Ken Holland sat down at the podium yesterday morning and outlined, quite passionately, his views on the Oilers coaches and players, building a team, analytics, the salary cap, trades, culture and more.
I’ve sat in on what seems like hundreds of Oilers press conferences, where a new GM or coach is unveiled, but this one was different.
Holland didn’t offer up cliches or grandiose claims. I thought he was direct and to the point.
It was a great first impression, but most Oilers fans are past hooking their fan wagon to words. I’m sure you felt a tug to jump back on board after Holland outlined some parts of his plan, but most fans held their feet firmly on the ground.
You want action, not just words. Words mean very little if they aren’t put into action, but Holland’s 34 years in hockey operations, including the last 22 as a GM, were evident to me.
His track record on some statements has been proven very accurate.
“I believe in player development. I believe in time in the minors. I believe the National Hockey League is the toughest league in the world, and if you put young players in the league too quick, it is more likely they will fail than succeed,” said Holland.
This past season, while the Red Wings were in a rebuild, he put sixth overall pick Filip Zadina in the American League. He didn’t rush him to the NHL, because he knew Zadina wouldn’t be good enough to really help the team. The Oilers have always been opposed to this. Jesse Puljujarvi wasn’t NHL ready at 18, 19 or even last year, but the Oilers couldn’t control their urge to rush him instead of let him gain some much needed confidence in the minors. Even playing Yamamoto in the NHL, when he clearly wasn’t ready, was equally ridiculous.
Don’t expect those same mistakes under Holland. Look at his recent track record in Detroit.
Anthony Mantha scored 50 and 57 goals his final two years of junior including 120 points his last year. He played two years in the AHL. Tyler Bertuzzi, who is playing for Team Canada at the World Championships, also spent two years in the AHL and a quarter of another season. Andreas Anthanasiou, same thing. Dennis Cholowski played 25 games, and was recalled after the Red Wings suffered many injuries on their blueline. His recall was out of necessity. Only Dylan Larkin and Michael Rasmussen didn’t spend time in the AHL. Rasmussen couldn’t go to the AHL this past season, and they felt he was ready. I’m curious to see how they handle him next season when he can go to the AHL. Larkin came out of NCAA at 19 and scored 45 points. He was NHL ready.
If a player is ready, Holland has shown he isn’t afraid to keep him, but more often than not, even when the Red Wings weren’t a playoff team, he didn’t rush players. Expect that to continue in Edmonton.
Trades and Signings
“We have a core upfront and we have to figure out how to surround them properly, then look at the defence and we have one goaltender and have to find another one,” said Holland.
“You have to have a plan, and you gotta stick to the plan. The plan here is to build, for the most part, through the draft, but we will have to go outside the organization and bring in pieces we think can help. Some will be expensive pieces, some will be the cheaper players who are really good fits for a short time. The key building blocks are here, and in the organization, and we have to add to them.”
Holland will not be repeating Peter Chiarelli’s error of trading away high-end skill for lesser skill. It won’t happen.
I like his honesty when it comes to finding good gap-fillers. Chiarelli was unable to do that, especially on RW, thus they forced Puljujarvi to play, and even tried Yamamoto. Holland would rather sign a UFA for a year, so the young players get more seasoning, and some wing UFA options, if they remain unsigned, include Michael Ferland, Brett Connolly, Joonas Donskoi, Richark Panik, Jamie McGinn, Carl Hagelin, Riley Sheahan, Oscar Lindberg, Brandon Pirri and others.
If he can free up some cap space maybe he will shoot higher, but if I was Holland, unless it is an elite talent like Artemi Panarin, I’d stay away from a long-term deal on any UFA.
“How do I get it (the plan) going? By having stability,” said Holland. “Gather information and start to make moves, on and off the ice, that will impact the team in a positive way.
“I don’t have a magic wand. I don’t believe there is one trade and all of a sudden things turn. It is a move at a time. A piece at a time. It is about going down to the dressing room, providing stability and telling them we have a plan, and we will push forward with the plan. The plan is…I like to compete, you have to play with speed. Obviously, you have to get as much skill as you can.”
Thank gawd. The Oilers haven’t had enough players with NHL skill or really good hockey sense for a long time. He wants a combination of players who have skill, but compete every night. One of the biggest weaknesses of the Oilers the past many years is they haven’t had role players who accepted their role, and played consistently. That will change under Holland.
‘If you aren’t helping, you are hurting,’ is one of his philosophies, and I expect you will see nine new faces in the Oilers lineup next season from their season-ending lineup.
Holland values players who are pros, which means players who you know what they bring night in and night out. Players like Jason Smith, Ethan Moreau, Todd Marchant, Steve Staios. They weren’t elite skilled players, but they competed every shift and the coach knew exactly what they’d bring. The Oilers have the elite players. They need support players to show up every night, but also accept their role.
Holland is confident and honest about who he is as GM. He has seen everything. Despite claims the Red Wings haven’t succeeded in the salary cap era, they won a Cup, lost a Final, and were the last team in the NHL to miss the playoffs in the cap era. Eventually, they had to rebuild, especially when you lose future Hall of Fame players.
