Ken Holland and overripening prospects

Overripening. If there’s one word that’s getting a ton of airplay in the Ken Holland era, it’s overripening.

Holland brings over a wealth of experience from his time as Detroit Red Wings general manager. People point to Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist as evidence of players who were brought along slowly in Grand Rapids, Detroit’s AHL affiliate, and Holland’s determination to mature prospects in the minor leagues.

Both Nyquist and Tatar spent at least two full seasons in the AHL. Tatar spent four, although he went straight to the AHL after being drafted by the Red Wings in 2009.

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Now overripening is everyone’s favourite buzzword in Edmonton. It appears the Oilers prospects will apprentice in Bakersfield before making their way to Edmonton. Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Kailer Yamamoto, Evan Bouchard, and Caleb Jones were all assigned to Bakersfield when any of them could have made the big club.

Holland did bring prospects along slower, but the Red Wings were also really really good. Neither Tatar nor Nyquist were first-round picks, so it’s not surprising either spent a good chunk of time in the minors before making the NHL. It also doesn’t hurt to have multiple Hall of Fame players on the roster. It’s easier to leave prospects in the minors when you don’t have holes at various positions, like, say, the Edmonton Oilers from 2007-2019, and have players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Nicklas Lidstrom in key roles.

The Oilers have absolutely mismanaged numerous prospects in the last decade. You could argue all of Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, Leon Draisaitl, Nail Yakupov, and Magnus Paajarvi were better served with another year in junior or Europe, followed by a stint in the AHL. Draisaitl succeeded despite the Oilers rushing him. The rest, well, most wouldn’t argue against more development time for Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Yakupov and Paajarvi.

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Kindl, Brendan Smith, Tom McCollum and Riley Sheahan all played multiple AHL seasons before getting, if any, a shot at the NHL. Anthony Mantha played two seasons and 10 games before becoming an NHL regular with the Red Wings. Mantha looks like a top-line player and even better than his 25-goal 48-point season in 2018-19. The others either fell out of the league (Kindl), never made it (McCollum), or eventually moved on via trade or free agency (Sheahan, Smith).

Holland’s Red Wings routinely reached over 100 points from 1999-2011. When you’re good for that long, you have good players and can afford to be patient with prospects.

Going back even further, Holland drafted Nicklas Kronwall 29th overall in 2000. Kronwall played three more seasons in Sweden, followed by two seasons mostly spent in the AHL, before becoming an NHL regular.

Tomas Kopecky, drafted 38th-overall in 2000, made the Red Wings six years later after two seasons in the WHL and four seasons in the AHL.

Jiri Hudler was drafted 58th overall in 2002. He spent another season overseas before playing three AHL seasons before sticking with the Red Wings in 2006-07.

Holland became Red Wings general manager in July 1997, but he was also Detroit’s Director of Amateur Scouting and assistant general manager prior to assuming the big job. Holland had an influence in picking those players.

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Dylan Larkin played one season with Michigan after being drafted in 2014, then became a Red Wing full time. Dennis Cholowski went back to the WHL for two seasons, played 25 AHL games, before playing 52 games with Detroit. Michael Rasmussen played one more season in the WHL after being drafted, Rasmussen made the Red Wings the following season and finds himself in the AHL now that he’s eligible to play there. Detroit’s playoff streak ended in 2016-17. Unsurprisingly, less good Red Wings teams have room for more young players.

Patience is easy when you have a ridiculously good team. It’s less easy when you have multiple 60-point seasons and need something to spark interest from the fans. That’s not an excuse for the Oilers’ mismanagement of various prospects over the years, but it helps explain the luxury Holland’s Red Wings had and why the Oilers have struggled to find success for so long.

The Oilers are less likely to rush prospects with Holland at the helm, but they need not overcorrect and arbitrarily keep players in the AHL. If a prospect is ready, they should get a chance in the NHL more often than not. What does that look like? Benson has 72 points in 78 AHL games in the last two seasons. Marody has 69 in 66 in that same time. It’s difficult to see how they wouldn’t help the Oilers with their anemic bottom-six forwards. Points aren’t everything, but the Oilers’ bottom six has been outscored 10-1.

More importantly, all of Bear, Lagesson, and Jones will require waivers by next season. There are only 70-something games left to find out if they can play at the NHL level. Bear has proven that. Jones is playing big minutes with the Condors but could probably play third-pairing minutes easily. Lagesson is in Edmonton, but not dressing.

There’s a fine line between developing prospects in the minors and not utilizing the cheap years of young players. Tatar and Nyquist would have played much sooner if they arrived during the Red Wings of the past few years. Benson, Marody, and Yamamoto could use more AHL time. They haven’t played much professional hockey or have had injuries, but decisions need to be made on Bear, Jones, and Lagesson. The Oilers are more similar to the current Red Wings than the powerhouse Red Wings in the 2000s.

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Past Oilers teams rushed prospects and didn’t put them in positions to succeed. Holland doesn’t have to hold prospects in Bakersfield to make up for the Oilers’ past sins. It’s as simple as playing Jones or Lagesson in Brandon Manning’s spot on the third pairing. Manning has no future in Edmonton, while the other two could be cheap Oilers for years to come.