Ken Holland addressed the media and fans during a 20-minute press conference yesterday outlining the Oilers moves on day one of free agency. The Oilers weren’t a big participant in the free agent frenzy, which shouldn’t have surprised anyone. They simply didn’t have enough cap space to really get involved, but I see that as a positive more than a negative. Take a quick search through previous July 1st UFA signings and you will come across a lengthy list of bad contracts. Overpayments are much more common that value contracts on July first.
I’m sure it is frustrating for some Oilers fans to watch other teams sign top-six forwards, or top-four defenders, while the Oilers added Markus Granlund, Mike Smith, Tomas Jurco and Gaetan Haas. Haas’ contract wasn’t finished yet at the time we spoke, but Holland opened his press conference outlining that it will be official soon. Either way, Haas’ signing wasn’t going to move the excitement meter in Oilersnation.
Keep in mind the Oilers have landed big tickets in free agency in recent memory, but Andrej Sekera and Milan Lucic didn’t pan out as planned. Neither did Mark Fayne, Benoit Pouliot, Nikita Nikitin, Andrew Ference or many others. Don’t get mad because the Oilers weren’t handing out contracts with the same level of regard a young child has when they dart across the street chasing their ball.
I wasn’t expecting the Oilers to make a splash, but I did see something that I found very interesting.
After his press conference, Holland stood around chatting with a small group of six reporters. We were just talking, but for those 25 minutes, I got a glimpse of why Holland took the Oilers job.
His passion was noticeable. He was very animated as he discussed free agency and other topics.
He is well aware of the past 13 years, and the frustration it has caused Oilers fans. But he wasn’t going to make a rash decision just to appease people. He is trying to improve the team for the upcoming season, while ensuring once they are good they will remain good, rather than have one good season and slide back to the bottom of the standings.
Buying out Andrej Sekera wasn’t a rash decision. He weighed all his options, but decided the added $3 million in cap space for the next two seasons was worth the dead cap space of $1.5 million in the following to years. He wanted some young D-men to come to camp knowing they have a chance to make the team. Create a competition among Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, Joel Persson, Evan Bouchard and William Lagesson for the 6th and 7th spots on the blueline.
He’d love to say it will work out fine, but in reality, he knows there are no guarantees, but you can’t let fear, or emotions, control you decisions.
He likes to remove emotion from his decision making. He talked openly about how it sucks when you have spoken to a free agent for a few days, selling them on your team, but then they call you at the last moment and tell you they are going to a different team. It is a natural emotion. Maybe it is 15 seconds, maybe 15 minutes, but you feel it, and then you have to let it go. You can’t dwell on it. He has to get back to work on other players.
We’ve all dealt with rejection, but if it paralyzes you or causes you to see things with anger, then you can make irrational decisions.
Throughout the 25 minutes or so that Holland spoke with us away from the podium, his energy and passion for the job, combined with his bluntness to assess the Oilers current situation was apparent.
As he talked about constructing his lineup, he moved his hands across an imaginary wall. Moving his hands up and down, describing where a player would fit, and moving imaginary pieces around the board, trying to fit them into a puzzle. He had Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in his top-six. He’d joke, those spots are easy to fill out, but who fits elsewhere are the tough answers.
Of course he’d love to get another bonafide top-six forward, but if he did it in free agency, he wouldn’t have any money to fill out the holes in his bottom six. He elected to go with quantity. Find more players and have them come to camp and compete for spots. It isn’t sexy, but considering how anemic the production from the Oilers bottom-six forwards were last season it is understandable why he’d focus on improving the team there.
In 588 combined games, the Oilers #6 to #12 forwards scored a total of 43 goals. That is not a typo. That is an average of six goals per position over 82 games from forward slots 6-12. Ugly.
Drake Caggiula scored seven and he only played 29 games before being traded to Chicago. He is the only one who had more than six goals.
The Oilers desperately need more production from their bottom six.
Jujhar Khaira has to score more than three goals. Milan Lucic must find a way to score more than six. Can Sam Gagner chip in 10-12 goals. He had five in 25 games with the Oilers last season.
Markus Granlund has scored 39 goals the past three seasons in Vancouver. Can he score 13 this season? If so, he’s a massive upgrade on Tobias Rieder.
Is Tyler Benson ready to play in the NHL? Many I’ve spoke to feel he is close. Can he produce more offence than Jesse Puljujarvi’s four goals last year?
What will Joakim Nygard bring? Can Gaetan Haas chip in? Is Cooper Marody ready? Does Colby Cave have any offence? If Tomas Jurco is healthy can he chip in?
They won’t all produce, but Holland is hoping by creating some competition for spots, with players who can play with more pace, the Oilers might become a bit better in the bottom six.
It isn’t a flashy answer, but it is a realistic one when you are managing from a position with very little cap space.
Holland wasn’t going to be able to fix the financial mess and lack of talent he inherited from Peter Chiarelli in six weeks. It will take a long time. It will take some shrewd moves, patience and a bit of luck. Often during our conversation, he said, “I know, I know,” in regards to the need for a top-six forward, or lack of scoring depth last year or other areas of concern. He also spoke about how it is only July 1st. The season doesn’t begin for another three months. There is still time to make moves, and I sense he is looking to make a deal.