“I’ve looked over the salary cap here. Most teams have salary cap issues, and speedbumps, but you have to work around them. Detroit has $20 million in cap space this summer,” Holland said in response to a question about how he handled Detroit’s cap situation.
“I’ve been a manager for 22 years. I’m going to make some bad decisions. If you think you are going to make decisions over 22 years and you are never going to make bad decisions, I’d like to meet that guy, because I don’t think it exists. You have to make more good decisions than bad decisions, and I think I made way more good decisions in Detroit than bad decisions.
“But I did make some decisions that didn’t work out the way I thought. You make those decisions based upon the information at hand, and you talk to people. I’m a manager who likes to bring my people into the mix. I don’t make the decision on my own. I gather information from them and then I make a decision. If it doesn’t work out the way we wanted it to, then I have to work around it,” said Holland.
I loved his response. Of course he made mistakes, it is impossible not to in professional sports, but how you react to them and learn from them is crucial to how you grow and improve.
Holland has seen a lot, and if you look at his trading track record, I don’t see any glaring errors. Granted he was rarely in a desperate position, so he had the luxury of being patient, but his trading record illustrates how good their drafting and developing was, because they weren’t always going outside the organization looking for a quick fix.
Holland has some holes in his current roster, no question, and I’m interested to see how he alters the lineup.
Since last Friday, when the rumours leaked that Holland was coming to Edmonton I did some research online, but also through conversations with hockey people about Holland, and here are some things to watch for in the coming weeks, months and year as he tries to bring credibility and success back to the Edmonton Oilers organization.
1. He mentioned one of his first priorities is a head coach. Make no mistake the Oilers know they have to make the playoffs next season. They will publicly downplay it, and I understand why, but playoffs are an absolute must. Will he bring in a rookie NHL head coach? I’d be surprised. I think he will bring in a veteran. They don’t have the luxury to experiment and see if a coach can succeed in the NHL. I sense he will want one with experience. Holland said he wants a head coach who will be here for a few years. That was a main reason Ken Hitchcock isn’t back. Hitch wants to stay in hockey, but I don’t believe he could commit to multiple years of coaching.
So the new head coach will be here for a few years. The amount of change behind the bench in Edmonton is a main reason this organization has continued to flounder. You need some stability. The players can’t come to camp every year, or every second year, and have to spend time getting used to a new coach. They have to understand how he works, as much as he needs to know what makes his players tick. Of course winning helps, but stability is massive, and that’s why I’m very curious to see what happens to the assistant coaches.
Every coach will want the freedom to bring in who he wants. They should. But Edmonton also doesn’t have the luxury of trying to play catch up. It takes time to get to know players, and I think the new HC would benefit from keeping at least one, possibly two, of the assistant coaches around. They know the personalities of the players, plus it will benefit the players when the come to camp in September and see a familiar face in the coaching room.
2. Outside of Anaheim, who many expect to hire Dallas Eakins, the other head coaches in the Pacific are quite experienced. Gerard Gallant, Peter Deboer, Todd McLellan, Rick Tocchet have coached at least two NHL teams, while Travis Green enters his third year as an NHL head coach after many in the AHL. I see Holland leaning towards a veteran coach.
3. Holland uses the people around him. He asks a lot of questions. He wants people who are willing to give their input. He enjoys back and forth debate on players. He described himself as a grinder. He loves the challenge of grinding it out. Day after day. And he will surround himself with people who do the same. I can’t accurately say who in the Oilers management and scouting are grinders, but Holland will find out. It will be very interesting to see who he keeps after the upcoming pro and amateur scouting meetings.
4. I expect some changes on the pro side after the meetings for a few reasons. First off, they haven’t been that good. The decisions pre-Chiarelli and during Chiarelli speak for themselves. Also, the most important two weeks of the off-season begin June 14th, one week before the draft, and up until the start of free agency. That has become the most active time for significant trades and player evaluations for free agency. Look for Holland to make some changes before May 23rd. That gives him almost a month to work with the new people he brings in, as well as those he retains, but it is also the deadline for season seat renewals. He won’t rush into making a move, but make no mistake, he has a good idea who he wants to bring in with him, and I’d be surprised if a few announcements aren’t made before then. It helps your hockey operations side, and it could help your business side. Many season seat holders want more change than the GM. Holland addressed the importance of fans, and isn’t oblivious to the reality of the Oilers, both on and off the ice.
5. One name to watch for is Jiri Fischer. Holland loved the work he did in Detroit. He is a grinder. He puts in a lot of work on pro-development. Can Holland get him to come to Edmonton?
6. Holland did his homework before taking the job. He knows exactly what the Oilers strength and weaknesses are on their NHL roster. I think he will add eight or nine players, and they don’t have to be elite players. Holland likes low-maintenance players. Guys who know their role, accept it, and play it. One of Holland’s strengths is finding people who embrace their role, whether it be in management or on the ice. Many told me Holland outlines the role clearly, and makes you feel empowered to do it to the best of your ability. If they don’t, they won’t last.
Holland made a great first impression yesterday, but what he does next is what matters most.
The Oilers need to make the playoffs. They know. The season seat holders and fans will demand it.
Holland is in charge of making it happen, and his first moves should tell us a lot about how he plans to do it.