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HELENE ELLIOTT

Holland makes case for defense

May 27, 2008|Helene Elliott

DETROIT -- No crowd will ever sing the praises of the winning team's general manager, as the fans in Joe Louis Arena chanted "Oz-ie" Monday in tribute to goaltender Chris Osgood's second consecutive shutout in the Stanley Cup final.

If ever a general manager deserved public accolades it's Detroit's Ken Holland, who put together a team that takes its dedication to defense as seriously as its dedication to one another.

The Red Wings toyed with the Pittsburgh Penguins for much of their 3-0 victory Monday, moving to within two victories of ending the season of a team that was supposed to redefine the NHL and put Sidney Crosby's face out front for new fans to embrace.

It's the Red Wings who are the face of the NHL now. Those faces are sweaty and bruised and purple in some places, stitched together in others, but altogether a beautiful sight for fans who like their hockey rugged but rollicking.

The Red Wings will go to Pittsburgh for Game 3 on Wednesday with a 2-0 series lead that gives a new meaning to the word "commanding."

They have stifled Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and every other member of a supposedly stacked Pittsburgh lineup, doing it because of Holland's vision and the clever moves that patched gaping holes that his team had developed before the Red Wings' loss to the Ducks in last season's Western Conference final.

Holland is a former minor league goalie who, paradoxically, hates using precious salary-cap space to pay big bucks to goalies.

He willingly spends money and, if necessary, draft picks, to acquire the right defensemen, as he did in signing Brian Rafalski as a free agent last summer and acquiring Brad Stuart from the Kings in February for second- and fourth-round draft picks.

Rafalski has been brilliant, helping defense partner Nicklas Lidstrom become a finalist to win the Norris Trophy for the sixth time. Stuart -- so close to joining the list of players who had to leave the Kings to win the Cup, as Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake did -- has provided muscle and smarts and is a good complement to the hard-hitting Niklas Kronwall.

That Stuart chipped in a smart goal and a clever assist Monday was a bonus, but one that didn't come from dumb luck.

Building around a strong defense isn't a revolutionary idea. The Ducks did it in winning the Cup last season, spending lavishly on Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. Ducks GM Brian Burke inherited a core of good young talent but remade the entire defense to win the Cup.

"I think it's important to have a strong defense corps," Stuart said. "I think Anaheim played a different style, they tried to intimidate you. And that's their style.

"If you don't have a solid defense corps it will show through this time of year. Defense wins. But it's not just our defensemen. Our forwards are committed and that makes it easier on us too."

Holland said he got to know and like Stuart two years ago, when the defenseman played for Canada at the World Championships and Holland was the team's general manager. He considered several candidates but feels fortunate to have grabbed Stuart.

"We were looking for a dimension of physical play on the back end," Holland said. "Our three big guys are puck movers -- Kronwall, Rafalski and Lidstrom.

"We needed someone who could bring in some size, kill some penalties, eat up 20 minutes and be good enough to make a first pass. . . . He's been a real good fit."

Drafting well and trading judiciously has allowed Holland to cram an extraordinary amount of talent under a $50.3-million salary limit.

"Three guys take up one third of our cap," Holland said. "Lidstrom is 7.5 [million], six on Rafalski and three on Kronwall. But those three, in my opinion, are world-class puck-moving guys."

His goaltenders are relative bargains. Osgood earned $800,000 this season and Dominik Hasek $2.050 million, plus bonuses.

"My feeling is if you can get one of the five or six best goalies in the league you can spend the money," Holland said. "We can't get into those guys, and the difference between the eighth goalie in the league and the 15th goalie, it's a big difference in money. It's not a big difference in performance.

"We drafted defensemen, we put money into defensemen, I think we really build our team around our defense. Our goaltenders really are a perfect fit for our team. We're not looking for them to steal a series, we're looking for them to make the key save at the right time, don't let any weak goals go in."

These Red Wings haven't given up any goals, much less weak ones, and they have no weak links on the ice or within their locker room. Holland has made sure of that. His playing career may have been minor league, but he's a major league general manager.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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