In his 24 years as an NHL general manager, Ken Holland has remained steadfast in the importance of development. He played nine seasons in the American Hockey League between 1976 to 1985, while dressing in four NHL games. Then he became a pro scout and worked his way up the ranks in the Detroit Red Wings organization before being named GM in 1997, a role he maintained for 22 years. He’s seen firsthand the importance of developing outside the NHL.
Now, in his second season as GM of the Edmonton Oilers, while this upcoming season has been delayed, Holland’s resolve to ensure his young players develop outside the NHL is on full display. Many of the Oilers best young prospects are playing in Europe, instead of sitting at home waiting for the start of the AHL season.
It isn’t uncommon to have European prospects playing in Russia, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland or other pro leagues, but Holland wanted to get some of his young North American players playing as well.
“I guess it really started with Samorukov,” explained Holland over the phone from his off-season home in Vernon.
“His agent, Pat Morris, who I’ve dealt with for 30 years, and I had conversations dating back to June. He wanted to know if Dmitri was going to join us in the bubble. We had him on our list to join us for phase three, but then one day he told me that Dmitri had spoken with someone in CSKA and they expressed interest in him joining the team. But they wanted him for the full season as they are running a business and didn’t want to lose a key player midway during the season.
“Then I got on a conference call with Pat, an interpreter and the GM of CSKA, and we agreed we would assign Dmitri to CSKA for the entire season. At that time I felt if the NHL season started in December, we would be playing the regular season until May, and their (KHL) season would be done at the end March and he could then join our organization.
“I just want the players to develop. Obviously it would be best if it was in Bakersfield, but for a young player like Samorukov to not be playing hockey from this past March until December…that is a long time for a young player and I felt this would be great for him.” said Holland.
Fast forward three months, and the Oilers have 11 players playing in Europe. Samorukov and fellow Russian and 2017 draft pick, Kirill Maksimov, are with CKSA.
Ryan McLeod is playing with EV Zug in the Swiss National League.
Evan Bouchard was assigned to Sodertalje SK of the Swedish Allsvenskan (second division).
Philip Broberg is playing for Skelleftea AIK in the Swedish Hockey League.
Markus Niemelainen is skating with Assat Pori in the Finnish SM-Liiga.
Theodor Lennstrom is playing with Frolunda HC of the SHL.
Raphael Lavoie is on a tryout with Rogle BK of the SHL.
Unsigned Jesse Puljujarvi is playing for Karpat in the Finnish SM-Liiga, and Holland is hopeful he will sign a deal to return to Edmonton.
Prospect goaltender Olivier Rodrigue is skating with a team in Austria. He is just practicing with them as they had an injury to a goalie, but he is keeping sharp. He and his agent arranged this on his own and Holland gave him the green light to go.
ONE MOVE LED TO MANY…
“After Samorukov signed, CKSA wanted to talk to Maksimov,” said Holland. Then I spoke with Keith Gretzky (assistant GM) and I thought this was a really good thing to get our young players playing.
“Then over the course of the past month, between Keith Gretzky and Keith Sullivan, one of our scouts who has a lot of contacts over there, we found some spots for our players. And in a lot of cases they are just going for room and board. They aren’t getting paid. It is a good situation for the teams as they are only paying for flights and accommodations.
“And on the other hand it is really good for our young players. For the next three months instead of being in a city and trying to find a gym and some ice, they are actually with a professional team and on the ice every day. They are doing skill development, off-ice training and it will help them be ready for our season, whenever it begins,” continued Holland.
It started with the European players, but then the Oilers morphed into getting as many of their young players playing as possible.
Holland thought they had a spot for Stuart Skinner. A veteran goalie in Europe was considering retirement and Skinner was going to go take his place, but the veteran changed his mind at the last minute and decided to play another season.
Gretzky and Sullivan are still working the phones to see if they can find spots for a few other young players like Skinner and Tyler Benson.
Holland has never hid his views about development. He’s always been very upfront about it.
“The National Hockey League is not a league to develop in,” said Holland. “It is a league to try and compete in. That is why I try to leave the players away as long as possible. It’s not only physically, it is the mental maturity.
“Be in the American League, be in College, be in Junior, be in Europe. Have success. Be important. The longer you can be important the better you feel. Because once you get to the NHL. It is hard. Really hard.”
And while he knows how difficult the NHL is, he was impressed by the attitude of the young players. They were under no obligation to go over. In some cases they aren’t getting paid, but all the young guys wanted to go.
“They understand that at this stage of their life and career this is a good thing. It is not about money, it is about developing as a hockey player,” said Holland.
Development is non linear. There are often dips — sometimes large craters — before a player reaches their ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. Will these three or four months, or full seasons in Europe, alter the career path of these young players? We won’t know, but the experience, both on and off the ice, should only help these players, and it might give them a slight advantage over prospects in other organizations who aren’t playing professional hockey.
When Holland was hired he outlined the importance of proper development, and even a pandemic couldn’t sway his beliefs.
The Oilers signed Adam Cracknell to a one-year, two-way deal. He is guaranteed $450,000 in the minors, and $700K in the NHL. Cracknell was signed to be a positive influence and mentor for young kids in Bakersfield. With Brad Malone signing an AHL deal earlier this season and Tomas Jurco not getting re-signed, the Oilers have ample room on the 50-man roster. I saw some frustration among Oilersnation online about the signing, but this is a depth signing, mainly for the minors. The Oilers don’t expect Cracknell to be on the opening night roster.
Pierre Lebrun tweeted the Oilers and Penguins have discussed Matt Murray. The current asking price of a 1st rounder is a non-starter for the Oilers. There will be many 1B goalies available and I expect Holland to be patient. Holland won’t rule out re-signing Smith, but I sense they will explore many options before deciding on a second goalie. Possibly even a third, as Stuart Skinner needs some more AHL seasoning.
I don’t think it is a lock that Bouchard starts in Edmonton. He will have to earn his spot on the roster, which is how it should be. It was smart of him to go play in Sweden, and whenever next season begins, Bouchard could have an advantage over other players vying for the third-pair-right-defender spot.
Looking at the free agent names, and reading Darcy Mcleod’s in-depth analysis of third line UFA centres, I’d give Gaetan Haas a look over any of them. I like Haas’ smarts, skating and offensive acumen. He will be stronger and better prepared to handle the NHL this coming season and I think he could surprise some people.
HELP IF YOU CAN…
Ryan Rishaug is scared of heights. Jason Strudwick reached the top of the Snow Valley Aerial Park with his eight-year-old daughter, but while she walked the plank and did the free-fall drop at the end, he chickened out and had to do the walk of shame down the structure.
So we want to help both of them conquer their fears. And in doing so you can help kids play sports. Once we raise $10,000 for KidSport, Struds and Rishaug will both “walk the plank” and do the free-fall (four stories high) at the Aerial Park.
We had a great first week raising over $5,500, and I’d like to reach our goal this week. Any donation of $20, $50, $100 or more will be greatly appreciated. You get a tax receipt while helping some kids play sports and you will get a great laugh watching the video (yes, we will record the entire thing) when these two conquer their fears.
Thanks in advance.
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