curtis Joseph's 2.77 GAA is his worst since finishing the 1996-7 season at 2.93.
Anyway, with the Wings' trip to the White House fresh in my mind, I figured it was time to check in with Detroit general manager Ken Holland for a "State of the Champs" address. After all, the Wings have gotten off to an average 7-5-2 start. And as champions, they aren't graded on a curve.

Holland, who has been in power since the summer of 1997, isn't disheartened by the club's inconsistent early-season play, but he's not doing cartwheels around his office, either.

"I wouldn't say I'm thrilled right now," Holland said. "But, I'm not totally unhappy. I think we've played pretty well. But, I think the team can be better."

Clearly, the Wings sport a little different look this season. The most obvious change is behind the bench, where longtime assistant Dave Lewis has replaced the legendary Scotty Bowman. So, of course, we need to know just how the boss thinks the new guy is doing.

"The transition from Scotty to Dave has been pretty smooth," Holland said. "Still, it's a different person with a different approach, so there are some different things to get used to."

Of course, Lewis' job would be much easier if Captain Fantastic Steve Yzerman were in the lineup, instead of rehabbing from offseason knee surgery. Holland reports that Yzerman has been skating occasionally in a sweat suit. Yzerman's doctors tell Holland that his captain is ahead of schedule for someone recovering from the unconventional procedure.

"We have no timetable for him at this time," Holland said. "We should have a better idea of where he's at sometime in mid-to-late December.

"We're optimistic that he can come back, but it's not a given."

While Yzerman slowly works his way back, new No. 1 goalie Curtis Joseph is trying to work his way into the hearts of the Hockeytown faithful.

Through his first 10 games, Joseph is 4-4-2 with a 2.77 goals-against average and an unimpressive .894 save percentage. Acquired as a free agent to replace the retired Dominik Hasek, Joseph is looking for his first Stanley Cup. If he were to complete his mission, Joseph would be the fourth goaltender to win a Cup in Motown since 1997.

Holland, the man who chose Cujo over fellow unrestricted free agent Ed Belfour, figures his new stopper must adjust to his new environment.

"Curtis is going through some of the same things that Dominik did when he first got here last year," said Holland, who tended goal in three games for the Wings in the early 1980s. "A different conference, a little different style of hockey. Plus, it's a different mindset playing for a team like ours that doesn't usually allow a lot of good chances."

"So far, Curtis has been a lot like our team. He's been fine, but I think he could be better."

I wouldn't say I'm thrilled right now. But, I'm not totally unhappy. I think we've played pretty well. But, I think the team can be better.
Ken Holland, Red Wings GM
Holland thinks his defense could be better, too. But with five defenders under the age of 25, he knows he'll have to show a little patience. In recent weeks, the club has been rumored to be interested in signing free agents (and ex-Wings) Steve Duchesne and Jiri Slegr. At this point, though, Holland doesn't seem ready to go that route.

He feels a better overall team game will help young defensemen like Jiri Fischer (22), Maxim Kuznetsov (25), Jessie Wallin (24) and Dmitri Bykov (25), who been sidelined by a shoulder injury.

"We're trying to bring them along," Holland said. "And in the last couple of games (against Boston and Chicago), we've got our goals against down a bit.

"Earlier in the season, we were taking too many penalties and giving up too many goals. But, I think we're slowly improving in these areas."

Holland feels his best players have been Grind Liners Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty, Norris Trophy winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and center Sergei Fedorov, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

"If you took a vote for the Norris Trophy after the first month, Nick would probably win again," Holland said. "He's been real good."

Holland said there aren't any contract talks going on with Fedorov's representatives right now, however, he would like to re-sign the Russian All-Star. And from what Holland hears, Fedorov would like to stay in Detroit.

"Last November, we re-signed Lidstrom," Holland explained. "In July, we re-signed Chris Chelios. Two years ago, in March, we re-signed Brendan Shanahan. So, we've always found a way, at different times and in different ways, to keep our players. And it's our intention to do what we can to keep Sergei with the Wings."

As for things around the Western Conference, Holland feels the level of competition is closer than it's ever been.

"Last year, we were able to get off to a strong start and break away from the pack," Holland says. "This season, I don't think anyone is going to break away. And, I don't think anyone is going to get 116 points, like we did last year.

"I think it will probably take between 105 and 108 points to win the conference. And I could see the top 10 teams separated by just 12 or so points."

In the end, Holland is confident his team will be ready to defend its title come April. If it isn't, the Wings' commander-in-chief won't hesitate to take action. After all, he wouldn't mind another invite to the White House.

E.J. Hradek writes hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com.