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Slow Hand

Ken Holland was answering a question about Evan Bouchard in his availability with reporters Wednesday, but the Edmonton Oilers’ GM could have been talking about overseeing the development of any young player – Jesse Puljujarvi, for one, comes to mind. I’m guessing several other names will ring a bell with fans as well.

Every year at this time, buzz builds in the fan base about the next blue-chip prospect and whether he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL as a teenager. This time, with the Oilers on the eve of training camp, that buzz is about Bouchard, the 19-year-old defenceman taken 10th overall in the 2018 Entry Draft. We’ve had the same discussions about the likes of Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto and Nail Yakupov, to name just three, in recent years.

With the Oilers woefully devoid of competition for positions and depth for most of the last decade, too often the decision has been made to throw kids into the deep end. Too often, history tells us, that’s been the wrong call. Is there a team that has force-fed more teenagers into the opening night line-up than the Oilers have over the last 10 years? I can’t think of one.

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We’ve had people in the big chair talking the talk when it comes to player development in past years, but when all is said and done, they’ve seldom walked the walk. That won’t happen with Holland calling the shots. Better late than never.

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WHAT HE SAID

“My philosophy has always been to be very patient with young players,” Holland said. “Now, I did put Dylan Larkin on the Detroit Red Wings when he was 19. So, for every rule, there’s an exception. I thought he (Bouchard) played very well in the two rookie games. I think he was our best-conditioned athlete of all the rookies. He put work in this summer . . .

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“Tipp (Dave Tippett) and I are looking forward to watching pre-season and seeing how it all shapes out. We’re going to carry seven and he (Bouchard) is not fighting for a seven spot. He’s fighting for a (top) six spot. My philosophy always is when you’re putting the roster together, I’ll say to the head coach: ‘You’re playing tomorrow, tell me who’s in the lineup.’

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“If a young player isn’t in the lineup, he’s going to the American League. If he is in the lineup, then we have a further conversation about where he fits. I’d rather make the call during the season to call the player up than to make the call during the season to send the player down. I think it’s easier for their mind and mentality to be working their way up than down. Young players have to take a job from a veteran.” For context, the whole interview is here.

For me, the money quote is Holland saying he’d rather make the call during the season to call a player up than send him down. How many times would that approach have made a difference with young players here these last several years? Puljujarvi is the latest example, but not the only one. No side deals with agents that the player stays. Clearly show you’re ready to not only make the team but stick and thrive or down you go.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Yes, Holland had the luxury of talent and depth in Detroit that allowed him to be patient and bide his time where past Oilers’ GM’s like Steve Tambellini, Craig MacTavish and Peter Chiarelli did not. No matter. He’s going to do things his way, the right way, here knowing fans rightfully expect results. Sure, patience is a tough sell around here, but how has cutting corners worked?

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Holland can’t undo damage done and the bungled player development of the past – those horses have left the barn – but it’s damn sure obvious he isn’t going to deviate from what he believes is a tried-and-true approach to developing young players. Holland has the long game in mind.

It’s a tough sell for sure, but I’m buying. You?

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Previously by Robin Brownlee