But after speaking with Holland, and watching how engaged and animated he was discussing his team, I saw firsthand why he is excited for the challenge of trying to turn the Oilers into a competitive team. It won’t be easy, because there is no quick fix.
He didn’t have much cap space last week, and he admitted the Sekera buyout wasn’t an easy decision. Sekera was highly regarded by his teammates and those who have been around the organization before Holland arrived. Holland knows full well the importance of good veterans. A “pros-pro” he calls them.
I’m not a fan of dead cap space, and the Sekera buy out means starting in 2021/2022 the Oilers will have $1.5 million in dead cap space for two years. Not ideal, but Holland weighed all the options and felt it was necessary. He wanted some flexibility and now he has some room to possibly make a trade. He admitted today it is more likely he adjusts the roster via a trade, rather than more free agent signings.
This morning, via Puck Pedia, the Oilers have $5,750,008 in cap space. (They had them with $5,000,008 in space, but had Jurco on the roster. I removed him for this scenario). But that only includes 12 forwards and six defence. So they will need to add three salaries to the roster. For argument sake let’s say Benson, Jones and Haas fill out those final three spots. Their salaries total $2,453,333. Minus that from the 5,750,008 and Holland has $3,296,667 remaining in cap space. That doesn’t include Smith’s potential bonuses, which could be pushed towards 2021, if need be, but preferably not. He might only make $375,000 in bonuses if Koskinen plays well, or one million if Smith becomes the starter.
Holland would like to start the season $1.5 million below the cap so he has some flexibility to make moves. Had he retained Sekera he would have $296,667 in cap space. Holland outlined his thought process on the buyout and I can see why he elected to do it. He inherited a bad cap situation and felt the Sekera buy out was the best way to create some space to fill out other spots.
There wasn’t going to be one headline grabbing signing to replace the new cap space. In today’s NHL $3 million in cap space doesn’t go that far.
Holland kept moving his imaginary pieces around the board as we spoke. He talked about young players grabbing a roster spot. He wants to see them in person in training camp. He’s heard reports, and he did watch a few AHL playoff games, but Marody was injured and he hasn’t seen him play since College. He takes input from those who have watched the player, but he also wants his own viewings. He is optimistic a few of the young players are ready to make an impact in Edmonton. But he is cautious. He has seen many who needed an extra year, or even another 25 AHL games before they were ready to help at the NHL level.
He won’t have young players here you aren’t ready.
When he was at the podium you likely heard his response to the Jesse Puljujarvi situation.
“He (Puljujarvi) has said he doesn’t want to play for the Oilers. I had guys in Detroit say that, but then they played for Detroit. While others said it and never played. I have spoken to other teams. There is interest. If I trade him it will be a trade I feel good about and is in the best interest of our team. If I don’t find a deal then Jesse will have to make a decision,” said Holland.
Later he spoke about Puljujarvi being on the cover of a magazine about “Future Watch.” He was considered by many to be a hot commodity only a few years earlier. It hasn’t transpired yet, but he is only 21. Holland has seen many players who take time before they are ready to help. He doesn’t want to trade Puljujarvi only to see him flourish elsewhere, and that’s why if he does trade him he wants a piece in return he feels can produce with the Oilers.
He told a story about Dan Cleary. Cleary arrived in Detroit on a PTO for training camp in September of 2005. He was 27 years old and had previous stints in Chicago, Edmonton and Arizona. His best two seasons came in Edmonton when he had 14 and 10 goals and 35 and 29 points. But he hadn’t found any consistency.
Holland promised his agent Cleary would get four preseason games. After training camp and Holland and Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock sat down and discussed which players would go back to junior, or the AHL. Babcock didn’t think Cleary needed to stay, but Holland told him he had promised the agent he would play four preseason games, so even if he didn’t stick in Detroit other teams might like what they saw. Babcock said no problem.
Well after three preseason games Babcock goes to Holland and said he should sign Cleary. He felt he could help their team and so they signed Cleary. He spent 10 seasons with the Red Wings and was an important role player.
The point of the story was players all develop at different times, and sometimes your initial thought on a player might not be what you see a few weeks later.
Holland will not give away Puljujarvi. I had four different organizations approach me at the draft about Puljujarvi, and Jason Strudwick, my TSN 1260 co-host, had a few speak to him as well. They were doing their due diligence on the player. A trade might materialize later this summer, or it might not occur until mid-season or maybe never. Maybe Puljujarvi regains his confidence in Europe and has a change of heart. We have seen it before.
I don’t know how Holland’s tenure in Edmonton will go. He is well aware of the Oilers situation. Miss the playoffs again and more season ticket holders will walk. That is the reality when your team has only made the playoffs once since 2007, but if they make the playoffs the enthusiasm in Edmonton will ramp up quickly and many fans will want to be in the building.
Holland is trying to find the right approach. He will rely on his 22 years of GM experience to navigate the rocky path ahead.
I doubt anyone will agree with every decision, but no one can say he isn’t invested in this job. He spoke candidly for 25 minutes and at times held the exuberance of a GM in his first year. He was full of excitement, but realistic about the Oilers landscape.
I’m curious to see how he maneuvers around his imaginary board, which pieces end up in place, and how this roster looks when the regular season begins on October 2nd.